PracticePeople In PracticePride and prejudice

Pride and prejudice

When Terry Hawes expresses his feelings about the Inland Revenue's online self assessment service, he appears coy, almost a little embarrassed to say what he really thinks.

As e-business programme director he headed up the team that brought the country the much maligned self assessment online service. It got a bad press, was attacked from all quarters and suffered its fair share of birthing problems.

Terry however is like a father who still loves his delinquent child.

‘To be honest my main feeling is pride. The people who did this were doing something that was world leading,’ he says. But then adds that his son is an infant misunderstood.

‘There’s a degree of frustration that, yes we have issues and problems, but they are what attracts all the attention. The scale of what people have achieved will be recognised eventually and is recognised by people in the industry now.’

You would expect the man who lead the project to say that but there is a real sense of sincerity in Hawes which can rarely be detected in other officials talking about their controversial projects.

And to an extent Hawes is right. The online service was misunderstood, or suffered from a press that in some quarters either failed to understand the nature of the project, the internet or the work of the Revenue.

System downtime

There is the famous example of the weekend the service was shut down for a much touted upgrade.

Despite weeks of notice on the site’s homepage, most of the press still managed to write a story about the collapse of the system.

‘I think we were misunderstood. Government departments are treated differently, it’s not a complaint so much as an observation. “Inland Revenue system works” is of no interest to people. “Inland Revenue system has a problem” is not of much interest but “Inland Revenue system collapses” people love.’

He’s right of course. The press wears its heart on its sleeve. But Hawes is philosophical, as senior public servants have to be. ‘It’s a frustration but you learn to live with it.’

In fact Hawes was handed an immense task to complete. During the 1999 Budget Gordon Brown announced that self assessment was to go online – and then he gave the Revenue just 12 months to do it.

Some of the preparatory work was already underway but most of the work had to be done in what must have seemed like a very short year.

First came market research which identified four million employed people, as opposed to the five million self employed, were the most likely users.

The volume of online self registrations is going as planned, though the number of those filing online is behind Revenue hopes. Hawes pointedly says a summer of bad press has helped convince some the service is not secure when in fact its record stands unblemished.

The Revenue had none of the incidents that have plagued the online operations of the Halifax, the Abbey National, BT and importance of security

Then came the construction of a business case for the service – this involved describing the service, explaining its technical structure and presenting a costing. A full risk assessment was also undertaken. That revealed two key issues to be addressed – that any system under development had to be secure. If it wasn’t people wouldn’t use it. But there was another risk to be addressed. Because of the general shortage of skilled computer people the Revenue had to be sure it could get the internet expertise it needed to deliver the service to specification.

‘There are plenty of people around who design sites that are nice to look at but there are very few people around who design secure high volume transaction sites,’ says Hawes.

And high volume it certainly intends to be, but it is also extremely complex. The self assessment form alone has 900 boxes and the system has to be able to work using any permutation of those boxes. This created a huge testing issue.

‘The number of permutations alone is as long as this room when you write it down,’ says Hawes. ‘So we had to create hundreds of test cases to test as many permutations as we sensibly could, to make sure the answers come out right.’

Despite all the technical issues however, perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome was the cultural implication that an online service to external customers has for the Revenue.

Hawes openly speaks of ‘evangelising’ around the department in a bid to sell the idea.

‘People had to understand, I think for the first time, that we were offering an IT system to our customers not out staff. That makes a huge difference because you’ve got to get things right. These are customers.

‘We did a lot of evangelising, going to our people and explaining. And we had to talk to a lot of people who understood the issue, who were used to providing services to customers who they did not know and whom they assume had no knowledge of the system they were working with.’

XML decision

The pinnacle of the cultural change came however when the Revenue was faced with making a decision about the computer language used for the site. Government has its own internal standards but the proposal on the table, and the choice which finally won out, was to use the now widely popular XML.

A move that proved contentious and, though apparently innocuous, prompted the most heated debates during whole online project.

Using advisers from the private sector was the catalyst for the switch to XML, but some resisted. But if the site was to go on developing, and if the private sector was to be able to produce products that would integrate with the system, XML was the way to go.

‘It meant making what I think was a brave decision about not using our own standards and imposing them on others. Instead we said we would use XML,’ says Hawes.

‘There were very strong arguments against doing that. And quite rightly many people did argue against it and there was significant debate before that decision was made.’

He adds: ‘We went into a technology that was quite new. But we’ve been proved right because its been accepted as a standard across the world.’

That such an apparently simple decision could provoke so much debate illustrates the cultural conservatism that had to be addressed as part of the move to an online service. Certainly it was an unavoidable battle that had to be fought and one that only a move to an online service could provoke.

Other changes and accommodations also had to be faced. Revenue officers have had to come to terms with the speed of the internet. Hawes was aware of it from the start after receiving 12 months to complete the project.

Launching some of the service up to six weeks late re-emphasised the point.

When problems were encountered staff had to ‘respond faster than people were used to doing’.

Hawes says: ‘Naturally people want time to consider issues from different perspectives and you have to be careful that you are not unnecessarily rushing them. But they have to understand that if they want to contribute that they have to do it today and not next week.

It’s been an education for all of us. Things now move at a different speed and you have to find ways of helping people move at that speed.’

Hawes has clearly embraced the internet age. He has clearly adopted its vocabulary and demands and recognised that it brings new pressures and ways of working. Clearly, when commentators consider the project of getting all government services online by 2005, they should take into account the vast scale of getting even a single service like self-assessment on the internet.

Indeed the cultural leap for government to online services is greater than that facing the ‘old economy’ in the private sector.

As Hawes says, providing access to self assessment via your PC has brought a very sharp focus on the lessons the rest of government must learn.

‘It’s widely acknowledged that the way government makes, reaches and alters decisions has to change and has to meet the demands that internet services place on it.’


The government set itself in March 2000 the task of getting 100% of services online by 2005. Originally the target date was set for 2008, but following a review of development government became convinced it should set a more ‘challenging’ deadline.

And in monitoring progress towards its aim the government is clear about what it wants. Figures cannot be fudged by including electronic services provided internally or to other public sector bodies. The services in question must those aimed at end users among citizens, business or voluntary sector.

Progress reports are published every six months. A paper for Autumn 2000 is still awaited but the last, with firm results, came out in the spring of this year.

The whole of government provides 457 services which have been identified as needing to go online by the 2005 target. Of those, 152 services, or 33%, have been enabled.

That figure falls slightly to 31% if you remove the nine enabled services which are only pilots schemes.

However, it is expected that by 2002 government officers will have reached 71%, or 326 services.

2005 should see at least 99%, or 451 services, up and running.

Hold up in making services live could be possible. The government envisages restrictions on technical capabilities, legislation and policy to potentially present reasons why some services might not go online. However, it does that in the event of a service being held up it should be ‘fully justified.’


e-business website

Inland Revenue e-business and e-commerce site

Inland Revenue’s Internet service for Self Assessment website

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