By Tony Collins
Steve Lamey, who is leaving HM Revenue and Customs as Director General, Benefits and Credits, has worked tirelessly to improve the organisation’s systems and administration; and he has gained a reputation for listening to IT suppliers.
In 2007 he won a British Software Satisfaction award for his work in promoting collaboration within the business software industry. He joined HMRC in October 2004 as CIO.
He is perceived to be leaving at a time when there are a number of vacancies at the top of HMRC. Accountancylive reported last month there was an “exodus”of senior officials from HMRC, and morale is said to be low. But a man as influential as Lamey can do only so much. Anyone who wants to effect major change at HMRC must move an iceberg with a rowing boat. That said there have been some HMRC IT-related successes.
Was Lamey an unexploded force at HMRC?
But it’s conceivable that Lamey could have achieved more if he had carried on the way he started: by highlighting the need for change.
He unwittingly made a name for himself in 2005 after a speech he gave to a Government IT conference in which he revealed some of the corporate weaknesses of HMRC, an the organisation he had joined not long before.
He probably had not expected his comments to be reported first in Computer Weekly and then on the front page of the Daily Telegraph.
At that time Lamey was HMRC’s new CIO. He told delegates of some of his discoveries, namely that:
– At least 31 million wrongly addressed letters were being sent out.
– Nearly half of self-assessment tax forms were being incorrectly processed and had to be done again.
– he had been struck by the out-of-date computer systems. He told the conference: “If I were an information technology historian I would love it. We need to move on from there.”
– his “biggest, biggest, biggest challenge” was correcting “poor quality data”.
Later a Daily Telegraph article, quoted me as saying “Mr Lamey’s frank assessment of the state of the tax department’s processes and systems is a rare and fresh approach for a senior government official.”
But was Lamey muzzled?
After that article it seems that Lamey was effectively muzzled, at least from making disclosures in public about HMRC’s flaws. Board papers at the time indicated that senior civil servants at HMRC would, in future, have to clear their public speeches in advance. Lamey did not make a similar speech in public again, not to my knowledge at least.
Richard Bacon MP, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, spoke at the time of the apparent attempts by HMRC to silence Lamey.
“It was refreshing to have a senior IT specialist, who is familiar with the business issues, and who is prepared to identify clearly what the scale of the problems is. Unless you’ve got that degree of frankness and candour, I don’t think you’re really going to solve the underlying problems. The alternative is to be in denial, to suggest that the problems don’t exist. It is plain that they do.”
The then Shadow Treasury minister Baroness Noakes, who was formerly a partner at KPMG, said she was concerned that it was already hard for parliament to discover how well HMRC was managing its business.
She said HMRC was “apparently silencing people from telling the truth”. She added “Speaking the truth [in the public sector] in the way you do in the private sector may well not be as acceptable.”
Would Lamey have been even more influential if he had continued – in public – to point to the weaknesses HMRC needed to tackle?
So defensive is HMRC that it considered a positive PR campaign to highlight its strengths after the loss of two CDs which contained the details of 25 million people.
Can an organisation that intuitively discounts and suppresses the negatives while trumpeting the positives ever properly reform itself? Probably not. If you cannot accept you have problems you cannot resolve them. We wonder how HMRC is getting on with its part of the Universal Credit project … its officials say all is well.