How HMRC is working with universities to meet government’s ‘big challenge’ of competing for digital skills

Future talent chief Lisa Rowley talks to PublicTechnology about the growth of the department’s work placement scheme and why, to compete with private sector giants, government needs to ‘get out there and tell our story’

Credit: PA

For as long as government has had any need for digital skills, it seems to have been suffering from a digital skills gap.

Talk to those in the fields of recruitment and professional development – both within and without Whitehall – and you will likely hear a variation on one or more of a handful of familiar themes.

That the civil service lacks the bean bags, arcade machines, and chocolate fountains needed to attract the tech graduate of today.

That, in the tussle for talent, the big corporates have the money and marketing muscle to outmanoeuvre overworked Whitehall HR workers. Not to mention the fact that government simply cannot compete with the salaries on offer in the commercial sector.

Of course, such readings are reductive. 

But they hint at a broader truth that, in common with any other sector, government has its own singular advantages and challenges in the battle to recruit and retain the most highly skilled workers.

With a workforce of close 70,000 people, HM Revenue and Customs has to cover a bigger battlefield than most. It also needs to ensure it has the digital, data, and technology skills needed to deliver a daunting portfolio of projects.

Programmes of work such as the Customs Declaration Service, the Making Tax Digital Scheme, and the replacement of the Aspire contract are all costly, complex – and of critical national importance. 

“Unlike universities and private sector organisations, we need to get out to tell our story – rather than wait for candidates to come to us.”
Lisa Rowley, HMRC

While delivering all of these, and more, HMRC is also about a third of the way through a 10-year internal transformation plan, the goal of which is to “become a tax authority for the future”. 

In an update to that plan published earlier this year, the department stressed its desire to “to attract the best and brightest talent” in the DDaT profession. 

“We have cutting-edge systems that enable analysts to sort and sift billions of pieces of data to find discrepancies – so we need people who understand digital technology and can make the most of it,” the update says.

To help identify and engage with such people, HMRC is to ramp up its work with universities and colleges. 

The department’s digital services team already runs an annual scheme in which work placements are offered to a group of third-year undergraduates studying at various institutions around the country. The programme, which sees participants given a full-time, paid position, is designed to help students attain new skills and put the ones they have studied to practical use. 

The tax agency also believes that its incumbent digital teams benefit from the new ideas and cutting-edge technical expertise the students bring with them.

We asked Lisa Rowley, lead of the Future Talent team that forms part of HMRC’s chief digital and information office, to tell us more about what the department has gained from its engagement with education institutions so far, how it plans to develop this work in the future, and why government needs to “get out there are tell our story” – or risk losing out on talent.

PublicTechnology: How did HMRC digital services begin working with universities, and what benefits did the department hope it would bring?
Lisa Rowley: We have been working with universities for around four years now. Our Industrial Placement programme has grown over those years from around a dozen placements to 33 places per year. Our hopes were to attract talented individuals who would bring with them a wealth of transferable skills to our business. In return, we would provide quality placements with challenging roles that relate directly to the students course of study. By establishing excellent relationships with some of the country’s best universities we have been successful in that approach. We currently work with 19 universities across the country ranging from Northumbria and Newcastle in the north east, all the way down to Sussex and Brighton universities in the south.

What are you looking for from students when choosing to whom you will offer placements?
As we offer a variety of roles, we mainly look for employability skills such as organisational skills and the ability to work as part of a team, as well as particular technical skills such as the ability to code or knowledge of agile methodologies.

What kind of work do students on placement perform during their time at HMRC – do they get a chance to contribute to services that are currently live or in development?
Industrial Placements are a key component in our workforce plans. We provide them with challenging roles which give them exposure to high-profile projects and programmes that have real impact on our customers. They get to work on live services under the supervision of their mentors and also contribute towards the development of new projects such as the HMRC Anti-Phishing Project and the Inheritance Tax online service.

Number of students that will take part in the placement scheme this year

Pro rata salary for participants on placement – rising to £28,130 for those employed in London

Approximate proportion of participants who remain with the department in a part-time paid role

Number of employees across HMRC and its agencies, as of 2018 ONS statistics

Revenue collected by HMRC in 2017/18

What can incumbent HMRC digital staff gain from the students on placement?
Our staff gain a huge amount from placement students; first and foremost, they bring fresh thinking and new ideas to the business. Our staff can also gain the opportunity to coach and supervise a student, increasing their leadership and coaching skills.

And what are the most important things the students gain from spending time at HMRC?
Enhancing students’ employability is key to their success. We give them the opportunity to gain experience in working for an organisation that is undergoing radical change. We are going through a major transformation process which will improve the digital services for our customers and our placement students get the opportunity to be right at the heart of our journey. Students also get the opportunity to be trained, supported and coached by some of the most experienced and skilled IT people in the country, as well as working in our state-of-the-art Digital Delivery Centres across our locations.

How big a challenge does government face in attracting digital and technology talent?
It’s a big challenge for all organisations at this time, as there are a lot of companies chasing the same candidates. Government and HMRC specifically rely on the depth and breadth of the opportunities we offer, but we compete with the lure of large consultancies and private sector organisations. Also, there’s a perception that we only do ‘tax’, and not an awareness that we cover the full gambit of professions from HR and estates, to finance and IT – as well as the traditional policy and process domains.

How does HMRC try to make government an attractive place for aspiring digital professionals to work and develop?
We have to make our offer more visible. We work within schools, and with teachers and parents to sell the benefit of a government career which can start in many ways, for example an apprenticeship. We promote the huge scale of the opportunity, the importance of our work and the benefit to their prospective career. We highlight who you will have access to – mentoring and tutoring opportunities that simply don’t exist outside the civil service. We have a great offer and a great story to tell – and we need to get out there and tell it. We are building our future talent pipeline, our talent is our biggest asset and, unlike universities and private sector organisations, we need to get out to tell our story – rather than wait for candidates to come to us, and our most successful way is through our social media and outreach programmes.

Different roles are available in the 2019 scheme: Computer scientist; computer statistician; associate user researcher; cyber analyst; cyber security technologist; project support officer; software developer; DevOps engineer; PMO analyst; business analyst; interaction designer; content designer; reporting analyst (x2); and governance and insight officer (x2)


HMRC offices are offering placements: Cardiff; Liverpool; London; Manchester; Newcastle; Shipley; Southend; Telford; and Worthing

Will working with local universities become increasingly important as HMRC – and the civil service more widely – becomes less London-centric, with more offices and hubs across the UK?
Yes, of course – universities give us greater breadth and opportunity. We are also able to tap into that university experience. It’s symbiotic though – we give universities access to all the opportunities in government. The work we do is important to UK Plc, so universities get a chance to work on that more closely than before. It is true that we are greater than the sum of our parts – for our mutual students and in solving some of mutual challenges. Such a collaboration helps to attract funding – increasing the offer to our students even more so.  We are working with a wider range of universities now, more so than ever before, and that is primarily due to the moves to regional centres – we need to tap into the talent in every corner of the country, from all walks of life and offer opportunities in as many regions as possible.


What happens after placements are completed, and do students typically stay with the department and progress into more senior roles?
At the end of the placement our students return to university to carry out their final year, taking with them the transferable skills they have built up with HMRC. Around 10% of our students remain with us on a part-time basis, we accommodate their hours around their studies and then, on graduation, invite them to apply for permanent vacancies with HMRC, with some going on to promotion within.


Sam Trendall

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