The best forms of tech are the ones that you don’t even realise are there. American researcher Donald Norman popularised the idea of invisible tech – tools that are so simple and seamless we forget we need them – in his 1998 book, “The Invisible Computer”.

The idea is echoed in the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore’s (IRAS) services. The agency has used tools such as automation to make tax filing processes easier during Covid-19. “No need for service is the best service”, says Colin Chew, Director (Service Experience Centre), Taxpayer Services Division, IRAS.

GovInsider spoke with Chew to understand how they are using automation to manage the workload during the pandemic.

Automated assistance

In May and June last year, IRAS experienced a 60 per cent surge in contacts due to the announcement of Covid-19 support schemes and an extended tax filing deadline. The team leaned on tools such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to rapidly process these income tax relief applications for self-employed citizens.

RPA refers to software tools which can be programmed to automate tasks across different applications.

To handle the increased demand of enquiries, IRAS also built their own tools. Officers self-learnt coding to build an automated filing checker, which helped many citizens understand their tax filing requirements in just three questions.

“This led to manpower savings of 755 hours within a short span of three months,” Chew says. This would ensure that more citizens could get the aid that they needed, especially during this difficult period.

The RPA tool has since been extended to the Integrated Public Service Centre at Tampines Hub, reported TODAY Singapore. It helps citizens access public services, such as skills-upgrading and paying housing bills, at a central service centre.

A human touch for digital services

IRAS launched an AI-based chatbot for taxi and private-hire drivers last year. This came as the agency shifted towards virtual appointments during the pandemic to keep citizens safe while accessing their services.

Drivers could file their tax returns by simply replying to a set of questions posed by the chatbot. These questions are specially tweaked to use terms the drivers would be familiar with, such as “total passenger fare” instead of tax jargon like “revenue”, Chew says.

The bot can also provide immediate answers related to four common tax payment enquiries – including services such as checking their outstanding tax or their payment status.

The interactive chatbot created a more “humanised” experience that made tax filing “easier, faster and more intuitive for taxi or private hire car drivers who may be less digitally inclined,” Chew says. It has been further scaled to include an estimated 2000 hawkers this year.

IRAS is collaborating with AI Singapore, which was established to promote AI adoption in Singapore. The team is using data analysis to automate quality monitoring for these live chats, allowing IRAS to quickly identify areas for improvement.

Agile staff

Image by IRAS

As new challenges arise, innovation will need to come from all corners and levels within public agencies. IRAS encourages its officers to experiment with building their own digital tools. Over the tax filing period in 2021, a team successfully implemented a tool to help callers resolve their enquiries with customised SMS infographics.

Digital courses have been helpful for this. Some officers with no prior experience in programming were helped to build tools for transactional bot services after attending online lessons. These tools help to automate simple tasks, reducing the manpower burden on their staff.

The pandemic has permanently changed the ways that government agencies can reach citizens. Digital tools can help to extend their reach, but need to be adopted with the user in mind.