HMRC staff lack 10,000 hours of tax experienceby
Neil Warren speculates on how Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘outliers’ theory on the importance of practice and experience in a vocation will apply in the post-coronavirus world of tax.
An accountant I was chatting with on the telephone had read my article about incorrect VAT advice given by HMRC’s helpline service. “Why do you think they struggle to get things right?” he asked.
“Because it is very difficult for HMRC staff to get in their 10,000 hours of VAT,” I replied. He was confused by my reply.
The reference to 10,000 hours is from a concept popularised by the Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’. The 10,000 hour-rule is the idea that a person needs to devote that many hours to their chosen subject before they are considered to be an expert.
Gladwell gives the example of The Beatles, who performed for eight hours a night and seven days a week over a three-year period at night clubs in Hamburg before they made it to the big time. He also refers to the time spent by Bill Gates mastering computer programming in the 1970s.
He notes that although a violinist probably needs 4,000 hours of practice in order to achieve the standard necessary to teach other violinists, 10,000 hours are needed to achieve soloist status at top venues.
What does it mean?
There is no doubt that redundancies and early retirements will be a feature of the post-lockdown period. This will be relevant for many sectors of the economy, including accountancy and tax. It will be tempting for businesses and HMRC to lay-off experienced staff, who perhaps have fewer working years ahead of them.
But will this mean sacrificing the expertise and experience of staff who have put in their 10,000 hours in tax, audit work or accountancy, and still enjoy the challenges it brings? I hope not.
HMRC as an organisation has made a lot of staff redundant in recent years and there is no doubt that many experienced officials have been among the those who have left. But there is another issue: ambitious HMRC staff might work for a few years in tax compliance, a few years in a management role and a few more years doing some project or policy work on, say, Brexit. How many staff will be in a position to get in their 10,000 hours in one subject, such as VAT or corporation tax?
For many professions and organisations, a balance of youth, experience and energetic enthusiasm will be needed in the difficult times ahead. But from our side of the fence, I think it is even more important that we try and resolve technical VAT issues by using the range of HMRC manuals, public notices, articles on AccountingWEB, chatrooms with colleagues, case law and other resources, rather than ringing HMRC’s helpline service.
If you must contact HMRC, just be patient in recognising that the person you are speaking to might not be experienced in their role. They may have only 100 hours of experience in tax rather than the necessary 10,000 to be an expert.