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Tony Collins

Tony Collins is an investigative and campaigning journalist and former Executive Editor at Computer Weekly. With his friend and colleague David Bicknell he wrote "Crash", which found common factors in the world's largest public and private sector IT-related failures. He wrote "Open Verdict", a book on the strange deaths of defence scientists. He writes, and gives talks, on the tensions and disputes between suppliers and users.

Has two decades of outsourcing cut costs at HMRC?

To ask the question is to know the answer

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If HMRC’s experience is anything to go by, outsourcing can, in the long-term, at least triple an organisation’s IT costs.

When Inland Revenue contracted out its 2,000-strong IT department to EDS, now HP, in 1994 it was the first major outsourcing deal in central government.

Costing a projected £1.03bn over 10 years the outsourcing was a success, according to the National Audit Office in a report in March 2000. The deal enabled Inland Revenue to bring about changes in tax policy to a tight timetable, said the NAO’s Inland Revenue/EDS Strategic Partnership - Award of New Work.

But costs soared for vague reasons. Something called “post-contract verification” added £203m to the £1.03bn projected cost over 10 years. A further increase of £533m was because of “workload increases including new work”. Another increase of £248m was put down to inflation.

By now the deal with HP had risen from £1.03bn to about £2bn.

When the contract expired in 2004, HM Revenue and Customs and HP successfully transferred the IT staff to Capgemini. The new 10-year contract from 2004 to 2014 (which was later extended 2017) had a winning bid price of £2.83bn over 10 years.

So by 2004 the costs of outsourcing had risen from £1.03bn to £2.83bn.

The new contract in 2004 was called ASPIRE - Acquiring Strategic Partners for Inland Revenue. HMRC then added £900m to the ASPIRE contract for Fujitsu’s running of Customs & Excise systems. By now there were about 3,800 staff working on the contract.

The NAO said in its report in July 2006 - ASPIRE, the re-competition of outsourced IT services - that Gateway reviews had identified the need for a range of improvements in the management of the contract and projects.

Now costing £7.7bn over 10 years

The latest outsourcing costs have been obtained by Computing. It found that annual fees paid to Capgemini under ASPIRE were:

  • 2008/09: £777.1m
  • 2009/10: £728.9m
  • 2010/11: £757.8m
  • 2011/12: £735.5m
  • 2012/13: £773.5m

So IT outsourcing costs have soared again. The original 10-year costs of outsourcing in 1994 were put at £1.03bn. Then the figure became about £2bn, then £2.83bn, then £3.7bn when Fujitsu’s contract was added to ASPIRE. Now annual IT outsourcing costs are running at about £770m a year - £7.7bn over 10 years.

So the original IT running costs of Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise have, under outsourcing contracts, more than tripled in about two decades.

Comment:

What happened to the prevailing notion that IT costs fall over the long-term, and that outsourcing brings down costs even further?

Shouldn’t HMRC’s IT costs be falling anyway because of reduced reliance on costly Fujitsu VME mainframes, reductions in data centres, modernisation of PAYE, and the clearance of time-consuming unreconciled items on more than 10 million tax files?

HMRC knows how much profit Capgemini makes under “open book” accounting. It’s a margin of about 10-15% says the NAO. Lower margins are for value-added service lines and higher margins for riskier projects. If the overall target profit margin of 12.3% is exceeded, HMRC can obtain an equal share of the extra profits.

There were 10 failures costing £3.25m in the first 15 months. Capgemini refunded £2.67m in service credits in the first year of the contract.

It’s also worth mentioning that Capgemini doesn’t get all the ASPIRE fees. It is the lead supplier in which there are around 300 subcontractors - including Fujitsu and BT. Capgemini pays 65% of its fees to its subcontractors.

The outsourcing has helped to enable HMRC to bring in self-assessment online and other changes in tax policy. But HMRC’s quality of service generally (and not exclusively IT) is mixed, to put it politely.

The adjudicator for HMRC who intervenes in particularly difficult complaints identifies as particular problems the giving out of inaccurate information and recording information incorrectly.

She says in her 2013 annual report:

“I am disappointed at the number of complaints HMRC customers feel they need to refer to me in order to get resolution. My role should be to consider the difficult exceptions, not handle routine matters that are well within the capability of departmental staff to resolve successfully. At a time of austerity it is also important to note that the cost of dealing with customer dissatisfaction increases exponentially with every additional level of handling.”

RTI

There are complaints among payroll companies and specialists that real-time information is not working as well as HMRC has claimed. There seems to be growing irritation with, for example, HMRC’s saying that companies owe much more than they do actually owe. And HMRC has been sending out thousands of tax codes that are wrong or change frequently - or both.

HMRC says it has made improvements but the helpline is appalling. It’s not unusual for callers to wait 30 minutes or more for an answer - or to hang on through multifarious automated messages only to be cut off.

That said there are signs HMRC is, in general, improving slowly. Chief executive of HMRC since 2012 Lin Homer is more down-to-earth and slightly more willing to own up to HMRC’s mistakes than her predecessors, and the fact that RTI and the modernisation of PAYE has got as far as it has is creditable.

But is HMRC a shining example of outsourcing at its best, of outsourcing that cuts costs in the long term? No. A decade of HP and a decade of Capgemini has shown that with outsourcing HMRC can cope, just about, with major changes in tax policy to demanding timetables. But the costs of the outsourcing contracts in the two decades since 1994 have more than tripled.

What about G-Cloud? We look forward to a change in direction from the incoming head of IT Mark Dearnley (if he has much say).

**

A Deloitte survey “The trend of bringing IT back in-house” dated February 2013, said that 48% of respondents in its Global Outsourcing and Insourcing survey 2012 reported that they had terminated an outsourcing agreement early, or for cause, or convenience. Those that took IT services back in-house mentioned cost reduction as a factor. Deloitte said factors included:


  • The need for additional internal quality control due to poor quality from the outsourcer

  • An increase in the price of service delivery through scope creep and excessive change orders.

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