Can you tell us about yourself, your background and how your role at HMRC?
I started as a chemical engineer, and spent a number of years designing and creating chemical plants. It was at that point, I realised I was much more interested in how to improve businesses. I did a lot of work at the time on performance improvement, and decided that was the career I wanted to pursue. I went through a series of public and private sector roles, primarily around transformation, involving significant technology change. I decided I was most driven by doing things for social value. The most recent role, before this one, was as Transformation Director in the part of the NHS responsible for Blood and Organ donation. There, I was responsible for improving security of suppliers and increasing the number of organ donors. Most recently, I’ve joined HMRC as Digital Director to help transform the experience we give to customers.
How are you planning to use digital technology to simplify the tax-paying process and improve the customer experience?
We’re offering digital tax accounts; we launched these last November. As of today, 2.5 million people have signed up and are using them. We’re moving all of our services online progressively. We’ve started with things such as tax credits, where we’re expecting a million people to renew between now and the end of July online – that’s around 50%. Beyond that, we’re working with the 3rd Party software industry to expose securely and safely our data to those software companies. This will mean that they can develop much more innovative products to support businesses using the software to do their tax affairs. Of course, getting people in to digital and supporting them is also part of our roles. Extensive use of new customer support technologies beyond telephony (like webchat, co-browse, social media, forums etc.) provide them a service in digital to help them achieve what they need to do. It’s really very much in the core of our transformation programme - “Making Tax Digital”.
Are you using AI, or similar tools, to identify tax dodgers?
We use a lot of Big Data Analytics. We’re investing heavily in that, and have done for a number of years. People might be familiar with a tool called Kinect that we built - this does extensive risking, based on large data sets. We use all kinds of sources to help us identify where people may be evading tax and we’re just working now on extending that to look at what benefits we might get from technologies like Artificial Intelligence. This will help us further improve our ability to consume the large data sets, relating to businesses and individuals, so that we can more easily target those who are seeking to evade.
In your opinion, what does digital really mean?
A lot of people think digital is all about method, mixing that up with Agile. We don’t see digital as just about the way you work; we think about it very much as a mind-set. It’s about working with customers and users to meet their needs, designing services around them and building services quickly, testing them, learning fast and improving them rapidly. It’s about taking risks with different things to learn what works and what doesn’t. It’s very much about ambition, pace and user-centricity; it’s not just about the method and the technology, although they help to make it possible.
HMRC has opened up several Agile Digital Delivery Centres - what impact have these had and what are the main business
We’re now up to 5 centres, currently working on the sixth. We have nearly 900 people working in those Agile centres now (50/50 split between our own civil servants and contractors). Within that, we now also have a programme of apprentices. We now have 40 of those we’re developing to become the testers, developers and Scrum Masters of the future. They’re really exciting and we’ve built a fantastic environment to give people a great place to work - very different to the traditional office environment, much more like a Google or Facebook.
These centres have given us significantly higher engagement scores. People are responding to the strong purpose we have around the ability to serve our customers better, they enjoy the autonomy and the freedom, the self-managing teams that we see in those centres, and the ability to rapidly grow and develop their own skills. Our staff are responding well. In terms of business impact, we’re building things quickly. It’s about the ability to build and develop large scale services quickly, to which customers respond well. It’s the ability to respond quickly, upscale and build great services which is having a massive business impact, and we’re starting to see that translate through, where we’re seeing more and more people work with us online. Our service for those that continue to use the telephone has improved dramatically, and it’s important that our customers feel this. There’s been a significant difference.
What is HMRC doing in the mobile technology space? In the future, will it be possible to fill out tax forms through an app or a mobile device?
If you download our app which was released just a couple weeks ago, you can do some of that already. We have an app from some years ago; it’s basically a tax calculator and newsfeed - 2 weeks ago we updated it, to start with an early set of capabilities. When you go on to the app, it’s like having the tax man in your pocket (whether people like that idea or not, I don’t know), however within that, you can see your tax affairs laid out very simply. If you’re a tax credit customer, you can renew, declare change of circumstances that affect your claims, you can also see any letters that you’ve sent in correspondence and track it and see any forms that you submit, and the status of those. It’s early days, but we’re hoping for positive customer response to the ability to simply manage your tax and tax credit affairs through your mobile phone. We’re excited about the potential of mobile apps; we’re looking to both launch and grow what you can do, to the point where, when you go on the mobile app, see that all the affairs are in good order and just click to accept. That will be the future of how people do their tax.
How important are digital skills in the workplace? What have you done as an organisation to promote and incorporate these skills internally?
We’ve got a very active programme, focused on four types of skills. Firstly, the experts – Scrum Masters. We focus on using the SFIA model, extending that to cover those skills and giving people significant investment in their development. The second set is for those whom in their profession are seeing an increasing need to have a digital skillset (e.g. Project Managers, who we’re training up to run agile methods to complement the existing skillset that they already have). We’ve got 26 professions within HMRC and we’re working with each of the Heads of Profession to include Digital Tracks within their continuous professional development. The third level is those who need new skills because we’re delivering new digital support, e.g. customer advisors being trained on web chat and delivering snappy and concise social media responses. We’re starting to retrain up to 20,000 people on how to be a multi-channel advisor, using a range of new skills and a range of new tools that we’re offering to support customers with. Then, there’s the rest of our staff. As we become a more digital business, there’s around 35-40,000 of our staff who increasingly are going to be getting Surface Pros, new smartphones, Wi-Fi in buildings, updates on operating systems and there are people who are going to need help with that.
What we’ve done, which I’m particularly excited about – in every organisation I’ve worked in, there’s always been that one guy that everyone turns to when they need help with technology; what we’re doing is giving those people a name – Digital Ambassadors. We’re also giving them a community, professional recognition, support and development. There will be over 1000 of those, all of whom are volunteers. Every time we have something new and exciting e.g. surface pros, they’re the ones that people will turn to and give them the recognition that they deserve for the contribution that they make in supporting our staff to use all of their tools effectively. We’re in the process of growing that from the 250 that we have today, to over 1000 later this year. I think it’s really exciting, as we kind of have it already, but we’re giving recognition to the people that do it, and haven’t been recognised in the past. Our aim is to touch everyone within the organisation and enhancing their digital skills to whatever level they need to be at.
Having worked in a variety of IT roles, how have you seen technology evolve and become more important to the business?
I’ve seen a fundamental shift. Years ago, when I first got involved in technology, it was very much technology support for business – automating processes, for example; now, it’s fundamentally different. Technology is defining the business model, and that is a shift. For an organisation like ours, technology is helping us define a multi-channel business model for how we collect tax and how we support customers in doing the right thing. I think that’s been the fundamental shift for me; it’s no longer something that just helps your business, it defines your business.
How do you keep up with technology trends, and how do you see the landscape changing over the next few years?
Keeping up is fun, but also quite tricky as it’s moving so quickly. There’s never been a more exciting time to work in technology. I read a lot when I’m traveling and use interesting things like Flipboard to help me keep up to date with what’s going on and talk to a lot of people within the industry. I occasionally also attend conferences and other things, but actually the most interesting thing for me is going and working with other organisations who are using technology in their workplace and seeing how it will map, and read across to ours. I’ve spent a lot of time recently with some telcos, some banks, with insurance companies and other government departments, really trying to assess what is the next way for technology and how organisations are going about exploiting it. I think, for me, that’s where I tend to spend a lot of my time; really seeing how it may be reused in our organisation, what value it might bring to us, what challenges they’ve had in making it work for them.
What do I see as the trends? I think if I asked my kids, they’d be quite excited about virtual reality. At home I’m probably most excited about the Internet of Things. It’s fair to say that I’ve got a prototype home, where I’ve adopted lots of technologies, not all of it works terribly well together, but I certainly see the future of the Smart Home as something we will all take for granted. I think that in the workplace and in the business, the most interesting thing for me, and what really captured my imagination and got me interested in the job I do today, is about how digital disrupts. You’ve seen that with Amazon in books and retail, Uber, Netflix etc. I think, for me, the most interesting thing isn’t necessarily the technology, it’s how people use it to disrupt existing industries, and there’s an argument to say we’re doing some of that with tax with the way we’re growing the 3 rd party software market to support businesses with their tax. I think it’s going to be a very disruptive change for some, but also a very positive one for both businesses and ourselves.
Do you have any final messages to the membership?
I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time to work in technology. There’s so much innovation going on it’s now defining business models. IT is now no longer the service provider, it’s now leading organisations to deliver new ways of working for customers, and I think that’s fantastic.