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January 16, 2017updated 28 Mar 2017 4:10pm

Taking tax digital – How tech is transforming HMRC

The UK tax office has just finished a consultation on what the next stage of its digital transformation should look like.

By John Oates

Although Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs move online has had its ups and downs almost 90 per cent of self assessment forms submitted last year were completed online and not on paper.

The next stage is more controversial and aims to create online-only communication with British citizens and businesses by 2020. This is not just a technology project – a move to online accounts will change the relationship between the tax office and citizens, hence the need for consultation.

The project is immensely complex and involved simplifying existing communication not just shifting it all online.

First HMRC reduced the number of forms it used from a baffling 1,600 to just 370. Then it began moving those forms online.

It has now reduced total forms to just 247 which are available via PC, tablet and mobile devices as well as working with accessibility tools.

The process does not end when the form is submitted – many are now processed automatically as well.

HMRC is not only using new technology for customer-facing systems. It also uses a variety of intelligent fraud detection systems to sift through the vast databases it holds to highlight possible fraud and overpayment of tax rebates.

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These suspect accounts are then highlighted for deeper investigation by human investigators.

The next stage is a far more ambitious and even more complex software project which will fundamentally change the way the organisation works.

It moves far beyond just putting paper forms onto a web page to introduce proper machine to machine communication between government and business for the first time.

HMRC is creating a set of APIs to allow finance and accounting programmes to effectively communicate directly with government systems.

This will allow developers to add new functions to existing software as well as create brand new ways for business and government to interact.

If successful it would put the UK government at the very forefront of developing and transforming how business and the state communicates.

The hope is that successful use of APIs for tax will also provide an effective test bed and template to roll out similar changes at other government departments.

One of the big internal changes for HMRC will be bridging the silos between data the it already holds.

So employers are obliged to send regular information on pay-as-you-earn, the way most people pay tax, every week or every month but individuals cannot access this information until the end of the financial year.

Equally the Revenue regularly collects data on interest from savings from banks and building societies but citizens cannot access that data either

Giving real-time access to this information would allow people and businesses to get back overpaid tax without having to wait until the end of the year.

The changes are not without criticism.

There are fears that forcing all communication online will leave some people behind.

There are also concerns that the changes will add extra costs to UK firms which will be forced to upgrade accounting systems for no immediate business benefit. But if even partly successful the project promises to bring the real benefits of digital transformation to British businesses before anywhere else in the world.

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