The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) had a challenging year in 2017, featuring in the headlines a number of times.

Previous Deputy Commissioner Michael Cranston was forced to resign last year due to his son’s connection with a tax fraud syndicate. The whole affair had left the ATO “dismayed”, Commissioner Chris Jordan was quoted as saying. Furthermore, the office’s online systems suffered massive storage failures in December 2016 and again in February 2017.

It is the job of Brendan Jones, Director of Business Continuity Management-Service Delivery, to “look for any significant disruptions to business” – such as these IT outages – and perform crisis management. “We bring together the right people needed to make command and control decisions, and allow the first response teams to focus on resolution work,” he tells GovInsider.

Taxation with compassion

The ATO has a vision for “building community confidence”, both on an individual and community level, according to Jones.

Sometimes, a bushfire, flood, or cyclone comes crashing into a community, leaving lives and homes ruined in its wake. The last thing anyone wants to do during this difficult time is to worry about paying their taxes – and the office has taken this to heart.

“If you’re in a very severe situation, you can call the tax office and make arrangements to get more time to pay your tax,” explains Jones. This is one approach that the ATO is taking towards becoming more “sympathetic, understanding and helpful” in its services, he says.

Since 2012, the ATO has been operating a Community Disaster Response framework for these types of adverse situations, clearly outlining strategies to help citizens in need – for instance, “deferring your tax obligations, helping you reconstruct your taxation records, stopping debt or compliance letters”. If an entire community is affected by a disaster of some kind, these strategies can be applied to entire postcodes.

Generally, each strategy runs for a three-month period, giving affected communities the time they need to rebuild and recover without worrying about tax affairs. After each period, the office will determine whether additional action is needed – making for a more personalised experience, Jones says.

“You can see that they’ve got a genuine track history of good compliance, then you apply to them a degree of individual, tailored treatment to help them through this time.”

“There is a simple principle in there that if you do get a business or individual going through a particularly hard time, and you can see that they’ve got a genuine track history of good compliance, then you apply to them a degree of individual, tailored treatment to help them through this time,” he remarks.

A human face

Such approaches serve to give a more human face to tax authorities. Jones believes “it creates in people a positive feeling about the ATO”. When a community has confidence in their taxation system, they will be much more willing to comply, he adds.

To ensure an effective business continuity framework, Jones also works with various teams to look at “how resilient are our buildings, and how are we working on the resilience of our IT systems so that we minimise disruptions happening to our business”, he continues.

The ATO underwent a fundamental culture shift a few years ago. Some of the key objectives of the ATO’s ‘blueprint for change’ are: making information on the website easier to find and understand; minimising red tape; and helping citizens to be aware of entitlements and obligations.

To achieve this, the office hopes to cultivate a “change-friendly” environment, and move towards a system where “there needs to be very little interaction with the customer; all things occurring seamlessly”, Jones says. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to do your tax,” he declares.

Plans for 2018

2018 will be a busy year for the ATO as it continues to roll out initiatives to tax agents, businesses and individuals.

One of the major projects is the Single Touch Payroll. The platform is linked with major payroll solution providers, so that when employers pay their employees, they will be able to use that same system to report wages, taxes and superannuation. “When an employer puts in their tax information, they have to only do it in one place,” Jones notes. Companies comprising 20 or more employees will start using this system from July this year.

In 2015, the ATO introduced voice authentication for services. Voiceprints are wholly unique, and they save users the hassle of remembering their login information for the ATO app or answering security questions when they call into the office, Jones says. The magic phrase is “In Australia, my voice identifies me”.

This initiative was put into practice two years ago, and is now being implemented at the Department of Human Services as well, he continues. Looking ahead, the ATO has been discussing with other Government agencies can leverage across their Voice Recognition system.

Despite high-profile incidents that have impacted the ATO’s image in the last year, there are nevertheless teams like Jones’, working towards resolution and boosting trust.

Image by Blue Mountains Library, Local StudiesCC BY 2.0