Customs and Excise must balance its service between collective and individual customers. Such judgments are not easy, says Valerie Strachan.
The public sector has increasingly been adopting the language of the private sector. Many of us speak of our organisations as 'businesses', complete with 'mission statements', priorities, aims, objectives and targets. On the whole this reflects a good, healthy drive towards a more purposeful and efficient organisation. But some of the language can come across as a little quaint. How about 'service to the customer', for instance?
For a start, who are the customers of HM Customs and Excise? We collect indirect taxes and we try to stop the smuggling of drugs and other prohibited and restricted goods. We have to collect the taxes as economically, efficiently, and effectively as possible, and - in the grandiloquent phrase we use in our management plan - protect society. In one sense, our customers are a series of collectives: the country as a whole; ministers; parliament; the tax-paying public. The concept of customer service, on the other hand, is essentially about service to individuals. And there is usually an implication that the individual can decide whether or not to buy. On the whole, the customers of a government department or agency don't have the choice of going elsewhere. Furthermore, while the person who goes to, say, the benefits agency hopes to obtain benefit from doing so, it isn't quite like that with Customs and Excise. Indeed, one can reasonably suppose that an individual business, or an individual traveller, would just as soon not be our customer at all.
It would be all too easy for a department whose object in life is to extract taxes and stop people from doing things to shelter behind all that, and say that customer service is not relevant to us. But, of course, it is. Businesses need help to find their way through sometimes complex legislation. People expect us to be efficient and friendly in our dealings with them as individuals. And they expect us to be sympathetic to their difficulties.
It may surprise some, but Customs and Excise staff recognise these expectations very well, and try to live up to them. But one of the problems has been that, as an organisation, we have tended to set our objectives to meet the needs of our collective customers rather than those of the individuals with whom we deal. We have set clear objectives to secure the right tax at the right time, and to prevent drugs from entering the UK.
We also need to plan for the quality of our service to individuals, and to measure it. This is all Citizen's Charter territory. We are now signed up to a Taxpayer's Charter, a VAT Charter Standard, a Traveller's Charter, an Excise and Inland Customs Charter Standard, and are about to release the snappily-titled Customs Charter Standards for Importers and Exporters. All contain measures of service against which we can be judged. We are also carrying out a major survey programme in all our businesses to find out what our customers think of our service.
We have revised our complaints procedures to underwrite Charter principles in all areas. This has meant changes to the guidance on complaints handling which we issue to our people and a new version of the public notice on how to complain to Customs and Excise. And we are about to sample the views of those people who have previously complained to us, to find out what they thought of our procedures.
We have also changed the emphasis of our approach to collecting outstanding VAT. We are moving away from an enforcement philosophy to one of debt management. Bad debt relief in the VAT field was extended in the March 1993 Budget to the benefit of businesses who may be experiencing difficulties with their cash flow. And we are taking a more flexible approach to requests for time to pay VAT.
Another problem is the complexity of the legislation which we have to apply. We are strongly committed to the Government's deregulation initiative, which seeks to reduce the costs to businesses of complying with government regulations. This very much goes with the grain of changes in our own control procedures. We are engaged in a demanding four-year programme during which we will look at all areas of our operations and simplify them wherever possible. But we are not making any promises: some of the complexity is inevitable and often arises through the many reliefs from duties and tax. But we will cut through the thicket where we can. We also need to ensure that business has the information and guidance it needs to understand, and to comply with, the law.
There is plenty of local initiative, too. Some offices are running open evenings for businesses or holding open days, extending their enquiry services, undergoing local customer care training or conducting surveys of local businesses to find out what they need, and what they think of the services we provide.
We are still a law enforcement department, and a regulatory one. From the top to the bottom of the organisation, we are having to make judgments about the balance between service to the collective customer and service to the individual business. Our debt managers face the dilemma with each request for extra time to pay VAT: do I insist on payment from, and possibly make insolvent, a business with a genuine temporary cash flow difficulty? Do I give them time, and maybe cause an even bigger debt to build up? And what about the competitive advantage I'm giving that business over the one which, come what may, pays its VAT on time? The judgments aren't easy. But we know that, if we are going to achieve our overriding objectives, we need to help individuals too.
But we have to find a better word than 'customer'.