Interview: Netcompany CEO on landmark HMRC deal

The man behind the UK's COVID pass, André Rogaczewski, has just landed a £135 million contract with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to create one personalised digital account for citizens’ tax affairs, and he sat down with us to discuss what it means for the UK's future digital transformation, and how the Danish approach to government is so different.

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André Rogaczewski, co-founder and CEO of NetcompanyHow does a Danish tech company make such a big splash in the UK public sector? 

By the late 2000s, Denmark had a high ambition to digitise. Long before we were a challenger to Denmark's global companies, we were asking, "What is the benefit for the citizen?" and "How can we combine modern technology with all the complex governance that exists in a law-abiding, legislative democracy?" It was almost impossible at the start, and it wasn't until 2010 that we won our first major contract with the Danish tax office.

That contract was about digitising our vehicles so that if you went into a car dealer, instead of filling out all these documents, you could do that over a cup of coffee, and five minutes later, it was handled. You didn't have to exchange a single piece of paper. When you left the dealership and were speeding along the Autobahn, if the police stopped you, they already knew who you were.

We approached this with an agile mindset, asking what was already there and building on top of that the necessary digital foundation to provide citizens with a great service. That project gave us so much courage that we decided to apply the same approach to all the major governmental areas in our Govtech Framework, answering how we can use what's already there and add our new way of thinking. I think the mentality of courage and ambition is one of the reasons we succeeded in becoming a major company in government tech in Europe. We're 8,000 people now and are present in many countries. But that wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for the mentality of challenging the way things are done using new technology.

Countries like the UK have democratic systems and institutions that go back over a hundred years. However, a lot of those democratic infrastructures have become inefficient and costly in the backdrop of a modern digital era. How does Denmark strike the balance between functioning democracy and digital transformation?

Denmark is like a bumble bee. It’s clumsy and heavy and isn't supposed to fly. We have very high salaries. We have a very high sense of democracy. People believe in fairness. Most things are free so we charge high taxes. In a society like that, you want to make sure that the way people contribute to society is transparent in that you feel that even though you are paying tax, there is no doubt why you are paying tax, how much you should pay and where the tax is going to be spent later. 

In Denmark and the UK, we also have a lot of people that are living longer lives which also means that young people are primarily going to pay the bill. In a vibrant job market, young people transition between various roles and kinds of employment. This can get very complex in older systems. This digitally native person might need to call the tax office multiple times and join a queue for hours and even then, they might not be able to help you entirely with your questions over the phone. The worst thing you can give them is doubt about whether they are paying too much or too little. We don't like surprises in our lives. We want to understand and be sure that we are doing the right thing. 

In a democracy, most politicians are skilled at creating laws fairly, and we need to ensure that they are followed. In other words, fairness in creating laws must be complemented by fairness in executing them. In today's world, technology is crucial for this execution. I believe this is something that most countries need to adopt and I am proud and humbled to be part of the UK's single window for tax. As our society becomes more efficient, being able to easily and securely answer tax-related questions will lay the foundation for a fairer society where you don’t feel that anyone is taking anything out of your pocket.

What are you most excited about with this HMRC deal? What makes this deal interesting in the context of UK government transformation?

Having a single, citizen-centric customer account means that people will have a user-friendly place where they can see their taxes and understand what they owe. This ambition is currently at the forefront of developments in Europe. It is not impossible; it is tangible and visible. Does it require integration into older systems? Does it require an understanding of governance and operational procedures? Yes, it does. But is it a clear vision? Can everyone understand what the UK is aiming for? Being able to answer "yes" to these two questions makes me extremely grateful for the opportunity to be let into the room and excites me about contributing to the UK’s positioning at the forefront of European administration in a democratic state.

If the UK succeeds with this, it will be a country to follow in Europe and I’m certain that it can be done. It's exciting to see that large administrations like HMRC are aiming for this. I think if it can be done for 5 or 10 million people then it can also be done for 66 million people. It's the same principles. It's the same way of doing it. And it's what people deserve.

This is not your first successful deal with the UK. What have you learnt from your previous deals that enabled you to become the best partner with the UK government?

Two factors. We were first known in the UK for the COVID Pass that could change QR codes so that if you tested negative you could spend money and go to work and open up society. That created greater awareness for us as a company. Secondly, I think that the general knowledge about what we’re doing in the tax customers area brought us into even wider areas of the UK government. Recruiting and legislation can be very different from country to country but I think we as democratic, free countries where we want to end up with responsible digitization are very similar. I'm proud to say that we do this in many countries, also when it comes to tax and customs and hopefully, we will play an important role and help out as much as we can so we can get to that single modern user-friendliness customer account in the UK.

Denmark has been consistently the world’s leading e-government administration. There’s a lot that the world has to learn from the Danish experience. Now you’re in the UK government, how would you comment on the relative strengths and opportunities for improvement in the UK public sector relative to Denmark and other countries you have business in?

People say that you need a clear targeted vision. That is true, but the UK is past that point. When it comes to vision and where you want to be I think there is a lot of will and ambition to get there. The question is how. There is only one way and that is by one small victory at a time. Look at what works, what doesn’t, and act ethically. 

You can be pragmatic about it but you need to execute and move forward so that every year you can see things get easier. To do so, you need to put in some concrete milestones and it can even be smaller things but as long as traversing in the right direction, I think that can be extremely powerful. How much of our spending should go into our administration and how much of our spending should go into warm hands?

As a society, you’ve got to look at these things because five or six years from now, we won’t be able to afford to continue spending resources on administration. You need to build the mentality that everything that can be done smarter, and provides society with the ability to have more money in warm hands should be done.

Legislation is complex everywhere. Our politicians create just as many laws as yours. Most people see that things can be done but we need those milestones. It's just a question of finding those areas where it's most important to do something, executing it and then showing the rest of the administration that it’s possible. I think a good customer account could be one of those areas where we can show that can be done.

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