Janet Hughes and Stephen Dunn
Martha Lane Fox
Let's take a look at Public Servant of the Year ex-Guardian man Mike Bracken CBE CDO CDO's 28 March 2015 offering, Not the HMRC of old.
Mr Bracken wears a lot of hats. He is the executive director of GDS. He is the senior responsible owner of GOV.UK Verify (RIP). He was already the UK government's chief digital officer (CDO) when he was unexpectedly made chief data officer (CDO) as well. All of which may explain the need to produce no less than five self-assessments (see list above) in four days, 26-29 March 2015.
The present object of our attentions examines three HMRC-related digital services:
These services all went live in the week ending 30 March 2015, 800 days after GDS gave themselves 400 days to transform the UK government by deploying 25 exemplar digital services which they still haven't.
- Your Tax Account [exemplar #17] - making filing tax easier for small and medium sized businesses. Over 2 million users so far.
- Digital Self Assessment [exemplar #16] - allowing people to go paperless for their personal tax affairs - 1.2 million have already done so.
- PAYE for employees [exemplar #15] - making it easier for people to tell HMRC about changes that affect their tax code (such as using a company car)
In what sense is HMRC (Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs) now no longer the "HMRC of old"?
According to Mr Bracken:
This is unconvincing. The Rural Payments digital service, exemplar #8, had the benefit of agile development, a multidisciplinary team including Mr Bracken himself, iteration, user research and Github and yet it failed.
- Now it [HMRC] has begun a new phase of development, centered upon agile development of services. These exemplars have all been built in an agile way, using technologies including Scala, Java, and MongoDB.
- The multidisciplinary teams made up of technical and business resources depend on massive amounts of user research ...
- ... and the exemplars have been through several iterations in private and public beta.
- The organisation is changing: HMRC is sharing code on Github.
- Mark’s being written about in Wired magazine. [Mark Dearnley is Mr Bracken's vassal at HMRC.]
- ... you can see a huge amount of tax related data on the performance platform.
Being written about in Wired? There's nothing new about organisations managing their PR. HMRC always have. And so have the GDS of old, see for example their coverage on BBC radio and in the Guardian newspaper, and the Times newspaper, twice, at least, not to mention their appearance (together with DMossEsq) in the 11 April 2014 issue of Wired.
As for there being a "huge amount of tax-related data" on the award-winning GOV.UK's performance platform, so what? The Office for National Statistics (ONS) are likely to be polite ...
... but wary of the government's new chief data officer. You don't measure the value of open data by weighing it. Are the figures on the performance platform accurate? What, if anything, do they mean, how are they to be interpreted correctly? What's being hidden from the viewer, what figures are missing?
It's hard work producing official statistics. You have to be able to defend them in open argument. There's an academic discipline there, to be respected with rigorous logic.
Mr Bracken told a US audience in October 2013 that:
- £10 billion was 4 percent of UK gross domestic product. At the time, it was more like 0.6 percent.
- The £10 billion figure he quoted hadn't been audited.
- It was supposed to be the total value of savings made by the Cabinet Office over a vaguely specified period ...
- ... achieved largely, it turned out later, by making a number of public servants redundant and by negotiating better rates with suppliers – but Mr Bracken gave the impression to his US audience that the saving was all thanks to GDS.
If anything in Mr Bracken's post is going to make the case that we now enjoy a new HMRC thanks to GDS, it's got to be the digital services themselves. But in that case, they're being hopelessly over-promoted. They're not up to the job.
DMossEsq took a look at the Your Tax Account digital service for one of his companies. You too can take a look.
Some identifying codes like the Unique Tax Reference have been edited. You may imagine that the company name also has been edited but, no, Mark Dearnley chose to omit it or perhaps he simply forgot to include it.
This company, whatever it's called, has paid all its corporation tax. That's what Your Tax Account says. The company owes 55 pence of pay-as-you-earn PAYE tax and it's up to date with its VAT (value added tax/sales tax).
How does Your Tax Account know that?
Presumably it is fed the figures by HMRC. It certainly can't work them out itself. Don't run away with the idea that GDS has suddenly learned how to calculate VAT and how to keep track of how much has been paid.
According to Mr Bracken:
Your Tax Account makes paying tax much simpler. More like paying your gas or electricity bill. It shows you a dashboard page that summarises everything in one place - what your company owes (or perhaps is owed) and when it needs to be paid. Click a link to pay there and then. It will save time and money for millions of small business owners across the UK.
How does summarising everything in one place save time and money? The company still has to work out how much VAT, if any, is due and then tell HMRC who, in turn, have to check it and perhaps correct it. Ditto the PAYE and National Insurance Contributions. Ditto the corporation tax. Time saved for the company by Your Tax Account? Nil. Money saved? Nil.
"Your Tax Account makes paying tax much simpler". How? No it doesn't. "More like paying your gas or electricity account". Nonsense. The energy suppliers calculate the bill for you. Then you pay it.
Companies, by contrast, have to calculate the bills themselves. They need book-keepers and often auditors who keep up with the law and with the latest developments in HMRC procedures. They have to operate RTI. HMRC say so. They have to produce accounts in iXBRL format. HMRC say so. These people and their professional indemnity insurance and their continuing professional education have to be paid for by the company to act as HMRC's agents. It's time-consuming and expensive to prepare your own bills and far from constituting a saving Your Tax Account is just another cost – now we have to pay for Mr Dearnley in addition.
The energy bills tend to be correct. High. But correct. Not so HMRC – Five million UK workers face uncertainty after tax bills wrongly calculated twice in HMRC blunder. GDS often make the analogy between government and retail. This is another case where it doesn't work.
HMRC will not get it out of their head that DMossEsq receives thousands of pounds of benefits in kind. The tax code they issue him is wrong. Tax returns and letters sent to HMRC haven't corrected the mistake and neither have telephone calls. It would be marvellous if Mr Bracken's PAYE for employees service worked, "making it easier for people to tell HMRC about changes that affect their tax code (such as using a company car)".
Unfortunately, when he says "such as using a company car" he means "as long as using a company car is the only problem with your tax code because the service can't help with anything else".
"The digital service does the hard work for you" – no it doesn't.
He could sign up for Mr Bracken's Digital Self Assessment service. Surely that would allow DMossEsq to self-assess, digitally?
No. "Instead of being bombarded with paperwork, you’ll be sent emails. Everything will be stored for you online. The service sounds simple" and that's because it is. The name of the service is misleading. Instead of being bombarded with paperwork, DMossEsq would simply be bombarded with emails. Progress, nil.
"Over 2 million users" of Your Tax Account so far, says Mr Bracken. Is that true? So what if it is? Given that he looked at the page, is DMossEsq now one of those two million users? Given that he refreshed three times, is he four of those two million users? Who knows? "1.2 million" people have already "gone paperless" using Digital Self Assessment, Mr Bracken says. Huge amounts of tax-related data on GDS's performance platform, 2 million this and 1.2 million that, but what does it tell us? Nothing.
Mr Bracken discerns a message in the figures: "With this level of transactions, it is impossible for any Government agency to claim the agile approach does not scale or is unsuited to transactional services". No-one else does.
"I'm delighted by the success of these exemplars, but it’s the structural reform of our tax system which they help enable which pleases me most", says Mr Bracken. But these exemplars don't help to enable a structural reform of our tax system. He's making a category mistake. A structural reform of our tax system would be, for example, making GDS's friends pay their UK taxes. That happy prospect is not going to be enabled by GDS's exemplars.
It seems fair to conclude that there are many points in Mr Bracken's post with which a Cabinet Secretary might take issue. Among others, these three exemplars are being, as noted, hopelessly over-promoted.
"you can see a huge amount of data
on the performance platform"
Two days ago on 6 May 2015 the Guardian newspaper published The seats to stay up for – and the numbers that matter – on election night. On the basis of the best political polling available, they predicted that the Labour party would win 273 seats and that the Conservatives would win the same, 273 seats.
Yesterday we had the election.
Today, Labour have 232 seats in the House of Commons and the Conservatives 331. 41 fewer than predicted and 58 more, respectively.
Understanding the data you have collected is clearly difficult, even for experienced professionals with the eyes of the nation on them.
How much more so for the rest of us, including GDS?
At the time of writing, GDS operate 797 service dashboards crammed full of data collected automatically to tell viewers all about the performance of GDS's digital public services.
It's hard to collect meaningful data and hard to understand it. Ask the ONS. Ask a chief data officer.
We all need to be sceptical when interpreting those figures on the digital service dashboards. Everyone. Including GDS.
One day you may take a set of figures on a dashboard to imply the digital equivalent of a Labour-led coalition only to find yourself facing a Conservative majority government the next day.