Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself, your current role and organisation?
I’m currently leading HMRC’s Digital Service, so I am responsible for the biggest digital operation in government. I’ve a team of around 1,100 digital specialists, spread across a network of six digital delivery centres. They build new digital services for our customers – 25 new services in the last year alone – and run HMRC’s existing suite of digital services. These are available to customers through their digital tax account, which puts everything in one place for them online. We currently have around 2.8 million business tax account users and 12.6 million personal tax account users.
I set up HMRC’s Digital Service around five years ago, and before that was involved in significant transformation programmes that focused on moving transactions online. These included establishing the Government Banking Service, and introducing Real Time Information (RTI) to improve the operation of Pay As You Earn (PAYE).
What are some of the main changes you have noticed within your organisation in the "Digital Age"?
Even before HMRC published its first Digital Strategy in 2012, and the creation of our Digital Service, approximately three-quarters of HMRC’s transactions were already conducted online. These were mainly business submissions, where high take-up rates were easier to achieve.
The Digital Strategy set out our plans to move to a “digital for all” model, which means also shifting transactions for individuals online, and these are more challenging to build digital services for. Now, more than nine out of ten of all our transactions (more than two billion a year) are online. We are one of the UK’s most digital businesses, and are on track to meet our ambition to be one of the most digitally-advanced tax administrations anywhere in the world by 2020.
For customers, this means they can do most of their business with HMRC without needing to pick up a phone or pen. We have more than 120 digital services, supported by more ways than ever for customers to get help if they’re stuck, such as through webchat and our interactive virtual assistant (‘Ruth’). Our customers are increasingly preferring to choose the digital options, and we’re seeing high satisfaction rates for services - routinely over 80%.
But becoming a truly digital organisation isn’t just about what happens at the front end. New technology is also changing how we work in HMRC. We’ve digitised the majority of our forms, so customers can submit information straight into our systems without needing any manual intervention. We’re using automation technologies to remove tedious manual tasks and free our people up for the customer-facing aspects of their role, for example using robotics to handle more than seven million transactions so far this year. We’re also rolling out new digital devices to staff so they can stay connected and access all the information they need on the go.
We’ve still plenty of challenges ahead, but we’ve come a very long way in a short space of time.
How have these changes influenced roles, responsibilities and talent acquisition?
In 2012, we had a digital team of just six people, and it’s now 1,100. Over this period, we’ve successfully exited a large outsourced IT contract, bringing some key IT services back in-house and taking direct control of delivery through a larger number of smaller contracts. We’ve also recruited heavily, and getting digital specialists with the skills we need is crucial to our future in order to deliver the changes our customers want and expect.
We’ve focused both on developing our own people and also on bringing in new talent. Each of our digital centres has a number of self-contained teams who are responsible for seeing a product from early discovery right through to go-live, and then running it as a live service thereafter. The teams are multi-skilled, so for example will contain user researchers, designers, web developers and coders, and other specialists all co-located in one place. The teams are a mix of civil servants and contractors, who work very closely with a range of suppliers.
Our ethos is not just to recruit talented and skilled individuals, but to future-proof our talent pool. We’ve invested a lot of energy in developing a fantastic range of award-winning apprenticeship schemes to give us a pipeline of skills. Some of our first (software developer) apprentices graduated earlier this year and it’s thrilling to see how far they’ve come already. We’re also regularly recruiting for vacancies across our six centres. I genuinely believe the Civil Service is one of the best places right now to have a technology career.
Have these changes created any new opportuntiies to encourage gender balance?
Over the years, there’s been a perception that government is behind the times on how it uses IT. Today, that couldn’t be further from the truth, but we’ve had to work hard to challenge that view and show prospective employees what it’s really like to work here. That includes things like access to the very latest tools, great working environments in our digital centres, a real energy and buzz, and the opportunity to work on some of the biggest and most exciting projects in the industry. At the same time, I think that has also given us a great opportunity to showcase that tech careers really are open to everyone.
We’ve recruited for the full span of digital roles, and potential candidates have often been surprised that, for many of them, we don’t ask for prior technical skills. Take user researchers for example – our user researchers come from a varied range of backgrounds. But they all have a real passion to make a difference for the customer and great people skills, which are what set people apart in that discipline.
Many of our early apprentices have also been fantastic role models, not just for HMRC but for the whole of the Civil Service. They’ve gone out into schools and colleges and talked about their experiences starting out in technology. They’ve done this with incredible enthusiasm and challenged assumptions and preconceptions, particularly for young women. I’m incredibly proud of all of them.
Do you have any policies in place, to promote gender balance within your teams?
We haven’t set gender targets, but we do monitor all of the stages of our internal vacancy filling and recruitment processes carefully. The little things, like the language used in an advert, are so important. We gather insight from our campaigns and use them to keep improving how we recruit.
I strongly believe that leaders, and not just those who are women, have a responsibility to challenge gender imbalance in our teams. When I spoke at the Digital, Gender Balance & You Conference, I mentioned an occasion a few years ago where the digital team in one of one of our sites had poor representation from both female and BAME employees. I made it clear to my senior team that we needed to change things.
Attracting new talent into the team, particularly from underrepresented groups, meant we needed to paint a really compelling view of the future, but also one that felt genuinely inclusive. It took all of the senior team together to do this and to take it out into the business and excite potential applicants. We didn’t change things overnight, but we did change them. At that same site, we now have a team that is 48.5% female and 11% BAME. This is a huge improvement, but we’ve still more to do and aren’t resting on our laurels.
Having spoken at the CITF Digital, Gender Balance & You Conference on 21 September, what thoughts have you come away with?
I thoroughly enjoyed the conference. It was both thought-provoking and challenging, as this kind of event often is. It is great to have the opportunity, both to share my experiences with others and to hear about their journeys. I left feeling genuinely inspired.
I am proud of where we are in HMRC, but I also recognise we still have more to do.
Do you have any suggestions for our readers, to increase awareness of this topic within their organisations?
Where there is a poor gender balance in teams or organisations, I’d say the key thing is that, for change to happen, someone has to call it out in the first place. I’ve done that before and it’s often not an easy or comfortable thing to do. The biggest changes in any organisation start with someone who can see what needs to change, and they all start with something small.