HMRC … you were the future once

No-one should ever read your first draft. Neil Gaiman.

Nearly 20 years ago when I joined the Inland Revenue (years before it became HMRC), the Internet was new in government.  In the IR HQ, there was one PC that had access to the ‘net – via a dial up 28.8k modem if I recall correctly.  Maybe it was 56.6.  You don’t easily forget the noise that such a modem makes as it works its way to a connection.

Not long after, the IR’s email system was shut down for 3 days by a variant of the Melissa virus.  Sometime later, that led us to back some great work by Al Collier, at what became OGC, to deploy MessageLabs anti-virus capability across the whole of the GSI.  Email was never lost again, as far as I know, by anyone so protected.

The Revenue, as they called themselves, had a website.  But that was it.  Indeed, government had a website (, but that, too, was it.  In the weeks and months that followed, thanks to clear, forward thinking leadership and insightful direction from the Perm Sec (Sir Nick Montagu), the CIO (John Yard) and what would now be called the CDO (Barry Glassberg), Self Assessment went online (remember the £10 rebate to encourage you to file online? And the floppy disc with the “app” on it, replaced at the beginning of the next year with a web app built by Ezgov?), PAYE came next, then Corporation Tax and many other services.

We took hits – despite publishing the need for a maintenance window (to take Self Assessment down) for a few hours on a Friday evening, we made it to above the fold news the following day, when SA was down (when there were, maybe, at best, 10,000 users).  We took flak from the Welsh, Mac using vicar who couldn’t file his tax return (we didn’t do Welsh, didn’t support Macs, and vicars, it turns out, have special tax forms that were not in our initial release; this is not a fable, there really was a Welsh, Mac using vicar that wanted to file his tax return online in 2000).

We built and rebuilt and threw some things away that didn’t;t work.  We ran parallel projects in competition to see what would work and to try and ensure that at least one horse would cross the finish line in time,  Before there was agile, this was agile.

As we worked to put PAYE online, the foundation of it was really the GovTalk standard that the Office of the e-Envoy had already put together (I liked to describe GovTalk as the envelope that you put a letter in, along with the format for the address and the writing inside; the content was yours to figure out).  We worked with dozens of both major and minor software vendors – from Rutherford Webb to Sage through to Oracle – to agree the PAYE XML format that would flow through the Government Gateway (which was in-flight at the same time as PAYE) and into the IR’s systems.  It was detailed work, led mostly by the inimitable and irrepressible Phil Stradling, but it established two important baselines – (1) there would be a single front door into online government services, via the Gateway and (2) the format adopted for all messages through that route would be GovTalk compliant.  Phil was quietly responsible for many firsts in the world of e-government.  I suspect we’ve never thanked him sufficiently for the incredible work he did.

There’s no question that the Inland Revenue (and then HMRC), almost entirely because of John and Barry, led e-government from the front – and were,  I suspect, baffled when other departments got credit for doing a tiny fraction of what they were doing.  They took risks in a world where taking risks was frowned upon. They were the first to put real transactions online (SA, PAYE, CT etc – each of which won awards in its time). They provided the initial funding for the Government Gateway (the vision came from a mixture of IR and HMCE thinking with a very large extra dose from Mark Gladwyn at CITU).  They were the first to get meaningful take-up, from both citizens and businesses – with the Carter review, in 2007, HMRC (as they were by then) became the first department to focus on driving 100% take-up of online services (with the aim of achieving that by 2012; my guess is they hit that, or, at least, got closer than anyone else did by then)

Many years later, I find myself in front of my Mac, painfully rekeying VAT/expenses data from the carefully crafted Excel sheets that I put together a decade ago into the cloud accounting package that, to date, I have only used for sending and tracking invoices.

And, at the same time, I find myself wondering just how far we have progressed.  Or, indeed, if we have progressed at all.

As far as I can tell, the Gateway is still there (my login credentials remain the same, but there was talk that, by now, the Gateway would be replaced – indeed, the website that remained unchanged from 2004 when I left it behind until even a few months ago is now apparently hidden away replaced by a front end).

Is the Gateway a dead man walking?  or is it dead?  I hope they gave it a good send off, it served us all well.  Too many awesome people worked on Gateway to mention here; but they know what they achieved, up against the odds.

What used to be a single front end for transactions into government now looks fragmented across dozens of sites.

And what I’m sending to HMRC, from my cloud accounting package (one login), through some bridging software (another login), through the Gateway (yet another login) …

… is a CSV file with the 9 boxes required for the VAT form.

There doesn’t seem to be a GovTalk envelope.

There’s no additional data.

But there is new overhead and new cost.

And yet no obvious benefit … HMRC are getting what they got before … and countless businesses are sending what they sent before, but with more effort.

And, obviously, no Verify … yet if every single company in the UK is going to send their tax returns this way, and as many as 9 million individuals (roughly 50% used to use accountants, perhaps it’s more now) and then 30 million individuals who might want to check their PAYE status … or a few million students who will want to check their student loan (which inevitably ties to PAYE) … this way in is going to become the default, at least for all financial transactions with government (there may be a good case for why NHS has a different way in; I don’t have a particular view).

Clearly there is more underway here and a bigger picture … but it’s not obvious to me that we have advanced at all since achieving the 100% (or near to it) objective perhaps 7 years ago.

Citizen focused?  Joined up?

I’m not sure.  Doesn’t look like it.

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