Speaking at a public sector technology event in London, the department’s acting digital transformation director Brigid McBride said that the department is “dipping our toe in AI” and examining the role it might play in some of its more complicated tax operations.
Some robotics tools are also being implemented in its front-end customer service offerings, she told attendees at the Public Sector ICT event hosted in London this week by PublicTechnology parent company Dods.
“We use a lot of new channels like social media, to help deal with simple queries. We also have a virtual assistant – called Rita – a very simple robotics technology,” said McBride. “The pace of change is not slowing, the demands of our customers are growing, and our customers are moving towards self-employment. The real challenge is building an organisation that can absorb that change and adapt to it.”
HMRC has set a target of automating 10 million processes by the end of the year.
“We have been absolutely crushed by the enthusiasm,” she said. “We did a bottom-up approach instead of a big programme. We put in the capability then asked staff to identify processes that they felt could automate. We ended up with hundreds of small projects that were all things that people really cared about. With robotics, we have been working with our customer services If you have an old and ageing technology, your call centre staff [will appreciate] a simple solution that brings data together and then repopulates the legacy system.”
Research has suggested hundreds of thousands of jobs in the public sector could be rendered obsolete by automation. A study by YouGov for the Royal Society of Arts last year also found four million jobs in the British private sector could be replaced by robots in the next decade - with accountants among those in the firing line.
Despite the concerns around AI and robotics replacing jobs within working environments such as HMRC, which relies heavily on administrative talent, the department is optimistic that the fast-paced digital world will be beneficial to all.
McBride claimed that, for an aspiring data scientist, HMRC is a great place to spend a couple of years – or longer.
“People are attracted by the scale of what we do,” she said. “We do a huge amount of blogging, we tell a lot of stories of change – our people talk about the work they do,. We do a lot of growing our own – 10% of our digital workforce are apprentices. We are self-sufficient in most of our digital roles. We do not need to rely on contractors – only to grow.”