HMRC chief exec: ‘Our online services are our best-kept secret’

CEO claims two-thirds of the 5.5 million callers to ITSA helpline each year could have resolved their query much quicker online – but do not always realise that is the case

As HM Revenue and Customs steers all but the highest-priority callers away from its helplines and towards its online services, the department’s chief executive has claimed the department’s digital tools are its “best-kept secret”.

From last Monday until the end of January, HMRC’s helpline for income tax self-assessment (ITSA) queries will be dedicated solely to citizens with issues that cannot be easily addressed online, or those that lack digital access. All other callers will, via an automated voice message and follow-up text, be directed to use the department’s online services.

The narrowing of the helpline’s remit – during the final weeks before the deadline for filing ITSA returns – comes after the service was switched off entirely for the quieter summer months. During this period, agents were redeployed to other lines, and callers were redirected to digital services.

HMRC has faced scrutiny – and criticism – from parliament’s Public Accounts Committee over its attempts to redirect citizens away from telephone services.

In a newly published letter to PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier, the tax agency’s CEO Jim Harra indicated that many people do not turn to digital services simply because they do no realise they can do so.

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“With satisfaction rates of above 80%, our online services are our best kept secret – too many people still don’t realise they can resolve their queries quickly on or the HMRC app, at a time that is convenient to them,” he wrote. “Instead they ring our helpline, spend their time waiting on hold, and then use our advisers’ time when that could be better used helping other customers with urgent queries that cannot be handled online.”

Harra added: “This year, callers to our SA helpline whose query can more quickly and easily be dealt with online will be directed by our interactive voice response system and helpline advisers to our highly rated online services. If our online guidance and digital assistant don’t answer the customer’s query, they will still be able to discuss their query with an HMRC adviser on webchat.”

The HMRC boss told MPs that, although 97% of the 12.5 million ITSA returns filed each year are submitted online, about 5.5 million people still call the helpline for assistance at some point. But “around two-thirds” of these calls could have been “resolved far quicker through our online services”, he said.

“We are modernising the tax system to allow more customers to self-serve and access the information they need online,” Harra added. “We are continuously expanding online and app services to enable customers to do this more and more. We also need to reduce the volume of contact through phone and post by at least 30% by 2025 compared to 2021/22 in order to deliver our service standards with the resources we have. Therefore, we will increasingly expect customers to use our online services where they can.”

Sam Trendall

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