Glass half empty or glass half full: HMRC’s latest PTA research

HMRC have finally published findings from research conducted from 2016-17 to understand taxpayers’ opinions on Personal Tax Accounts (PTAs) (source 1).

A PTA is an online tax account for individuals, which is designed to provide customers with secure access to HMRC’s digital services (including viewing, checking and updating personal and tax details and making claims or applications) in one place, as well as allowing HMRC to make better use of the information it holds about customers to support an improved customer experience (source 2).

As well as providing an improved customer experience, the Personal Tax Account aims to increase the likelihood that customers will get their tax and benefits and credits right, and decrease the need for contact via other channels (such as telephone or post).

The research findings aim to assist the development of PTAs, and inform HMRC’s migration, design and communication strategy.

But how helpful are they?

Glass half empty

PTAs were developed and launched in December 2015. It may have been a ‘key development in the government’s vision to transform the tax system’ into ‘digital by default’ at the time (source 2), but by publishing of the initial research findings over 2 and half years later, has too little been done too late?

The long lead time to the publishing of this work is odd, it was only a couple of months ago that HMRC ‘reprioritised their portfolio of transformation projects in 2018 to ensure that it delivers key government priorities’. Whilst they maintain that the PTA project is ‘still continuing, focusing on driving digital take-up and iterative improvements to the existing offer’, I wonder when bringing effective accessibility to taxes and simpler, more efficient processes, in line with our digital age, will become their main priority, even in light of the Brexit pressures?

Too little too late

Findings show that the majority (75%) of HMRC taxpayers felt they were likely to use the PTA and were generally positive and receptive to the concept. This is despite the majority (69%) having not yet heard of the PTA before being introduced to it in the survey (source 1) – a clear sign of too little being done too late and one that chimes with my experience when lecturing as a significant majority of payroll and HR professionals have not activated their PTA.

I also wonder if the ‘majority of taxpayers surveyed (73%) who could not think of any concerns they might have with the PTA’, might be down to this lack of communication of what PTAs are, how they work and their impact (source 1).

Confirming what we already anticipate

Those that did raise concerns, identified security and confidentiality as key areas of risk (9%) (source 1) – obvious issues that I hope HMRC were anticipating would come up and have already considered in their developments to date.

Continuing to confirm what we already anticipated, the report highlights that the 55% of surveyed taxpayers who called HMRC in the past year and did not have any digital contact (online or email) will potentially be more challenging to migrate to the PTA since they are unfamiliar with interacting with HMRC online’. That or they’ve already abandoned trying to get in touch with HMRC online and are continuing to hold out to speak to an advisor to get simple matters actioned…

Equally unsurprisingly, the findings indicate that PTAs are seen as the next ‘logical next step’ for HMRC, with taxpayers ‘taking the view that moving tax to a digital sphere would make their tax affairs simpler and more efficient’ (source 2).

And finally, for those of us who may have hoped that after all this time the findings would be concluded with some next step actions, unfortunately we are left disappointed.

Glass half full

Considering different taxpayer demographics

At least the survey results cover a range of taxpayer demographics. The findings highlight that around a third (37%) of taxpayers who already used the internet to some extent identified that they needed some kind of digital assistance and were less confident performing certain government related tasks online. HMRC have dubbed this segment ‘assisted digital’ throughout the report, giving a voice to those who were less confident and more anxious at the thought of a wholly new approach to managing taxes. As such, fewer respondents (68%) in this category were willing to use PTAs which at least effectively signals that any changes to the system must both be progressive and flexible for all (source 1).

Moreover, the varied opinions reinstate the need for greater communication about the capabilities of PTAs.

Positivity is progress

‘It’s also worth mentioning that 1 in 7 (69%) of those who had heard of it had also accessed the PTA previously. The highest proportion (40%) had done so to file their self-assessment tax return, followed by checking their tax code (35%), while a third (33%) just looked around. Of those who had used the PTA previously, ‘80% rated it positively’ (source 1).

Optimistically then, perhaps with a little more communication, visibility and flexible access, we could be closer to realising the full benefits of PTAs than we previously imagined.


In summary, whilst the findings go some way to highlight avenues for PTA development, ideas for how to successfully migrate to the system and key things to consider when creating a communications strategy, the report in part does not go far enough. After such a substantial period of time has elapsed between introducing PTAs and this research, I do wonder when we will hear what the next steps are and when they will be put into action, let alone see a shift in the tax system to mimic the digital age and flexibility to suit a wide variety of taxpayers and their needs. It’s vital that employers also encourage employees to utilise this source of data, challenging inaccuracies in codes and income that one hopes will also give impetus to the PTA and dynamic coding becoming a  post-Brexit priority.