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The National Audit Office has told HM Revenue and Customs it has to make more improvements to its telephone services.

Its new report on the department's performance points to the need to encourage people to call outside of peak hours and to make more use of the department's website.

HM Revenue and Customs: Handling telephone enquiries, published on 15 January, says that HMRC's customer contact directorate answered only 57 per cent of the 103 million attempted calls in 2008-09. This compares with 71 per cent in the year before and an industry benchmark of more than 90 per cent.

In the first half of 2009-10 the percentage of calls answered rose to 73 per cent, and the directorate has introduced a change programme with the aim of answering 90 per cent of calls and at about 30 per cent less cost by March 2012.

Estimates by the NAO suggest this could be achieved if the department halved the 35 per cent of contacts that the department believes are avoidable. But its findings reveal that HMRC is not able to ensure efficiencies and benefits are being realised and gauge progress towards its goals.

"The department does not have sufficient oversight of the overall planned costs, benefits and interdependencies of the various channel migration programmes it has under way to move customers to using the method of contact that most effectively meets their needs, at the lowest cost to themselves and the department," says the document.

Call volumes vary greatly throughout the year, ranging from four million to 17 million per month in 2008-09, but the department's staffing levels do not fluctuate in line with this. Consequently call handling performance also varied throughout the year, with 33 per cent of answered during the tax credits renewals peak in July and 85 per cent answered in December.

The report recommends that HMRC should consider outsourcing and part-year permanent contracts, the adoption of automated information to encourage off-peak calling, and efforts to increase the department's website.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: "HMRC seems to be going in the right direction seeking strategic savings by reducing face to face interaction where the job can be done by telephone or online.

"However, this may not be much comfort if yours was one of the 43 per cent of calls which did not get an answer in 2008-09. HMRC needs to get telephone service standards up significantly if the transition to technology-enabled working is to have taxpayer support and deliver value for money."

This article was originally published at Kable.

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