So Dave Hartnett, head of HM Revenue & Customs, feels there’s no need to say sorry about reconciliations to PAYE tax payments which mean 5.7m taxpayers will be told they have under- or overpaid tax.

To be honest, he may have a point. PAYE is a system which depends on accurate and up-to-date information being provided by employees and employers (which being human, often isn’t the case), and which is on the surface very simple, but probably quite complex to actually get right. Reconciling databases from time to time is a good idea, and many of the people who will need to pay back the most, can probably afford it. But I’m not sure that’s really what people want him to say sorry for.

HMRC’s ‘customers’ are annoyed about what looks like a galling, if not disastrous, error. Whether they’re better off or worse off when the brown letter arrives (n.b. I’ve no idea if I’m affected, by the way), it’s irritating that money was either taken unnecessarily or not deducted properly, so that what they thought they had, isn’t in fact correct, through no obvious fault of their own. And HMRC has a lovely way with words in its written communications, so I don’t imagine the pill will be sugared much (I was threatened with ‘distraint’ this week, in the same postbag as a glossy welcome pack for new employers).

And it’s that annoyance that matters. Regardless of whether the system was properly administered, if that system causes so much annoyance to so many, it needs fixing and in the meantime, mitigating.

Not all big organisations find it so hard to say sorry. Head of Legal and Business Affairs at the Royal Opera House, George Avory, recently caused a stir with a heated correspondence with an opera blogger, Intermezzo, relating to use of pictures of the ROH featured on the blog. The letters were rude and badly-spelled and again – regardless of whether ROH was right or wrong about the copyrights involved, it made the organisation look bad as it seemed to persecute a blogger who sends a lot of paying audiences their way. So today, they apologised (PDF) publicly, claiming to have already apologised to the blogger explaining what they had meant to do, but saying sorry for the clumsy way in which they did it. Better.

Saying sorry is hard, especially for large organisations and especially for government. Express regret and ‘Taxman forced to apologise for PAYE errors’ is an easy and memorable headline. Of course customers aren’t always right, but they are human and have a sense of what normal is, and a simple sorry (or even better, showing that you really care about the irritation caused, as the team behind did recently) goes a long way to helping people get over their frustration and limits the customer service costs of dealing with large numbers of angry people.

And even if your customers can’t go anywhere else, it’s worth doing for that reason alone.

UPDATE, 19:07: Blimey, that didn’t take long.

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If ordinary people make a mistake they can be heavily penalised or even prosecuted. Sorry doesn’t work for them. Four legs good two legs bad?
If you think HRMC is a dinosaur you want to try complying with the RPA, their system is very bad. Farmers can lose many hundreds of pounds for a simple slip up, but when the RPA make an error it can take many months to sort out – if you ever can, and they don’t say sorry either.
I get your drift though, a simple public apology and a promise to improve would have worked wonders in this case. Anyone can make a mistake, and most of us do. The trick is to recitfy it asap and make amends, which often means an apology. It needn’t be groveling, it just needs to be honest and meant. That is what I think anyway.