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Whitehall at war: Govt’s webocrats trash vital digital VAT site

'Not invented here'

Special Report Open warfare has broken out in Whitehall after the Government’s own much-hyped in-house IT team, GDS, publicly trashed a new VAT service vital to small digital businesses. The Register understands the service works well - but didn’t use GDS and was failed for meeting its taste guidelines.

This week the Government Digital Service disparaged the HRMC’s new VAT Mini One Stop Shop – which is designed to cope with new EU VAT rules which come into effect on 1 January – on its blog. Digital businesses selling apps, games and ebooks are affected by the VAT changes.

The system functions well, we understand, but doesn’t conform to GDS’s taste, expressed in its bureaucratic guidelines. GDS's issues with the system raise questions about the Cabinet Office’s ability to "sabotage" departmental services it doesn’t like.

"We have put the VAT MOSS service in place to help businesses meet the requirements of new EU rules as easily as possible. It has been rigorously tested to ensure it is secure and works well,” an HMRC spokesman told us.

Sources familiar with the project told us that HMRC was unable to use GDS because it lacks the skills required to deliver the system on time – a familiar departmental complaint – and used external contractors to complete the project. One source shrugged off the "disapproval" as an attempt to discredit initiatives that don’t do things the GDS way, and for which the GDS cannot take credit.

Why doesn’t GDS like the new VAT system?

The reasons for GDS trashing the new VAT service are arcane.

GDS claims the new VAT service didn’t follow GDS's bureaucratic “service manual". And it also suggests that the VAT site might not be easily familiar to users who’ve never used a VAT site before.

“A great deal of reliance is placed on the user having experience of the VAT transaction in the same portal”, notes GDS, sniffily. This, apparently, is a bad thing. A source familiar with the project told us this illustrates GDS's lack of real experience: the VAT portal is not a general purpose public website.

The service also “fails” the VAT one-stop-shop service for failing to follow “Digital by Default Service Standard criteria”.

However, a developer familiar with Whitehall IT told us: "GDS guidelines are confusing, contradictory and not even necessarily industry best practice. Some are authoritative and concise. But they're contradicted all the time."

"Pro-active developers and teams are left with little choice but to get on with it and cover their arses by providing some means to revert the code,” our source explained.

One HMRC told us the tax department was continuing to educate GDS staff.

By establishing and hyping GDS, the Cabinet Office had increased its own influence and weakened the capacity of departments to develop their own systems, our sources told us. As a result, the government is now more reliant than ever on contract developers, sources say. A Labour Party review recently recommended moving power over IT projects back to departmental CIOs.

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