By Tony Collins
Years ago HMRC embraced openness by publishing minutes of its executive committee meetings.
Members of the monthly meetings of the HMRC “ExCom” [executive committee] include Lin Homer, the Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary, and CIO Phil Pavitt. ExCom is the decision-making executive of HMRC.
The problem is that Excom minutes have been almost creatively uninformative. This is despite the cost to taxpayers of an ExCom meetings secretariat which provides support to the committee, co-ordinates papers and attends to take minutes.
Over the years the Excom members have changed of course, but the minutes from the start have parodied open government.
In its reporting what is said at Excom meetings, HMRC, it would appear, has rules based on a variation of BBC’s “Just a Minute”. The title of the discussion can be mentioned as often as participants like but it’s against the rules to mention what HMRC does or decides.
In June Excom members discussed progress on RTI, HMRC’s highest-profile project, Real-Time Information, which is an essential part of Universal Credit. This was recorded in the minutes under the heading RTI Overview … “The Committee went on to consider a range of elements…” The minutes made no mention of any element.
This would be the ideal entry in HMRC Excom minutes:
6.2 Staff Survey
Excom members discussed the Staff Survey. The chairman and some members made remarks on the results. The discussion was wide-ranging and informative. It included matters relating to risk and opportunities. The results of the Staff Survey having been summarised, conclusions were reached, particularly on matters relating to HMRC, and proposals made for recommendations. A number of recommendations were agreed, some of which would be actioned shortly. Without any further discussion, and by a tacit mutual consent, members moved to the next item on the agenda.
Actual extracts from latest Excom minutes
Below are the first four items, taken from the latest Excomm minutes (the latest being 26 June 2012). I haven’t made these up.
If anyone reading these minutes is any the wiser about HMRC’s operations, and what recommendations have been agreed, please contact the department and let them know that a convention has been breached.
Executive Committee summary minutes of meeting held on 26 June 2012
Simon Bowles (Chair), Lin Homer, Dave Hartnett, Mike Falvey, Mike Eland, Stephen Banyard, Jim Harra, Phil Pavitt, Paul Gerrard (deputising for Craig Pemberton), Anthony Inglese.
Carol Bristow, Richard James, Stephen Hardwick, Will Cavendish (Cabinet Office Implementation Unit), Vicky Ranson (for item 2), Will Meehan (for item 3), Marie-Claire Uhart (for item 5), Janet Alexander (for item 6), John Atkinson (Secretariat).
Apologies: Craig Pemberton
1.1 Simon Bowles opened the meeting and confirmed that Mike Falvey would be responsible for the meeting review and Stephen Hardwick would be responsible for drafting the key messages. He welcomed Paul Gerrard, who was deputising for Craig Pemberton. He also welcomed Will Cavendish, who was observing the meeting in the hub.
1.2 The minutes of the May 2012 meeting were agreed.
2. Risks to revenue raised
2.1 The Committee received a presentation on work aimed at increasing understanding of our 2011-12 performance and identifying the risks to the sustainability of this level of performance for the remainder of the SR period. They agreed to commission further work and to review the outcomes of this at their September 2012 meeting.
3. Performance hub
3.1 Following an overview of performance by the CFO, the relevant Directors General led a discussion around the hub visualisations on the following key aspects of current performance – revenue raised, debt, tax credit error and fraud, contact centre performance, attendance management and employee engagement.
3.2 The Committee also discussed current causes for concern and risks related to departmental performance.
4. Causes for Celebration
4.1 The Committee reviewed the Causes for Celebration contained in the performance report.
It’s a pity the Excom minutes are so defensive, even obfuscatory; and it’s almost certainly because of HMRC’s culture and not the wish of members. Phil Pavitt is by any standard open and straightforward. He would probably change HMRC’s culture if he could. But could anybody?
Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing (Ralph Emerson). Clearly HMRC is in the business of astonishing nobody.
There is something revealing in the minutes, however. Now and again detail infiltrates them – and it is self-congratulatory.
“The Committee reviewed the Causes for Celebration contained in the performance report.”
And on Real-Time Information …
“Stephen Banyard [An HMRC Director General] opened the session by giving a summary of progress to date in this area and the positive feedback received from customers, rep bodies and trade press.”
So while HMRC is facing significant levels of fraud and error – the National Audit Office has qualified HMRC’s accounts for the last 12 years – the Excom board appears to be in search of every opportunity to slap itself on the back.
The Excom minutes at least have a dream-like quality to them. Perhaps, like Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the Excom Board members will overcome all the challenges and monsters and eventually reach the Celestial City. They may then wake up. Maybe.