Challenging tradition and throwing out the checklists has prepared the ATO for COVID-19, according to Chris Jordan

By Shannon Jenkins

August 18, 2020

Chris Jordan
Tax commissioner Chris Jordan (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Reinventing the Australian Taxation Office by abandoning traditional, overly bureaucratic processes has enabled it to efficiently deliver crucial support measures to the public during COVID-19, according to commissioner of taxation Chris Jordan.

When Jordan arrived at the ATO in 2013, after more than 25 years at KPMG, he quickly began challenging the status quo.

“I often used to ask now, ‘Why do we do that?’ I was told ‘Well, it’s just required.’ … It either was just an internal practise statement or it was just the way things were done,” he said on the latest episode of Work with Purpose.

“[Asking questions] was really in a polite way of challenging a whole lot of things that just seem to be overly complex, overly bureaucratic, checklist-driven. I suppose there was a reason that I was the first person ever to be appointed to the commissioner from outside of the ATO, every single commissioner had come up through the ranks before that.”

He said the organisation had become an insulator and “a little detached from its stakeholders”, and so it set on a path of reinvention.

“We threw out tens of thousands of pages of instructions and checklists. We stopped doing all sorts of things because they were just being done, because they were always being done. I am very firmly of the view that you’ve got to give a good staff experience for them to give a good client experience,” he said.

“I really wanted the staff to feel better about their day-to-day work and not feel bound up in process and checklists, because if they were bound up in process, what do you think they’re going to do to their clients? They’re going to treat the client the same way, right? They’re going to be rigid, they’re going to be unforgiving in a way and they’re going to tick a box, and if you don’t fit in a box, I’ll just put you to the side because I don’t know what to do with you sort of thing.”

In ditching the checklist approach, Jordan encouraged staff to use common sense, and let them know they were supported if they made mistakes.

“Everyone was afraid of getting something wrong. A lot of people actually liked the checklist because they knew exactly what they had to do … However, most people did understand that a lot of what they were doing was just silly and unnecessary,” he said.

“People would say to me, thank goodness we have been given an opportunity to make a judgement and make a decision, and get on with what we really know what we need to do. I think what is happening now has exactly pushed that as a notion, right across the public service, we have to be adaptable.”

The ATO has redeployed 5000 staff to help deliver the pandemic-related stimulus measures, with another 2000 casuals brought in and trained for tax time. Meanwhile, up to 15,000 ATO staff have worked from home.

That ability to adapt, as well as changes Jordan has led over the years has allowed the ATO to quickly respond to COVID-19, delivering support measures within weeks. For example, the ATO’s Single Touch Payroll system — which recently won a public sector innovation award — was crucial to delivering JobKeeper, while the old AUSkey system would have hindered it.

“We got rid of AUSkey, which was a really clunky way of authenticating yourself with the ATO. It was clunky because it was attached to your machine, whatever machine you used to register the AUSkey, typically a desktop in an office. You had to use that device every time. Now by doing online services, you can now use a smart phone, or home device, you can now use whatever,” Jordan said.

AUSkey was replaced by the myGovID digital identity credentialing app earlier this year.

Read more: Facial recognition aspect of government’s digital identity program to begin public testing mid-2020

On implementing JobKeeper and support measures so quickly, Jordan said it was a whole-of-ATO effort, and “everyone left their egos at the door”.

“We have to have very strong governance around who does what and when, and how to plan it out,” he said.

“So, in this case, there was a combination from our client engagement group — the old compliance group — because they had to determine the eligibility and then do any follow-up compliance activities. There was our IT group that had to actually build the system to cope with this. Then there was our service delivery group that had to man the phones, to actually answer the queries, to send correspondence out, to send the requests to the reserve bank, to pay money out, to send the money out to employers. So, three very distinct arms of the ATO had to come together and work as one.”

Jordan said he has been lucky to have talented executive and leadership teams, and there has been “an enormous sense” of pride, support and dedication among all staff, with many of them working “extraordinary hours” seven days a week.

The effort was necessary. On July 1, the ATO received 400,000 applications just for the early release of Super, and 740,000 lodgements. Last year, it received 104,000 lodgements on July 1. Jordan argued those figures have “indicated a sense of need”.

“If you were a young person and you wanted the money to buy something, you would not have bothered on July 1st, you would have got around to it … If you are there on July 1st, you need the money,” he said.

Jordan is determined to continue to make ATO processes easier and more streamlined for individuals and businesses. He’s set to wrap up as tax commissioner in 2024, and, by then, hopes that the ATO will be known as “a leading tax and Super administration known for our contemporary service expertise and integrity”.

“I don’t want to compare ourselves to other government departments or agencies. I want to compare the tax office to the best of any large organisation that has a complex client base,” he said.

“If people can say, well against any large organisation, private or public, the tax office actually performs well when measured against that. We will never have people jumping for joy, dealing with us. We start from a difficult position, right? Our relationship is about me taking money from you, right? However, given that starting point, I want people to think when they deal with us that their experience was about as good as I ever would have thought a transaction with a tax office would be.”

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