Digital and technology

Furlough: Rapidly designing and building a successful digital service

Anita Holmes, Programme Manager of HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) Covid-19 Response Programme, discusses the rapid rollout of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and the learnings to improve future digital service delivery.

On 18 March 2020, HMRC officials met with UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak MP to confirm the policy response to the national Covid-19 lockdown that would be announced by the Prime Minister five days later. From that first meeting, it took just 33 days for the CJRS to go live, 56 days for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) and 69 days for the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme.

The speed of delivery, in unprecedented circumstances, has been hailed as one of the fastest and furthest reaching successes of digital public services to date.

Holmes is proud of HMRC’s Covid-19 Response Programme and acknowledges that lessons learned from delivery have presented many opportunities to build better digital public services for the future. However, she is also quick to point out that the pace at which HMRC’s Covid response teams worked is not realistically sustainable in the long term.

“Normally projects like these would take us months to design and then we would move to delivery, and then testing. In addition, the schemes needed to be wholly digital, because we couldn’t have people claim face-to-face during the pandemic. We stood up a Covid helpline, which was up and running within five days, so that we could reassure people what was happening, explain what support they would be getting and for digitally excluded customers, make their claims manually.”

A quick summary of the scale and reach of the schemes delivered is set out in figure 1.

Holmes says that in addition, HMRC delivered over 85 Covid-related easements, from deferring VAT payments to helping new parents get Child Benefit payments they were entitled to when they couldn’t register births.

The Programme Manager explains that in designing the schemes, the Covid Response Programmes were guided by a principle of customers at the heart of all design and delivery, with three main pillars of:

  1. Centricity: Policy intent centred on the customer’s needs, translating into easy-to-use digital services with simple features to provide customer value and ease that are scalable to meet demand.
  2. Segmentation: Identifying customer segments and their needs, including those not suited to full digital service i.e., harder to reach people such as vulnerable customers, the digitally excluded etc.
  3. Behaviour: Understand customer behaviour through user research, tailoring policy, design, and service delivery to that insight.

Describing a “ruthlessly simple” delivery approach, Holmes outlines the importance of collaboration at pace, which involved an extensive network of partners ranging from HM Treasury through to IT suppliers, communications partners, legal teams, and human resources. This approach was bolstered by an early-stage approach principle of re-use rather than rebuild wherever possible.

“If we were to meet the timescales, collaboration was paramount as it had to be a one-team effort. Critically, we had to be very clear about roles, responsibilities, and accountability. Often in transformation programmes, people want clarity on what they are accountable for and what they need to deliver but actually, we all worked together, and we worked simultaneously and in parallel. That trained us in working in a very different way and showed us how we could do things differently. It meant adopting an agile approach.”

Building back better

Holmes explains that HMRC is seeking to use recent learnings to develop the culture in HMRC’s programme delivery to ensure greater flexibility.

Discussing changes that will assist in better future delivery, Holmes points to already integrated use of seven new digital systems, which has increased the appetite for embracing technology and also new ways of working.

Culturally, she sees an obvious difference of approach to delivering new programmes and this is being bolstered by an acknowledgment that customer needs will be met best when flexibility is encouraged. Additionally, she points to a shift in enabling people to work from home due to necessity, to a point of choice where HMRC are now supporting their people to work from a mix of locations — home and office — delivering training at a faster pace to ensure that they are equipped to meet demand wherever they work.

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

  • £68.9bn claimed
  • 11.7m jobs protected
  • 1.3m employers supported

Self-Employment Income Support Scheme

  • £28.1bn claimed
  • 10.4m grants awarded
  • 2.9m individuals supported

Eat Out to Help Out

  • £840m paid out
  • 49k business supported
  • 160m meals enjoyed
Figure 1

Looking to the future, Holmes believes that the pandemic response has offered insights into the key needs of digital development at speed: “We realised very early on the importance of really clear design principles, ways of working and design ownership. We also saw the value of having experienced people in place to help foster the cultural shift.

“Enabling people, who were in turn enabled by an existing good base IT infrastructure, allowed us to recognise the benefits of this collective effort and knowledge, and make best use of available and trustworthy data too.

“A customer-centric design and an agile approach to building services and IT facilitated faster and more successful delivery.”

Anita Holmes, Programme Manager of HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) Covid-19 Response Programme

However, Holmes is also quick to acknowledge that such an approach may contain drawbacks: “We are very aware that an agile approach to building services faster may mean that we take design decisions that could potentially constrain future change. As a result, we are continuously assessing our programmes to understand any impacts in the aftermath of furlough.

“Another potential constraint is that following fast and agile service delivery, the ‘clean up period’ may delay a return to business as usual. While the furlough scheme has closed, we are looking at a six-month transition back to business as usual, alongside an eye on contingencies, ensuring that we can be responsive to any future Covid-19 challenges.”

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