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ATO’s bumpy ride from ‘archaic’ to myTax

Commentators were quick to condemn the myTax application after it copped flack from some frustrated early users, but the Australian Taxation Office’s chief information officer says sentiment has rapidly improved in the intervening weeks, and she was amazed at how the team responded to the issues.

Janet King
Jane King

Tax Office CIO Jane King admits the agency was seen as “archaic” and “out of touch” by many in the community and government only a couple of years ago. Looking at where it has come from, the ATO’s more recent forays into digital service delivery and its plans to build on them in future might turn into a more positive story than its critics would like to believe.

“E-Tax was seen as an icon in its day but we were certainly hearing from our clients that we were way behind the sort of experiences that they were having elsewhere,” she told the Technology in Government conference in Canberra yesterday. “Consequently, it is no coincidence that we have a completely new senior management team, so completely new set of commissioners who took it upon themselves to drive the sort of change and experiences that we were going to deliver to both the community and internally to our staff.”

Outside government, there’s no shortage of people who will attack the tax collectors and far less interest in anything positive about their achievements. On the inside, it seems there’s no better working example of digital services than myTax: it won not only the Service Delivery category at the Australian Government ICT Awards in May, but also took out the main prize for Overall Excellence in eGovernment.

Speaking about the wider organisational change program — called Reinventing the ATO — that the new senior management team has put in place, King said much was learned from the myTax rollout.

“Innovation does come with risk,” she said, describing how the organisation reacted to the problems that some users experienced with myTax.

“We had an interesting start to tax time … and whilst we did have some [negative] reaction, obviously, from some of our clients … what I was particularly amazed at was the way in which the organisation pulled together.”

“We met as an organisation every morning, with someone from every part of the business who needed to be there, everyone looking to support each other to get this beast right and get it out the door, and give it the right experience and right start.”

The ATO has more recently been “getting incredible social media” and “the sentiment has gone right up” since the myTax implementation fiasco, she added.

Easy to comply, difficult not to

While there are 13 million of them, tax is not just about individuals. The ATO is also doing a lot of work going to make it easier and quicker for all the other types of taxpaying entities to navigate the system.

“It’s about making it easy to comply with your obligations, and difficult not to,” said King. From a regulatory point of view, she explained that when compliance is very easy, non-compliance is naturally more difficult and therefore more likely to be deliberate.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that King used the word “transparency” not to refer to measures that allow the public to see inside their government as a check on executive power, but to describe the ATO’s increasing ability to see into the affairs of private citizens and organisations.

Of course, this is what allows myTax to simplify tax time for so many people. Nearly every question is pre-filled with data and the client only has to check and agree. King said this would allow the auditors to focus on the big end of town, where tax matters are complex and opaque, and avoidance most damaging to revenue.

“The more we can see of your tax and superannuation business, the lower the touch will be,” she explained.

“The less we can see, naturally the higher the touch has to be. So we will focus our auditing area much more on the high end, so the end we can’t see. Now that doesn’t mean people are hiding or trying to drop off the edge, it can just mean they have really complex business.

“We’re doing a lot of things in the large end of the market; to sit with our large companies to agree on a compliance plan, for instance.”

The new ATO is here to help

A show of hands proved that most of the audience preferred to use a tax agent, and that few were among the one million or so who have tried to use myTax — a number the ATO hopes will double by mid-2016.

“We’ll convert you,” King said confidently, explaining that the revenue collecting agency is trying to be friendlier and more helpful — more humane, as Digital Transformation chief Paul Shetler put it last week — and hoping to “build trust” by helping individuals pay the minimum tax, just as tax agents do.

“[The idea is] you don’t need to go to your tax agent to find every nook and cranny; we’re going to tell you what you’re entitled to and make sure that you’re actually putting it on the claim.”

As for the agents, “who are in the business of doing nothing but downloading pre-fill data, charging $80 and submitting”, according to King, the ATO is looking at ways it can keep them in the tax “ecosystem” such as providing them with data they can use to add value for their clients.

The ATO also plans to convince Australians it is not out to get them by switching to a system where some tax assessments are declared “closed” and once that has happened, they can never be re-opened and audited.

King said a new “world first” app would allow photographed receipts to be saved in various categories, stored in secure cloud storage and sent to a tax agent. It would also help with recording travel, with options for business, study or private trips and the choice to use GPS tracking or the distance calculated by Google Maps.

“So that just launched, we are not sure how it is going to go but it is a really interesting product,” she said. “We believe it’s a first for any tax institution. Indeed, being able to do your tax return on mobile, we believe, is a first as well.”

King also briefly mentioned a “business viability” app that assists with benchmarking small businesses and was originally developed for internal use. “We’ve been using it to determine what sort of payment arrangements we should put to [business owners] and/or should we put any to you — are you not viable? — in which case can we support you to get out of business in a respectful and hopefully in a less emotional way,” she said. “We decided it is such a good tool, why not put it out there?”

The ato.gov.au website will also undergo a major transformation as part of the reinvention process. This will include a range of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), helpful software connection points promoted by the Department of Finance’s Pia Waugh, although King admits it’s not yet clear who will make use of them.

Another new idea for individuals that can be found in the online reinvention manifesto is “personalised tax rates and withholding at source” which will use data captured when employment commences and through “real-time reporting” to allow tax rates to be adjusted “on the fly”.

“You can imagine then if we combine that with the social services side of government, they can adjust benefits on the fly, and we don’t have overpayments, underpayments, etcetera,” said King. “Sounds like a great outcome; we think it is.”

Speak to us, literally

The voice recognition software the ATO rolled out earlier this year has apparently gone “exceptionally well” and will be available on mobile devices in September, while letters designed to psychologically nudge the recipients have successfully improved debt collection.

The whole reinvention process, she explained, is centred around a major effort at cultural change, which has its own page on the Reinventing the ATO website.

“It is very important that we do work as one, that we do operate as a total ecosystem, looking at the total service design to get it right,” said King, hopeful that next year’s taxes will go through a lot smoother.

“We have a long way to go yet. But we think we’ve made some really important first steps around our reinvention.

“Our first few days of interesting challenges has given us a whole heap of learnings now around the next tax time process that we’re going through, so we hope we’re on the right track.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.