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Brexit is an opportunity to transform, says HMRC digital transformation director

HMRC’s digital transformation director Brigid McBride on Brexit opportunities, using AI and robotics to improve services, and growing the API ecosystem

Brexit provides an opportunity to speed up and scale digital transformation, according to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) digital transformation director Brigid McBride.

Speaking at the Public Sector ICT Summit, McBride said some of HMRC’s IT systems are “a bit creaky”, and having a tight deadline for Brexit, as well as its customs declaration service (CDS), is “a big opportunity to do a big transformation” at the department.

HMRC has gone through significant changes in the past few years, and aims to become the most digitally advanced tax administrations anywhere in the world by 2020.

It has no fewer than 15 major transformation programmes – a huge workload for any organisation. This includes making tax digital for individuals and businesses, developing the CDS system, supporting the introduction of Universal Credit, and implementing the Tax-Free Childcare scheme.

McBride said the transformation is about “really changing our service offering” for customers, but also highlighted the importance of being a technically progressive workplace, adding that internal digital transformation is just as important as the customer-facing one.

In January this year, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found that HMRC was “dangerously overstretched”, partly as a consequence of Brexit, which in turn puts its 2020 transformation programme into question.

Brexit work and the CDS system have face a lot of scrutiny, with many fearing that it won’t be ready in time for Brexit. In October 2017, HMRC CEO Jon Thompson told PAC that the department needs more cash to develop a contingency plan should it not be ready – however, the work on the new system has so far met all critical milestones.

When asked by a member of the audience if she thought the department has “enough time” to get everything ready for Brexit, McBride simply said “yes”.

However, Brexit and CDS is only one of 15 major transformation programmes. Last year, the department also opened up its application programming interfaces (APIs) to third-party software, which means it can expose information and share it across government.

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“There are lots of technology building blocks and having people who really care about those products and those platforms [is important],” said McBride. “We have a really big, modern API platform, which we’ve build on more responsive APIs to help the ecosystem out there.”

There is also a huge focus on robotics and automation at the department, she said. “We use a lot of new channels, such as social media to help people deal with very simple queries. We have a virtual assistant called Ruth who helps customers by going through their knowledge base, and very simple robotics technology to give advice back.”

The work around robotics has been done entirely based on what staff want and need. “Instead of a big programme of activities, we put in the capability and asked staff to identify processes they felt we could automate,” said McBride.  

“So we ended up with hundreds of small projects, which were the things people really cared about from customer service perspective. [We recently] hit 10 million robotic transactions since we launched 18 months ago.”

Although the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is still in early days, the department is accelerating its work with new technologies.

“They’re still very much in their infancy at HMRC, but we see a big use around some of our compliance processes. There are complex cases where we need to take lots of data and learn around the risking, so we’re putting our toes in the water there in terms of using new technologies to help do some of that compliance work,” said McBride.

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