Research conducted by Yonder Consulting for HMRC in 2021.

Disclaimer: The views in this report are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of HM Revenue and Customs.

1. Introduction

1.1 Background

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) commissioned Yonder Consulting to conduct research in 2020 to ensure it had a good understanding of how the department was perceived by the general public. This research showed how HMRC scored against criteria linked to reputational factors such as trust and a good customer experience. The research also explored HMRC’s ‘brand personality’. Building on the 2020 research, HMRC recommissioned this work in 2021 in order to begin tracking trends over time.

1.2 Research objectives and aims

The annual perceptions tracker survey seeks to inform HMRC’s communications approach. By understanding where the department is performing well, and in what areas it still has work to do, HMRC can adjust its communication efforts.

The research aims are to measure how HMRC is perceived by the public on an annual basis to establish trends, including to what extent the public understand HMRC’s role and how the public perceives HMRC in relation to a range of important values, such as fairness and effectiveness.

The research followed on from earlier Brand Perceptions Research conducted in 2020, which established a core set of measures that could be used in future research.

1.3 Method

The research was comprised of multiple research phases and incorporated:

  • an annual perceptions tracker that included key driver analysis and implicit response test analysis and which was conducted in September 2021

  • four shorter ‘pulse surveys’ conducted throughout 2021 and early 2022

The annual perceptions tracker survey consisted of core perceptions questions that were originally developed through the earlier Brand Perceptions Research, which Yonder conducted on behalf of HMRC in 2020.

1.3.1 Sample and fieldwork

For this annual perceptions tracker research, Yonder interviewed 3,426 UK adults (aged 16+) online between 1 and 6 September 2021. Quotas were set and weights used to ensure the online sample in the survey research was reflected the profile of the adult (16+) population of the UK in terms of gender, age, UK government office region and social grade.

At some points in this summary, the September 2021 survey is compared to HMRC’s Brand Perceptions Research 2020. Yonder conducted this research on behalf of HMRC in July 2020 and interviewed 3,012 UK adults (aged 16+) online.

Yonder also conducted a number of pulse surveys. Pulse survey 1 was conducted between 29 and 31 January 2021 with a sample of 2,211 UK adults (aged 16+), pulse survey 2 was conducted between 12 and 13 May 2021 with a sample of 2,119 UK adults (aged 16+), pulse survey 3 was conducted between 7 and 8 July 2021 with a sample of 2,124 UK adults (aged 16+), and pulse survey 4 was conducted between 21 and 22 March 2022 with a sample of 2,124 UK adults (aged 16+).

The quantitative research was conducted using an online research panel and therefore was not a fully randomised probability sample. Care should be taken when using this research to make inferences regarding the broader population. Care should also be taken when comparing the results of these pieces of research due to methodological differences. The surveys conducted in July 2020 and September 2021 were ad-hoc quota surveys whereas the pulse surveys conducted were omnibus surveys.

2. Findings

2.1 Knowledge and awareness of taxation and HMRC

Most of the survey respondents claimed to have a good understanding of their own personal tax situation, but there was less of an understanding of the wider UK tax system. Around a third of the public said they were extremely or very familiar with HMRC and its services, a slight increase on 2020.

Whilst many were aware that HMRC collected tax, fewer knew the department administered COVID-19 support schemes, such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.

When asked about their relationship with HMRC, most said they had either a distant relationship or no relationship whatsoever with HMRC, and the majority did not want a close relationship. The public tended to receive information about HMRC from the department itself and those who had contact with HMRC in the last year had mainly had it via post or online.

2.2 HMRC’s brand

Many spontaneously associated HMRC with tax, but also with the Government. When prompted, being professional, competent and consistent were strongly associated with HMRC.

HMRC continued to perform well in collecting the right amount of tax and making it easy for people to pay tax. Despite being considered professional and trustworthy, perceptions of HMRC as being easy to deal with were weaker. Many spontaneously associated terms like ‘impersonal’, ‘complicated’ and ‘difficult dealings’ with HMRC. Indeed, when asked what they would most like HMRC to be, the public prioritised words relating to being easier to deal with – such as ‘approachable’, ‘understanding’, ‘helpful’ and ‘fair’.

Perceptions of fairness were mixed; while more agreed than disagreed that HMRC treated them fairly, views were divided regarding whether HMRC treated everyone fairly. There had also been small decreases in some fairness measures since July 2020.

Similarly, despite small decreases over the last year, the public was generally more positive than negative when it came to HMRC’s performance on compliance issues – although many did not know or were neutral. Just over a third believed HMRC was effective in identifying fraudulent behaviour, and a similar number thought HMRC performed well in identifying scams.

2.3 HMRC’s reputation

Perceptions of the department as measured in September 2021 remained consistent with July 2020 and were broadly positive. During this period, HMRC’s COVID-19 support schemes ended and there was some media coverage of fraudulent HMRC– branded scams. HMRC was particularly strongly associated with being professional, competent and consistent.

Performance on trust, favourability, confidence and being easy to deal remained stable, while most underlying perceptions of HMRC were consistent with July 2020 – despite small decreases in some fairness and competence measures. Taken together, this suggested that public views towards HMRC had shifted little over the past year. There remained a cohort, though, who either did not have strong feelings towards HMRC or did not know enough to judge HMRC’s performance.

On most measures (including trust and areas of performance) HMRC had a more positive reputation than local councils and Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), but lagged behind that of water suppliers and Royal Mail. HMRC’s reputation, therefore, remained middling when compared with some other organisations. There had been some small changes, but combined these changes were not large, and suggested no shift in public sentiment.

2.4 Trust in HMRC

The proportion who rated HMRC highly for being an organisation they trust remained at a third – ahead of trust of DWP and local councils. However, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), water suppliers and Royal Mail outperformed HMRC on trust.

Those who agreed that the department provided good customer service were more likely to trust HMRC – and the analysis highlighted the importance of customer dealings. A statistical technique called key driver analysis was used to understand which factors were most important in driving trust, and it identified customer dealings as the most important driver.

The research found that HMRC’s performance on customer dealings was mixed; HMRC was perceived to perform relatively well on being reliable, but more work was needed regarding being easy to deal with.

Other themes that drove trust, but to a lesser extent, were personal fairness (e.g. HMRC being perceived to be ‘making it easy for me to pay the right amount of tax’, to be ‘fair in the way it operates’, to be ‘collecting the right tax from people like me’), societal fairness (e.g. HMRC being perceived to treat ’all taxpayers fairly’, being perceived to be collecting ‘the right amount of tax from large businesses’) and tackling wrongdoing (e.g. HMRC being perceived to be helping people ‘identify scams so they can protect themselves’).

2.5 Tax avoidance and HMRC’s performance during the COVID-19 pandemic

At a time when COVID-19 restrictions started to lift across the UK and HMRC’s COVID-19 support schemes (e.g. Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, Self-Employment Income Support Scheme) were in their final month and their use was declining, a small minority thought HMRC should prioritise collecting taxes and ensuring tax compliance if this meant less support for some individuals and businesses. One quarter agreed that HMRC was effective in tackling the use of tax avoidance schemes by individuals, and many did not know or did not have a view.

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