Vince Groome, director of IT solutions at HMRC, talks to Computer Weekly about the department’s work on Universal Credit, the role of system integrators and driving down costs through benchmarking.
HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is responsible for the money that runs UK PLC and touches every citizen in the country in some way, so it is not surprising that the IT estate is large, says Vince Groome, director of IT solutions at HMRC.
Groome has held varied posts in government IT for the last 25 years, including having worked on the wholesale computerisation of social security operations at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in the early 1990s and being business architect for tax credits at HMRC in 2005.
“My background is business design. I’m passionate, and I know Phil Pavitt [HMRC’s CIO] is too, that we are business people that happen to do IT. I don’t mean that in amateurish sense, but that we are only doing IT for the benefit to the business. If we deliver crap IT, people in this country will notice,” he says.
HMRC itself is a relatively new construct, having been born out of the Inland Revenue and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise almost seven years ago. “So there’s been quite a fusion of large estates that have come together, and that has brought challenges. Over the last 12-18 months we have done much to rationalise that,” he says.
“It’s also the nature of IT that some of it doesn’t have to be real-time, whereas other systems have to be ultra-responsive 24/7. When we get containers rolling off ferries we can’t wait very long to process and assess their VAT, otherwise we would get huge queues and everything literally grinds to a halt.”
One such ultra-responsive system the department has been developing is real-time PAYE (pay as you earn), essential for the roll-out of DWP's Universal Credit programme next year. But despite concerns expressed by the Public Accounts Committee over the projects tight deadlines, Groome is positive about the progress being made.
“It is tough in terms of deadlines, but it is being exceptionally well managed to achieve that. Our track record has been very good. We are very conscious of our duty to enable the DWP to achieve its objectives. And we will get a lot benefit ourselves by having more immediate information.
“Am I concerned professionally? Yes. This is one of our highest priorities, I’m not going to say. ‘Yeah, it’s easy what’s all the fuss about'. Conceptually it is straightforward but enabling all those different systems to come together is a non-trivial task. But I believe we have the wherewithal to hit the milestones but it will also require constant attention,” he says,
To get the best out of its suppliers, of which Capgemini is the department’s main system integrator (SI), a process of benchmarking has been introduced by using equivalent costing based on Gartner research. “If we can put data on the table then we can have an intelligent conversation, although it may sometimes provide embarrassment by doing so it is very clear as the discussion is based on objective facts," says Groome.
“We have challenges like every department with the spending review. On the one hand we need to drive down cost, while driving up tax. Gone are the days where say give us some more money, we will give you some more tax,” he says.
Alongside its outsourced contracts, the department also has an in-house software development team of around 200 staff. “HMRC is rare – we trained an in-house software development arm, whereas most organisations in the 1990s or 2000s outsourced everything. Although this is relatively small, it’s important we retained that in- house.”
However, Groome is clear the in-house team is not intended to take on the SIs. “Capgemini and Fujitsu do a great job. Defects are low, the performance is great and the service provision is pretty good. We have not set it up as a competitor, but we are pleased we have teams capable of developing small systems quickly to support users.”
Value for money has been driven by contractual negotiations, with savings of £161m per year, but also through looking at the way staff consume IT within the business, he says. This has involved looking more closely at the number of licence agreements in place to ensure the department is not continuing to pay once staff have left or moved: “Providing better data enables us to see if we can reuse licences we already have in place rather than taking out new ones.”
One of the key ways of saving money has been the “cost not to exceed” strategy. So when new tax systems are created, such as the new machine gambling duty tax, any additional costs are met by taking something out of the estate. “That way we don’t have to keep going back to the Treasury and ask for more money. And that’s really important for keeping costs down.” Previously IT costs were creeping up by £30m to £40m per year.
“It takes discipline to say we are interested in this new shiny thing, but let’s also take the rubbish away,“ says Groome.
He admits the strategy seems like it’s just common sense. “Yes it always feels slightly like - gosh you should know this - but in reality where departments have merged and changed and brought in different kit and estates it’s been more difficult than it sounds.
“And well before mine and Phil Pavitt’s time there were policies that were a little like, ‘Let’s just go down to Dixons and just buy something.’ It’s not a unique problem to the public sector, but what we are trying to do is get a bit more control.
“We have challenged how many different bespoke things are needed. It’s logical that a lot of the tax systems have similar structures,” he says.
As such the department has consolidated its platforms onto a set of 13 "machines". “If we do something new we locate it onto those machines and lower costs with reuse.”
Digital by default
Groome is also proud of the work the department has done on digitisation, such as online tax self-assessment. “We’ve already been doing a lot ensuring all our tax systems have an online capability. For us digital by default is as much a business challenge as an IT challenge."
But he says current practices could be streamlined, such as writing to online users once they have completed their self-assessment.
“A lot of peoples’ lives are around the iPhone and iPad. Some citizens are very familiar with this sort of thing and clearly prefer to get things done electronically. Our job is to make sure we’ve got a complete business process in place. But we’ve got to be careful that we don’t disenfranchise the minority.”
But pragmatism will be key in realising the digital agenda. “A little bit of me doesn’t care how they pay tax as long as they do. We want to get digital by default into balance, it is at the forefront of our strategy but so is enabling all citizens and companies to engage and pay tax,” he says.