Revenue must finally face facts

David Varney has cut an impressive figure since his appointment last year as chairman of HM Revenue and Customs. He gives the impression of leading a new board that wants to sweep away the dusty and unco-ordinated business practices, ancient IT systems and a defensive, reactionary culture.

 David Varney has cut an impressive figure since his appointment last year as chairman of HM Revenue and Customs. He gives the impression of leading a new board that wants to sweep away the dusty and unco-ordinated business practices, ancient IT systems and a defensive, reactionary culture.

But last week Varney's words were out of character: they had the electronic tinniness of a greetings card that repeats the same message every time it is opened. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee had produced an impressive report, which highlighted structural flaws in the administration of the nation's tax affairs.

MPs were not trying to score party points - Labour members are in the majority. They were fed up with complaints from their constituents about the design of the tax credits system.

To the committee's thoughtful recommendations Varney could have said that the department wants to learn the lessons from past mistakes and will consider the committee's well-intentioned suggestions for improvement.

Instead, he gave the impression that his department is approaching perfection and there is little his board and staff can learn from a committee of MPs.

The only mistakes HMRC is willing to admit to are those of its former supplier EDS. The company must take some of the blame, particularly for the errors in the first weeks of the operation of the tax credits system. But the department's problems run far deeper.

IT staff have worked night and day to build workaday and successful systems at the Revenue. They should not be blamed for the failures in administration, management of projects, advice to ministers, and for the design of overly complex systems such as tax credits.

It has happened many times before: a department says one thing and an independent committee of MPs says another. The conflict cannot be resolved without the full facts, which ministers and departmental heads control and release selectively.

This is one of the reasons Computer Weekly campaigns for the facts to be published in the form of the regular appraisals of projects carried out by the Office of Government Commerce's teams of Gateway reviewers.

Computer Weekly also recommends that Varney recaptures the objectivity he had as an outsider. If he accepts the role of star performer in the Revenue's outward display of solidity, his organisation is more likely to be seen as a department in denial than an efficient and critical public service.

 

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