Mark Dearnley to leave HMRC in “day of the digital long knives”

HMRC’s chief digital officer Mark Dearnley is to leave the department when his contract runs out in September, it has been announced.

Dearnley, who has been overseeing the replacement of HMRC’s £10bn Aspire IT contract, said he was moving back into the private sector.

The announcement comes just days after the Public Accounts Committee published a report saying that without consistent leadership the replacement could falter.

During the committee’s inquiry hearing with Dearnley and HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson, committee member and MP for South Norfolk Richard Bacon said the department should aim to keep Dearnley.

At the time, HMRC chief executive Jon Thompson implied the department wanted to retain Dearnley, saying: “We all share the same aspiration. We are in negotiations.”

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And in its final report, the PAC urged HMRC to “ensure continuity in the leadership of the Aspire programme to maximise its ability to design and introduce a new IT model successfully”.

It said: “As we have seen from elsewhere in government, one of the main factors that determines the success of complex programmes such as this is the quality and stability of their leadership.”

The replacement of the Aspire contract with Capgemini, which was the largest single IT deal in Whitehall, is part of a civil-service-wide move away from long-term, high-cost contracts.

However, HMRC has come under fire for the way it managed the switch from the Aspire contract with Capgemini, and recently chose to adopt a phased approach to ending the deal – which was initially due to end in 2017 – between 2015 and 2020.

The department also announced last week that it had renewed another long-term contract, this one an extension of a 20-year deal with Accenture, until June 2020.

However, a statement from Dearnley indicated that he felt the department had made major steps towards the goal of replacement legacy systems and contracts.

“We have replaced our outdated internal IT, launched digital tax accounts for individuals and businesses, and have successfully concluded negotiations to dismantle the Aspire IT contract, taking more direct control of the design and delivery of our digital technology services at huge cost savings for HMRC,” Dearnley said.

The move coincided with the departure of Stephen Foreshew-Cain as the leader of the Government Digital Service – the central government body charged with overseeing Whitehall’s digital transformation.

But the changes have been met with dismay by some commentators, with one former Government Digital Service senior leader describing yesterday as “a day of the digital long knives” – referring also to the sudden departure of GDS chief Stephen Foreshew-Cain.

Meanwhile, government national technology adviser Liam Maxwell praised Dearnley’s work, writing on Twitter: “Good luck with your new venture. Thank you for great job at #HMRC. You’ve delivered in one of the toughest gigs in any govt.”

Dearnley will be replaced by the department’s director of digital transformation, Mike Potter, on an interim basis, with HMRC planning to open a competition for the new chief digital and information officer soon.

Potter has been in the civil service since 2007 and joined HMRC in November 2014, following roles in NHS Blood and Transplant and the Environment Agency.


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