Public Services > Central Government

HMRC’s Jacky Wright optimistic on Customs Declaration Service delivery

David Bicknell Published 20 December 2017

New HMRC CDIO insists “I don’t see anything that is inhibiting us from delivering on our agenda” and highlights growing use of robotics in department’s transformation toolkit


New HM Revenue & Customs chief digital and information officer (CDIO) Jacky Wright has painted an optimistic picture of HMRC’s prospects of delivering the Customs Declaration Service (CDS) against the backdrop of the developing Brexit landscape.

Wright, who has only been in her role for eight weeks, says HMRC is in good shape to complete delivery of CDS, the successor to the highly regarded, but now long-in-the-tooth Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) system.

Despite its age, an enhanced CHIEF is itself having to be lined up as a backstop in case CDS isn’t ready, requiring £7.3m extra funding from the Treasury that has yet to be forthcoming.

The Public Accounts Committee has been worried over CHIEF funding, and encouraged HMRC to push the Treasury to ensure the CHIEF money is available. It has said HMRC needs to up the urgency of its conversation with the Treasury to get the £7.3m needed to upgrade CHIEF to be able to deal with the potential 255m customs declarations that could be made each year. However, HMRC is already pressing ahead with the CHIEF work and it is highly unlikely that the Treasury funding will not ultimately be forthcoming.

Wright, however, speaking in an interview discussing her new role, remains upbeat and optimistic about HMRC’s ability to deliver on CDS while also highlighting the key ‘stopgap’ role that is going to be played by APIs and robotics as HMRC sets itself to be as flexible as possible to cope with Brexit uncertainty.

“So there are a couple of things I’ve been doing my rounds to make sure I’m getting my deep-dives and getting my ‘hazing activity’ in terms of understanding what we’re doing, “ she said. “It’s quite clear that we were on the CDS agenda before Brexit. And so when you think about that, there’s an element of ‘OK. So we’re already doing this.’

“Look at CHIEF.  It is old! I sat there and asked, ‘What sort of database do you have?” and they said, ‘IDMS’, and I almost fell out of my chair. It is old. And so we recognise that. So we were already on the path to deliver on that.  The question is more, ‘Does Brexit change anything? What does it accelerate? What’s the difference?’ And from my perspective, based on what I’ve seen, I don’t see anything that is inhibiting us from delivering on our agenda. I really don’t. The plan is in place. The milestones that we’re delivering to date are on track. Of course, you have to do performance testing to make sure it can handle that. But as far as I’m concerned, right now, I don’t see anything that would (stop us delivering).”

Wright, though, recognises that HRMC will need plenty of flexibility in terms of the policies that it is implementing.

“Absolutely. And if you think about technology and the modularisation of what you have, and APIs and things like that. Your ability to build, ‘What if?’ scenarios makes that more flexible. And so that’s the way it works. How does that change some of the interfaces? Does it change the modular things, because those things will be in effect ‘microservices’ that are built within your estate? It’s then a matter of OK, how far do you go this way or that way? Oh, and do you have a contingency plan in place if something doesn’t work?”

Wright, who has a long track record of technology delivery at organisations such as BP and General Electric (GE) as well as more recently at Microsoft, intends to draw on her experience to deliver the CDS project.  

“I’ve been working on many large scale projects, and so, I do feel I have the right team in place. I feel that we’re thinking through. We have all the considerations and the key is to make sure that you plan for and you have the necessary contingencies. Again, I talk about the modularisation to be able to do all the ‘What ifs?’ and understand their impact and build that into your plan. Then I feel comfortable.”

Looking specifically at CHIEF, Wright suggests that with any old system, there is an element of life support and then there’s an element of ‘what do we need to do for the future?’

“And when you think about what you need to do for the future, it’s very hard to transform a 25 year old system. Very hard, especially when 25 years ago, we were talking about relational in a different way than we are today. So you have to think about that. And the challenge would be, “I want to be quick and innovative as it relates to the customs stuff. How do I do that and interact it with the legacy system?’ That would be the bigger challenge, right? You don’t want an old way of working at the front end. You want a new way of working. So can that new way of working interact very quickly to a legacy, kind of putting lipstick on a pig? The question would be, can you do that? I would say that would be the bigger challenge. If you were trying to put new ways of working, new technologies to be able to interact with the old, that would be a bigger challenge than anything else. That’s because you’re not going to re-architect. You don’t have time to re-architect.”

A key strategy for HMRC going forwards, Wright says, will be taking advantage of robotics.

“Robotics is a good strategy for anyone, and for HMRC in particular. Robotics is that stop-gap, that build-that-bridge to be able to handle (things) while you’re going to ‘new’, wherever it is you’re going. And I think that strategy alone has helped us bridge a lot of the old systems to some of the new digital things that we want to do. For the new, you want to be able to do a lot more machine learning, cognitive stuff, because of the nature of the business that we’re in. It’s all about customers. How do you build that intelligence, the artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) that you want? That’s where we want to focus. So yes, the stop-gap has been on the robotics side.”

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