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HMRC staff lack 10,000 hours of tax experience

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.

14th May 2020
Independent VAT Consultant
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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.

10,000 hours

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.

The Beatles

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 challenges

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?

The result

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. 

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Replies (10)

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By Peter Anderson
14th May 2020 15:40

I've spent 10,000 hours on hold ringing HMRC, does that count?

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Replying to Peter Anderson:
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By AndyC555
14th May 2020 17:04

You call was important to them.

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By sammerchant
16th May 2020 15:46

And you are a customer without a choice of supplier!

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By Justin Bryant
14th May 2020 16:48

What is the big deal with this 10,000 hours thing? This bloke has simply put a round sum general estimate figure on the old saying "practice makes perfect". Hardly revolutionary is it? Worse still is basing an obvious HMRC inexperience problem on this as if it's somehow insightful.

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Replying to Justin Bryant:
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By Rgab1947
15th May 2020 09:50

Relax. Lock down must be getting to you.

He is just making a point and using a number to make it.

And here I wanted to take up the violin but 4,000 hours just to get to a decent standard. Too much. Will get 10,000 hours playing tiddlywinks whilst holding on the phone for software support/HMRC/911 etc.

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Replying to Rgab1947:
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By Justin Bryant
15th May 2020 18:00

Yes, a rant I know. But it's not just me. I have just read an article saying basically the same as follows: "It is a classic example of dressing something up to be new and fancy when in fact there is nothing new or sophisticated at all."

Furthermore, I expect this bloke's sampling is biased in that it focuses on successes and mostly ignores the failures e.g. those who spend 10,000 hours trying to sing yet still sound like a strangled cat.

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Tornado
By Tornado
14th May 2020 22:31

I must be an expert on Windows updates. I have spent at least 10,000 hours waiting for something to happen.

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By Rgab1947
15th May 2020 09:51

It will. Blue screen anyone?

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By pauljohnston
15th May 2020 10:52

Most of my (wasted) time dealing with HMRC relates to putting thisngs right.

Currently the 10 days for a PAYE reference is one month - whom do I contact, yep the helpline so will be hanging on over my 10000 hours

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By dul50n
15th May 2020 13:00

Oh right, I see

So the reason why the VAT Annual Accounting Unit based my client's new monthly installment on their turnover rather than the previous year's total VAT liability and cleared their bank account of £30,000 instead of £2,600 is because there's nobody there with 10,000 hours experience

Here's me thinking it's incompetence and negligence

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