Can the ATO reinvent itself? The push for a more “user-friendly” tax agency

Can the ATO reinvent itself? The push for a more “user-friendly” tax agency
Can the ATO reinvent itself? The push for a more “user-friendly” tax agency

GUEST OBSERVATION

Despite what you may think, that is not a rhetorical question.

The Australian Tax Office is a large federal government agency that comprises about 15% of the Australian Public Service, and has around 24,000 people in more than 60 locations around Australia. It’s a large organisation by any measure. Reinventing any entity that large is no mean feat – and it won't happen quickly.

Some may question why a country of 23 million people needs a tax agency that large. Well, our tax system is complex (way too much so), and the ATO has many taxes to administer. However, while the size itself of the ATO is one thing, how it operates is a whole other issue.

Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan is looking at how the ATO can reinvent itself to make it simpler and easier for people to comply with their tax obligations and to make the ATO a more responsive and “user-friendly” agency. These are not platitudes from the Commissioner; he means it.

In a recent speech, the Commissioner said that with the Coalition government's "open for business" mantra, the push for productivity increases and de-regulation, the ATO must be able to show improvements in efficiency and reductions in red tape. Jordan said he has promised government he will do everything he can "to improve the tax and super experience in Australia – making it simpler and easier to comply". He said he has also promised to change the culture of the ATO and is required to report back to the Assistant Treasurer regularly on that front.

The Commissioner said that building trust in tax administrations was critical to the success of tax systems.

Jordan said that when he was asked to take on the role, he was aware of feedback that despite best intentions, the ATO had become isolated from some of its key stakeholders and segments of the community. Jordan said he knew that trust and confidence needed to be lifted and he was asked to work on relationships with government, other agencies, and, SMEs will be glad to hear, the business community.

The Commissioner said his "fundamental belief is that in order to deliver to government, the ATO must use its power legitimately, build trust in its judgment and demonstrate fairness and integrity". He said the ATO has to design and operate a system for the majority of taxpayers who do the right thing,rather than for the few who don't [Commissioner's emphasis]. Jordan said the ATO was asking itself "how do we design the system so that it suits the 95%, rather than a system designed for 5%?"

The Commissioner said the ATO’s answer to this complex situation is to reinvent itself, transform how it goes about its core business, and make it a contemporary and service-oriented organisation. He acknowledged that reinventing the ATO is a long-term journey — recognising that building trust in a tax administration is not a simple or quick effort.

Jordan said the ATO has to build on the positives of its culture like commitment to its role, to service and taxpayers, integrity and ethics, but, in a frank assessment, he said the ATO also has to “acknowledge the negative aspects of our culture like risk aversion, righteousness, silo mentality and bureaucracy”. SMEs and their advisers would certainly agree.

Jordan said the ATO's approach to accountability needs to change – "to be simpler, clearer and connected to reward and consequence". He said the ATO's measures "have to include views from others and be related to effectiveness and outcomes…We must put a much greater emphasis on how others judge our performance."

Integrity is about character, Jordan said. In terms of the ATO and the tax system, he said  it is about doing the right things consistently by all of the ATO’s stakeholders (e.g. government, business, taxpayers generally) — “safeguarding and future-proofing the system on behalf of the Australian community and dealing with taxpayers in a way that is fair and right in the long run”.

The Commissioner said these thoughts have helped shape the ATO’s strategic directions.

Recognising that time is money for all businesses, Jordan said the ATO is focusing on early discussions between the taxpayer and relevant tax officers responsible for making decisions. These early, face-to-face talks, he said, aim to get to the core issues more quickly and short-circuit unproductive paper wars between the parties. SMEs will no doubt be delighted if the paper war can be won!

The ATO is also seeking to bring to a sensible close unnecessarily long running cases and audits — “recognising when we reach the point of diminishing returns or an impasse”, the Commissioner explained. Of course, if agreement or settlement cannot be reached, the courts will need to decide. In a refreshing stance, the Commissioner said that continuing dialogue for five years or more is not productive, prevents closure and damages trust.

The ATO is at the centre of the tax world in Australia. It deals with millions of taxpayers and their tax issues every day. Overshadowing all of that is the tax law. The Commissioner said it is important to him that the ATO is able to influence law design. He said the ATO has the advantage of seeing what works and doesn’t in practice and can use those insights to advise Treasury. The ATO’s new Integrated Tax Design Unit seeks to ensure requests to Treasury are prioritised and presented from a whole-of-system perspective. Jordan said there is limited capacity to change law and the ATO is looking at other ways to resolve issues.

Seeking the community’s perspective through consultation – knowing what problems exist and their ideas for possible solutions is, in the Commissioner’s view, vital in order for the ATO to provide the right advice to Treasury.

SMEs and businesses generally have avenues to make their views known, for example as I explained in my recent article about the Inspector-General of Taxation’s new work program. And the ATO itself is asking small business owners to join its new small business consultation panel to help boost the ATO’s small business expertise. In addition, the government has asked the Board of Taxation to identify features of the tax system that are hindering SMEs.

There is a lot happening at the ATO and in the tax system. The Commissioner says he is “going to do what I can to make improvements to the tax and super experience by reinventing the ATO”.

“I want the ATO to be trusted and respected…where people choose to comply and we make it as painless as we can. In the end, I want confidence in the ATO and the tax system so that there is conscious willing participation, hopefully higher than the current 95%.”

Can the ATO reinvent itself? The sceptics may have doubts, but the Commissioner is clearly serious and appears intent on giving it “a red hot go”. He has already got some runs on the board, so watch this space.

Terry Hayes is the editor-in-chief of tax news reporting at Thomson Reuters, a leading Australian provider of tax, accounting and legal information solutions.

This article first appeared on SmartCompany.

Terry Hayes

Terry Hayes

Terry Hayes is the editor-in-chief of tax news reporting at Thomson Reuters, a leading Australian provider of tax, accounting and legal information solutions.

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Policy tax Terry Hayes

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