HMRC customer service ‘collapsed’ because of staff reductions

8th Jun 2016

A recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has outlined how the timing of staff reductions at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) resulted in longer waiting times and an increase in costs for taxpayers of up to 50%. Specific problems included extra charges because of fines for late payments, the greater cost of longer phone calls and payment calculation errors. 

HMRC reduced personal tax staff from 26,000 to 15,000 during the period 2010-15, intending to compensate for the reduction in helpline staff with its expanded digital services and automated telephony. The demand for telephone advice did not decrease, though, which led to average call waiting times tripling in the first seven months of 2015-16.

In response, HMRC recruited 2,400 extra helpline staff in the autumn of 2015.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, acknowledged the sense in HMRC attempting to improve efficiency via digital services, but was critical of its timings. “[HMRC] let significant numbers of call handling staff go before their new approach was working reliably,” he stated. “This led to a collapse in service quality and forced a rapid expansion of headcount."

Since re-expanding its headcount, HMRC has reduced waiting times for taxpayers to an average of six minutes, according to Ruth Owen, HMRC’s director general for customer services.

Morse further advised that HMRC should “move forward carefully and get their strategy back on track while maintaining, and hopefully improving, service standards.” 

According to Citizens and Customers: Further Building the Case for Customer Service in the Public Sector, research featuring 24 in-depth interviews with public sector leaders by the Institute of Customer Service, excellent customer service in the public sector requires not only consistently high standards in individual organisations, but also focused and systematic collaboration across inter-connecting agencies, departments and partnerships.

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