Talking transformation with UK tax chief Jon Thompson

Brexit-inspired change is already rippling through the UK government. New departments are springing up, civil servants are switching roles, and the machinery of Whitehall is gearing up for a once-in-a-generation era of transformation. Governments, though, are always changing and adapting to different circumstances – and the UK is no exception. One only has to look at Jon Thompson’s career to realise that policymaking often finds itself in flux. His previous roles at the Ministry of Defence saw him first – as its finance director – address a £38 billion budgetary black hole, and then – as permanent secretary – oversee a vast reorganisation and reduce spending by 20%. No wonder he was first in line for a similarly daunting role at the country’s tax and customs organisation, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Actually, “daunting” is not how he saw it when he joined four months ago. “I was told that HMRC needed to go through the largest organisational change programme in Europe,” he recalls. “I thought ‘that sounds quite good fun’ and it’s why I took the job. And it is – it’s great fun.”

Lifting the lid on tax

HMRC’s role in the system couldn’t be more important. It collects the money that pays for the UK’s public services and administers targeted financial support for families and individuals. It is also responsible for cracking down on tax evasion and fraud. With almost every citizen and business in the UK as its direct customer, it should come as no surprise that it has one of the largest departmental workforces – clocking in at more than 58,000 staff.

Its sheer scale means that Thompson places a high premium on getting out and about, away from the head office in London. “It’s really important to communicate as much as you can,” he says. “So I travel as much as I can. This is my fourth month and I have made 35 visits. I also blog as regularly as I can, we put out a weekly diary which people can interact with, they can email me and I tweet as well. What we’re trying to do is to say that ‘I’m here, you can talk to me, I’ll listen and travel and engage as much as possible’.”

He goes on to say there are “fantastic benefits” in meeting with frontline staff. “People are incredibly proud of what they do and they want to show you what they do,” he says. “My job is to listen respectfully, make some enquiries, see what’s really worrying them and see if I can fix it.”

His leadership style – approachable, down-to-earth, collaborative – stems partly from earlier chapters in his career. “I’ve been the chief finance officer of four different organisations and when you’re in this role you’re generally on the board seeing how a chief executive does things,” he points out. “Some of the best people I’ve worked for are very good at engaging and communicating with people. If you talk to people and they show you what they’re doing, you have a better handle on how the business is really doing.”

Into a digital world

A key component of HMRC’s vision for the future is a greater reliance on digital technology to transform its services to both citizens and businesses. It has already made good progress – nearly three million users are signed up for the Personal Tax Account and over five million businesses have a digital account that they can use to interact with HMRC and fill in their returns – but there is scope to do even more.

“We have the opportunity to grow one of the biggest digital businesses in Europe,” says Thompson. “Our challenge is to take what was a very distributed organisation and turn it into one that is digital and information-savvy, one that serves customers, so if they want to do a benefits claim or do their tax return on a Sunday afternoon, they can either get through on the phone or do it digitally online.”

While gratified by the progress so far, he admits successes like enabling individuals to submit their tax return online raise citizen expectations about what comes next. “We’re running with a customer satisfaction rate of 78% and we’ve researched why it isn’t higher and the answer is that it is a great offering but ‘can we do more?’ It means the bar continues to rise,” he says.

“There is also always an inherent tension between us pushing customers down this route and whether it’s what they actually want. So what you need is a range of different offerings. Some people may want to use a form or do it over the phone or a web chat, or they have some specific needs where they require a very personalised service or need a trusted advisor. But I think our digital offering is good and will continue to get better.”

“We’re trying to learn from the best digital organisations in the UK – we’ve interacted with a couple of banks which have a great reputation, particularly in relation to mobile offerings,” says Thompson. “So it opens up that possibility. And some of the stuff that we’re doing with robotics is world-class. We can put in a form, the robot ‘screen-scrapes’ it and takes the information and puts it into our systems without anyone keying it in – which is fantastically good.”

The change-maker

Thompson’s success in calmly steering organisations through the choppy waters of transformation means that his insights on how to implement change – real change – are much in demand. He says that for someone in a leadership role, eyes on the prize remains crucial.

“My job is to set out the long-term vision, explain the bones of the programme, get over the barriers to success while continuing to exude a positive attitude to what we’re doing,” he explains. “For HMRC, we need to completely reorientate the organisation into this digital, customer-centric world. We’re trying to collect tax but in a convenient way for the customer. There is a whole world of possibility there. So you’ve got a vision, and then you have to build the bones of how that vision can come about, and then you have to get people on board with that vision.”

Fortunately, the recruitment of top quality personnel remains undiminished. “I’ve got some fantastic people doing amazing things in difficult circumstances and everywhere I go I meet really positive people.” And he agrees with the suggestion that the public service ethos in the UK remains more than enough to counter the higher salaries that may be on offer in the private sector.

“Pay is one aspect about why you choose to do a job, but it’s not the only thing,” he points out. “For people where that is the bottom line, by the time they get to management and leadership grades then it’s highly likely they will go and do something else. But for people who see it as one factor in a range of factors, and want to do something interesting and challenging, then joining the civil service is a great thing to do because you can wrestle with some of the biggest issues in the world. Take Brexit for example, it provides an opportunity for us to demonstrate the best of the civil service, ensuring that Britain walks away from Europe with the best possible deal. It is a fantastically challenging and intellectually stimulating place to work and that’s why I stay.”

Another reason is that, despite the hurdles that crop up, Thompson undoubtedly has that priceless knack of getting things done – even in large and challenging government departments. “Most public sector organisations are more bureaucratic than private sector organisations, but bureaucracies aren’t just born – they grow and creep up over a long period of time,” he says. “Eventually you have to stop and commit to reducing this.”

Sounds easier said than done? Perhaps, but it can be achieved. “What we did at the Ministry of Defence was something called the ‘Red Tape Challenge’, where we sat down and worked out what all the rules were – about 350 – and agreed to get it lower,” recalls Thompson. “And we did, we got it down to 150, and it has continued to fall. And we’ve just started this project here.

“So if you talk to someone about what is frustrating about being in a contact centre in Newcastle they’ll tell you, and then it is incumbent on people like me to go and change it, or remove the rule or make it more appropriate. Over time, if you keep this in view, you can radically change bureaucracy and decision-making.”



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