The facts that shine through smokescreen surrounding HM Revenue and Customs

When Steve Lamey addressed more than 100 IT executives at the Park Plaza hotel in London's Victoria two weeks ago, his audience listened intently.

When Steve Lamey addressed more than 100 IT executives at the Park Plaza hotel in London's Victoria two weeks ago, his audience listened intently.

His frank and trenchant comments about the state of his organisation, HM Revenue and Customs, were rare for a senior civil servant speaking in public.

Formerly chief information officer at British Gas, Lamey joined HM Revenue and Customs as its first CIO in October 2004. He was an outsider looking in: his language at the Government UK IT Summit was direct and vivid.

It paid no respect to a civil service culture that appears to require that senior government officials say nothing in public that would imply their organisation was less than perfect.

Addressing a large audience for 20 minutes at the start of the two-day conference, he highlighted a series of fundamental weaknesses within the Revenue that he was adamant he would correct. He intends to cleanse "really poor quality data" and unify business processes, which he said were different in each of the UK's 72 tax offices.

He showed a slide with some statistics which "worry me every day". He referred, for example, to the tens of millions of letters that are sent out every year. "65% of them get to where they are supposed to go to," he said. "How efficient is that?"

Nobody knew how many letters were sent out when he joined the organisation. "That is a real statistic which it has taken me nearly three-and-a-half months to find out."

Lamey blamed nobody. He simply set out his plans and challenges without any veneer of euphemism.

Thus the reaction of his department to learning about the reporting of his comments in Computer Weekly was as disappointing as it was swift. Revenue and Customs issued a statement portraying itself as an organisation needing only a little more time to reach near perfection. In a single-page statement, the department undid Lamey's good work in telling it as it is.

Yet nobody can argue that confronting the truth - whether you are running IT in a government department or at an SME - is the first step to effecting improvement.

So how do Lamey's comments at the conference match the denial statement issued by the press office of HM Revenue and Customs?

The statement claimed that Lamey's remarks had been "misinterpreted and quoted out of context to give an entirely distorted picture of HMRC's IT systems and performance".

In support of this, it said that Lamey's references to the need for "improved collection of unpaid tax have been presented as official estimates, when they are nothing of the sort". It continued, "Any figures mentioned were entirely illustrative, offered in the context of a wider presentation on how IT can help to improve the collection of unpaid tax."

But Computer Weekly did not quote Lamey or attribute to him an estimate of the amount of unpaid tax.

The department's statement went on to criticise reported references to the number of letters sent to the wrong addresses which "have also been presented as official figures, even though they are based on limited and imprecise information".

It said, "In reality, we are well on the way to ensuring that, by April 2006, 95% of the 160 million letters we send out each year are correctly addressed, despite the difficulties inherent in keeping up-to-the-minute records for such a large customer base, where more than four million individuals change their addresses each year."

Officials told the media that the figures reported by Computer Weekly were based on a survey which was too small to be statistically valid.

In fact, Lamey referred twice in his speech to the fact that only 65% of letters went to the correct addresses. No mention was made in his speech of any of his figures having been based on limited and imprecise information, or on a statistically invalid survey.

The department's statement also criticised Computer Weekly's reporting of Lamey's comments that about half of self-assessment forms are processed incorrectly first time and need to be "reworked".

It said Lamey's comments had been taken out of context. "In reality, the current systems for processing self-assessment returns ensure that 95% of forms are accurately completed, but even so, we are looking to improve these processes still further to ensure an even greater accuracy rate."

But Computer Weekly did not report on the number or percentage of forms which are completed accurately or not. Lamey said at the conference that only about half of self-assessment processes are correct the first time and have to be reworked.

The department's statement said, "[Lamey's presentation] was designed to share the improvements in IT that are at the heart of the improved service which will be provided by the newly-created HMRC and the benefits available for other government departments."

It said Lamey was disappointed by the way the reporting of his comments has sought to undermine those improvements by presenting such a distorted and inaccurate account of his remarks. But there was nothing in the official statement which cited any specific distortions or inaccuracies.

It can be argued that it is de rigeur for the taxman to deny the truth of any statement that conflicts with the impression the department thinks it ought to have in the outside world.

But this may increase the obstacles faced by Lamey as he tries to tackle the IT inefficiencies and the Revenue's diffracted business processes. If it is difficult to radically reform the business processes in any large department of state, it will be doubly difficult to radically reform a department that perceives no need for it.

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)

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