What the banking sector can learn from the HMRC COVID-19 response

When Covid-19 is finally brought under control, some sectors will be remembered for the way they stepped up and assumed responsibility during the crisis. Healthcare is the most obvious, but they are not alone.

Supermarkets and councils also played a critical role in preventing the country from sliding into meltdown. As did the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, Self Employment Income Support Scheme, Statutory Sick Pay and Eat Out to Help Out were initiatives launched quickly and decisively by the government. However, they were only made possible by the swift, accurate deployment of HMRC’s digital services built to access them.

In contrast, British banks have received their fair share of criticism for their response during the pandemic. Dealing with huge security issues and legacy systems, many within the banks struggled to react. At a time when the whole world was learning to pivot, the bank’s approach was slow and seemingly reluctant. They were dealt a severe blow when the government had to intervene with its 100 percent ‘bounce back’ loan guarantees. 

The key question now is, where can traditional banks look to learn lessons from the Covid-19 response? Simply looking at the fintech that is coming in and challenging the market is not useful. The problems traditional institutions are facing are much more complex. 

A need for greater openness to digital collaboration

The HMRC response would not have been possible without the huge effort of the people who made it happen. But the real story lies with management, culture and years of investment in people, governance, and technology. 

As a forward-thinking and customer-focused UK government department, HMRC is committed to ‘making tax digital’. However, in 2012, HMRC was a very different place. It had a legacy estate and a waterfall culture which inevitably led to projects being delivered behind schedule and over budget. In a similar position to most of the traditional financial sector, it felt like a shift to ‘digital first’ was a huge undertaking. But HMRC realised it needed to happen.

When HMRC started their transformation in 2013, they started small. They also brought in a team from Equal Experts, a consultancy they recognised could bring the technical know-how and culture of Continuous Delivery.

Over the years, this openness to third-party vendors, combined with a strong HMRC based team, has seen them move from a single team and a single site, to a multi-centre, multi disciplinary team. And through Continuous Delivery they have been able to build one of the most forward-thinking digital outputs in government.

Post Covid-19, a key challenge for banks will be to really collaborate with third-party vendors and allow their internal capabilities and culture to be challenged and improved so they can respond more quickly to emergencies.  

Creating the right culture and embracing an agile, can-do mindset

Of course, in addition to the technical process, a project of this scale and complexity warrants an equally sophisticated delivery approach. Unpicking where the barriers to progress in the banks may be, it is clear that having technology solutions in place does not automatically change behaviour. 

During their digital transformation, the HMRC teams combined a wide range of skills and expertise. This included managers who were able to understand and make decisions about what to do in business situations and experts who were adept at cutting through bureaucratic red tape. 

Adopting agile ways of working and strengthening the DevOps culture within banks is a clear way forward, but to do this there needs to be a closer link between commercial decision-makers and tech thought leaders. 

There is evidence to show an absence of senior management buy-in as being a major barrier to the adoption of newer digital approaches. It’s hard to imagine that any bank would have been able to retool in the way HMRC has during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

So what can the banking sector take from this?

It appears that financial institutions have no choice but to digitally transform business, operational, and technology functions to compete in the digital economy. However, this needs to be done sensitively and with a level of maturity that fosters a culture of openness from the top down. 

The changes at HMRC have meant a shift to agile culture, and a move of pre-existing services to a cloud-based Multi-channel Digital Tax Platform (MDTP). This has taken time, patience, collaboration, and a step-by-step approach. 

Because of this ongoing investment in culture, in a matter of days, the HMRC team had gone from being a mainly office-based workforce to having 55,000 people working from home. It allowed them to design, deliver, and implement a whole new system, capable of dealing with huge spikes in traffic. In a matter of weeks. 

This is the kind of agile response many banks will envy, but if they start now, they can quite realistically achieve.

Learn more about the HMRC Covid-19 response.

HMRC’s AWS-based Digital Tax Platform has been a key enabler to the continuous delivery of services for helping individuals and businesses impacted by COVID-19.

The large population of claimants accessing these services has meant that performance and resilience (in the face of high concurrent usage) have been key concerns during service development. Meeting such requirements can be challenging though. To help, a newly formed Equal Experts team improved resilience and performance by integrating a new third party service in just four weeks.

The challenge

To ensure that the financial relief provided by HMRC’s three COVID-19 services (JRS, SEISS, SSP) reaches the right people as quickly as possible, bank account details are validated. The unprecedented volume of traffic, peaking at 100 journeys per second, overwhelmed the third-party services used to validate bank details. HMRC wanted extra capacity and resiliency. Alongside this challenge were organisational ones: the team tasked with providing this was new and all teams are now working fully remotely.

The approach

In mid-April, HMRC connected the team with a group of suppliers (Pay.UK, Vocalink, NatWest and SurePay) to quickly integrate a new bank account checking service (provided by SurePay) with HMRC’s Tax Platform. Two weeks after the first meeting, the HMRC delivery team was cutting code and had completed an end-to-end test to SurePay’s API. Two weeks after that, the integration was live in Production, comfortably serving nearly 20 requests per second. The timing of this was incredibly fortunate: one hour after going live, SurePay’s API ended up taking 100% of the traffic, due to a capacity issue with other downstream services. 

Integrating with a third-party service in just four weeks is a massive achievement, especially in the public sector. The key differentiators that made this happen were:

  • The Tax Platform itself – Over the last seven years, Equal Experts has played a lead role in the design and evolution of the platform, working closely with a range of suppliers and HMRC colleagues to iteratively improve its support for the rapid, low-cost delivery of performant, resilient services. It’s optimised for enabling teams to form, deliver and operate fast.
  • Cross-team, cross supplier collaboration – It takes more than a single team to deliver an integration. Within HMRC, infrastructure, security and commercial teams contributed to this outcome. Externally, multiple people and teams across Pay.UK, Vocalink, NatWest, SurePay and the collaborating banks were also heavily engaged. We shortened feedback loops and maximised communication bandwidth by using cross-supplier platforms such as Slack – and having regular video conference meetings.
  • Small technical teams with blended roles – The technical part of the implementation was delivered by the Equal Experts team of four at HMRC, interacting closely with a SurePay team of three. Although the EE team has a mixture of developers, a tester and a business analyst, each consultant has the experience and a broad enough skill set to work effectively across disciplines and focus on the highest-priority activity. Developers test things, the business analyst diagnoses production issues and makes GitHub commits, and the tester writes code and deploys to production. 

The outcome

Many benefits have come from the improved capacity and resilience:

  • HMRC digital service users are less impacted by third party outages or performance issues. This is especially important for COVID-19 service users, whose digital transactions are critical to their livelihood and need to be as simple and low-stress as possible.
  • The team that operates the bank account checking service receive fewer production alerts, and have fewer incidents to deal with, so they can focus more on enhancing this and other services they own.
  • The same goes for teams that operate services that depend on the bank account checking service. This multiplies these benefits out to over 10 teams and many more services.


If you’d like to learn more about how continuous delivery can help improve business outcomes, check out our series of ExpertTalks on the topic.