THE PERFORMANCE of HM Revenue & Customs' customer service (for want of a better term) has been an issue which has dogged the department all year.
Its ability to answer calls in a timely manner has been described variously as "in need of improvement" and "unreasonable" over the course of 2012, and has drawn criticism from both several quarters, including the government and taxpayers.
Indeed, figures at the start of the year were particularly poor, with approximately one in four tax helpline calls going unanswered after holding for an average of six minutes.
That said, figures from August showed the department has made strides, answering 74% of calls in 2011/12, up from 48% the year before. It is still some way short of the industry standard of 90%, however, but the introduction of 1,000 dedicated call centre staff should ease the situation.
Those staff have a hefty job, though, after a grand total 20 million calls went unanswered last year, something that attracted the ire of Labour MP and Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Margaret Hodge.
That figure is "staggering", she said, and suggested its self-set targets are "too soft". The taxman's use of 0845 numbers, too, was "totally unacceptable", she said, as callers are charged by the minute, with proceeds going to service provider Cable & Wireless.
Hodge may have a point. By its own admission, HMRC is operating below standard industry levels for call centres. In particular, it does not have a target for answering calls within a specified time, unlike some other government departments and overseas tax authorities.
It is no surprise, then, that the National Audit Office's report on the matter is critical, although it recognises HMRC's efforts to rectify its deficiencies in its service to taxpayers.
Nor is it particularly surprising that the report found HMRC has "difficult decisions to make about prioritising resources, given its spending review commitments to reduce costs by 25%". Not only that, but it is committed to raising an additional £7bn per year by 2015.
That reality jars quite violently with estimates that it would need to spend between £40m and £50m extra each year on staff and management to answer 80% of calls within 20 seconds.
Happily, the NAO believes that 90% of the calls can be handled as early as March next year simply through redeploying between 700 and 800 staff to its contact centres throughout the year. More should be available, it said, to safeguard against unanticipated spikes in the number of calls.
It also recommends the refining of forecasts for demand between 2012 and 2015 and beyond. It should also assess the potential impact of introducing universal credit (which will replace the current tax credit system) on taxpayer needs and queries.
Additionally, the NAO suggests HMRC should "better understand the skills profile it will require to maintain customer service in 2015". The department should also "migrate simple information requests online", it said.
Ultimately, it is very much a case of could-do-better for the taxman's contact centre services, but with some careful navigation, it is a poor situation that can quickly be rectified.
While March is an ambitious deadline, implementing a formal strategy as soon as possible could and should see the service reach an acceptable level.
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