HMRC's Latest IT Fail - and What to Do About It

On Monday, I called Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to give them some information they wanted from me. After being placed on hold for about 10 minutes, I finally got through, and was rightly “taken through security”. After...


On Monday, I called Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to give them some information they wanted from me. After being placed on hold for about 10 minutes, I finally got through, and was rightly "taken through security". After all, it's vitally important that HMRC and similar organisations establish that the person they are talking to is indeed that person. Unfortunately, security had been "upgraded", so you probably know what is coming next....

It turned out that "the system" no longer had "enough information" on me to verify my identity. This is despite the fact that I have been bunging money to the Inland Revenue for several decades, and have also interacted with Customs & Excise and other parts of the system now run by HMRC.

I certainly have records of these interactions going back many years. I could tell them precisely the amounts that I owed and paid them back in the 1980s and 1990s, for example. It seems surprising that they didn't also have this data in a form that they could access for verification purposes.

But no; the "system", this wondrous updated beast, seemed to have mislaid all that wondrous information stuff, and so was unable to verify my identity. Which meant that through no fault of my own, I could not give the information the HMRC was demanding. It also meant that I would have to go in person to a physical HMRC office, taking with me the canonical two documents establishing my identity. That is, having wasted fully 40 minutes on an expensive 0845 number that I had the pleasure of paying for, I now had to waste a morning traipsing up to some inconveniently-located site.

Of course, when I went yesterday, it was raining. And, of course, when I got to this inconveniently-located HMRC office, thereby wasting the key time of my writing day, I was informed that this new, updated system was "down", and they they didn't know when it would be coming "up". And no, they couldn't just look at the two documents establishing my identity, and enter the info later because, well, you know, the "system was down", which meant that everyone was reduced to a state of organisational de-cerebration.

And so I face the necessity of going back to this inconveniently-located office once again, when it will doubtless be raining once more, in the risible hope that this wonderful "updated" and so-called "system" might be vaguely running, but I'm not holding my breath.

This fiasco will join all the other disasters associated with the incompetent computer services of the HMRC and its forebears, including perhaps the most serious loss of personal data in world history (well, that we know about...). And yes, I do realise that it was probably because of that colossal failure that they have upgraded their security: but the point is good security lets people do things, rather than simply locking everyone out of the system.

And the connection of this sorry saga with open source? Well, I'd hazard a guess that we are dealing with proprietary software here, and that my experience offers further compelling reasons why open source should be used instead. I don't know for sure if proprietary software is at fault here, but I do know there is something that could be done about this ridiculous state of affairs that only open source could facilitate.

Supposing the system had, indeed, been written with and as open source software. This would mean that by definition it would be available for others to download. Which would mean – in theory, at least – that people could fix some of the bugs that may contributed to people like me wasting hours thanks to downtime and the general uselessness of the code.

Now, I'm not claiming that I could do that fixing (well, not unless they write these programs in FORTRAN), but surely at least having the possibility that someone could do that has to be better than what we've got at the moment?

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