HMRC self-assessment - Mark Dearnley CIO interview

It's hard to comprehend the scale of the challenge facing HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) chief digital and information officer Mark Dearnley.

HMRC still has 70,000 staff, relies on 1,700 different documents, claims to get 70 million phone calls every year, collects £500 billion in tax and is responsible for almost three-quarters of all government transactions.

Over the next two years the department aims to collect all of those taxes online, build a 'digital' tax platform and modernise its 1970s-era systems, all while replacing a £813 million-a-year Aspire ICT deal with Capgemini in 2017.

Dearnley, who joined from Vodafone in August 2013, admits his pipeline of work is "incredible".

It's nothing short of transforming a centuries-old organisation into a digital, modern, real time business, he says.

Dearnley acknowledges the challenge presented by legacy systems, a long-standing issue for HMRC IT chiefs. He says he would like to consolidate tax systems from over 100 to "one or two". All of which sounds familiar; since 2010 the HMRC IT team, led first by Phil Pavitt, then Mark Hall and now Dearnley have been consolidating and re-platforming the technology estate of HMRC. Dubbed 13 Machines, the SAP-based simplification plan reduced 550 different applications on to 13 instances of SAP, Hall told this title in May 2011. In June 2013 Hall was confident that the legacy of HMRC was at an all time low and the Whitehall department had 200 online services to offer citizens. So it is interesting to see Dearnley place so much focus on the legacy technology at HMRC.

However he rejects the idea they are somehow "bad platforms".

"This nation has survived and brought in trillions of pounds worth of tax on these platforms," he says.

"Is real-time brilliant and batch terrible? That's the wrong question. There are things for which batch is fine. There are other things where you need real-time updates."

Instead Dearnley says he aims to converge systems. "Some of that will use things that are new. Some of that will take advantage of some of the great things that have been developed over the years," he says.

"There's no 'oh it's not new so it must be bad' - there's actually 'if it's ideal for the role let's build on it'."

Single data hub

As part of plans to consolidate systems, the department has built a single Hadoop-based data hub for all of its structured and unstructured customer data.

Once operational, it will be used for compliance work and for analysing cyber security, fraud and other issues, according to Dearnley.

"All the tax information we have about you as an individual, so all of those legacy systems, all the data from those will go into the hub. We've built the hub and we're just starting the process of building the ingestion routines at the moment. There are quite a lot of them," he explains.

The secure hub will be "the place to start for all our analytics across the organisation. It will help to remove the silos. And we will finally have this really single view of the customer".

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