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Tax Office tip: to try technology; talk to taxpayers

Written by  Bill Gibson
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Bill GibsonIssue:Asia-Pacific I 2005
Article no.:5
Topic:Tax Office tip: to try technology; talk to taxpayers
Author:Bill Gibson
Title:Chief Information Officer
Organisation:Australian Taxation Office
PDF size:68KB

About author

Bill Gibson is the Australian Taxation Office’s first Chief Information Officer. Mr Gibson has worked in both the public and private sector, including the Health Insurance Commission where Mr Gibson was involved in the Medibank and Medicare Private programmes. Immediately before joining the Tax Office, Mr Gibson worked with QANTAS in a variety of IT roles including systems development, infrastructure and operations. In his current position, Mr Gibson is responsible for ensuring that the Tax Office’s IT systems and processes support day-to-day business as well as high-quality service to the community. Over the next few years Mr Gibson will be focusing on supporting specific initiatives designed to make the Australian revenue system easier, cheaper and more personalised for both staff and the taxpaying community. Many of these initiatives include the further development of the office’s online environment to provide people with free, secure and convenient electronic products and services.

 

Article abstract

Australia’s Tax Office has been working to find ways to make it easier and cheaper for people to comply with their tax obligations. The Tax Office’s Listening to the community program and its state-of-the-art ‘usability lab’ called the ‘Simulation Centre’ allows designers and users of the tax system to share experiences. This has resulted in a series of on-line systems that provide businesses and tax agents with new and enhanced functions, with higher quality, more timely, information and processing.

 

Full Article

In recent years, the Tax Office has adopted a number of innovations, which have led to real improvements in the way taxpayers experience the revenue system. In March 2002, the Commissioner of Taxation announced the Listening to the Community programme. This involved the Tax Office working with the general community, small business, industry and tax agents to develop ideas to make it easier and cheaper for people to comply with their tax obligations. In addition to community involvement, the Tax Office is also committed to the concept of ‘user-centred design’ (or co-design) to conceive, develop and test products and services. This approach is applied at all stages of development—concept, design, building and testing—and involves the user in working out what should be delivered, how it should look and function and testing the usefulness and usability of the final product. Listening to the community has evolved into the Tax Office's three-phase Change Programme, which takes the information the Tax Office has ‘heard’ to plan, design and implement improvements for taxpayers and their representatives. When determining taxpayers' needs and how to fulfil them, the Tax Office uses a range of user-centred design and testing techniques including: √ Focus groups: Small discussion groups, which involve questioning and getting responses from a group of users. Focus groups are effective for concept and product testing, learning how people may use a product and exploring problems or complaints relating to a specific product. √ Prototyping: This involves developing examples of a product, system or trial model using paper or screen-based mock-ups. Prototyping begins once requirements have been identified. These prototypes are then evaluated by users, after which further prototypes are built based on their comments. √ Walkthroughs: Participants are asked to imagine a process, product or system and discuss what they would do or expect to happen at each step. This technique is generally used to look at current operations to identify problems or inefficiencies. √ Usability evaluation: This involves the evaluation of a product by users who are observed while ‘interacting’ with the product. This can extend as far as detailed evaluation of participants' facial expressions, reactions and behaviour. This technique can be applied at any stage of development and can lead to suggestions for improved design. √ User testing and observation: The Tax Office has a state-of-the-art ‘usability lab’ called the ’Simulation Centre’, which allows designers and users of the tax system to share experiences. The Simulation Centre includes two simulation rooms, an observation room, a discussion room and a design space. The Simulation Centre's set-up enables designers to observe users interacting with products with minimal intrusion. √ User interviews: This involves a one-on-one interview with a client to evaluate a product, process or system from the early stages of a project and continuing to the early product design. This approach is commonly used to evaluate a proposed design. Using these methods has enabled the Tax Office to develop and deliver new products and services and improve existing ones, which better meet taxpayers' needs. For example: √ The website www.ato.gov.au has been redesigned to make it easier to find the right information; √ Options for streamlining income tax return preparation and lodgment have been tested with selected taxpayers. For example, PhonePack, which allows taxpayers with straightforward returns to prepare them on paper and lodge them on the telephone using a voice recognition system; √ Improved phone services for each group starting with a priority service for tax agents; √ Trials of specialised phone services for specific industry groups and sub-groups; √ Tailored websites for tax agents and businesses via the Tax Agent Portal and Business Portal which provide details about their tax accounts and registration information and facilitating a range of activities, such as, online lodgement for a range of forms, requests for transfers and refunds, and sending secure messages to and from the Tax Office. Future direction Whilst much has been achieved over the last two years, there is a lot of work to be done over the coming three years. The Tax Office will continue to work with the community to identify changes and improvements to products and services. In terms of technology, the Tax Office's Change Programme will help bring systems into current day technology framework, replacing core legacy applications, and improving operational performance and efficiencies. The Change Programme has three broad phases: √ Phase One was the high level planning phase which confirmed that the key outcomes from the Change Programme are to deliver an improved taxpayers' experience, reduce Tax Office costs and have more flexible technology; √ Phase Two (April 2004 to September 2004) was the design for the programme; √ Phase Three is implementation and runs from September 2004 through to 2007. The Change Programme is making effective plans for developing, improving and using various customer contact channels (such as online, phone and paper) for delivering products and services. As part of this, the Tax Office has assessed current channel use and has proposed improvements. Whilst the Tax Office wants to optimise the use of particular channels it will not degrade other channels and will continue to support traditional methods such as paper and phones. As well, the Change Programme is about building insight and intelligence from "data mining" and data analysis. This insight and intelligence is used to produce profiles, reports and models, which help the Tax Office understand and predict taxpayers' behaviour. A better understanding of taxpayers means they will benefit from receiving information, which is relevant to them, their compliance history and risk profile. The Tax Office is continuing to explore opportunities for integrating tax-related activities with ‘natural’ systems. Two examples are its work in the areas of facilitated lodgment and web services. In facilitated lodgment, a client’s software package interfaces with another system to transfer data required to complete an online transaction. In web services, data are transferred directly from the client’s electronic accounts to the Tax Office. The Tax Office is working with providers of commercial software to enable electronic lodgment of activity statements via web services and has commenced a pilot of this. Taxpayers will get better phone services when the Tax Office has a system that provides a consolidated view of their contact history. This will contribute to improved customer service and increased resolution of calls at the first point of contact. For individual taxpayers, a range of additional calculators and expert systems will assist in the determination of such as individual zone and overseas forces tax offsets, depreciation, foreign exempt income and forward losses. The Tax Office will continue to improve the Business Portal and Tax Agent Portal to provide new and enhanced functions, with more information and processing. Case study: the tax agent portal The idea of the tax agent portal came from the Listening to the Community programme. Tax agents were asked what they wanted. Working with tax professional associations and tax agents, the Tax Office determined the information and functions they most needed. The first release of the portal was in October 2002 after which the Tax Office gathered reactions and, through releases during 2003 and 2004, increased the functions of the portal. What it now offers tax agents includes the ability to: √ Access balances and details for accounts; √ View details of debts; √ Request transfers between accounts and refunds of credit balances; √ Update preference for receiving activity statements; √ View schedules of activity statements; √ Lodge and have activity statements processed; √ Advise where a client is not required to lodge a return; √ View and update client identity information; √ Download calculators and decision support tools; √ Obtain information on call waiting times for the premium phone service; √ Notify appointment or cancellation of a tax agent for a range of tax types; √ Have two-way messaging within a secure environment; √ Receive alerts from the Tax Office on new products, services and changes; √ Use an access control function allowing tax agents to create separate user accounts for their staff. As well as ‘24-7’ online access to information and services, the benefits the portal has provided tax agents include: √ Certainty—agents can ensure a transaction has updated the client record correctly; √ Integrated view—tax agent and Tax Office staff see the same information; √ Responsiveness—quicker answers to questions; √ Transparency—more information online means clients have a greater level of confidence and trust in the tax system; √ Improved data quality—agents can correct data recorded by the Tax Office; √ Reduced costs—agents can free up time for other activities. Benefits for the Tax Office include: √ Increased compliance—tax agents can quickly work out if lodgments have not been made or where amounts are outstanding; √ Improved data quality—exposing records to the community ensures the Tax Office has a data quality focus; √ Reduced error rates—reduced manual handling means less human error and online lodgment with validation checks ensures data is ready for processing; √ Reduced costs—there are fewer calls to call centres; √ Platform for future development—the Tax Agent Portal provided the platform for the Business Portal. Reuse of common modules ensures consistency of experience and outcome and enables quicker development. A number of challenges arose through the development of the tax agent portal, including: √ Security—the Internet presents specific security challenges. There are two levels of authentication for the portal—user ID and password, and public key infrastructure digital certificate security. Information travelling between the Tax Office and end users is protected by secure encryption. The Tax Office has made the process of installing digital certificates and associated software faster and easier. Independent bodies undertake a threat risk assessment and conduct penetration testing for each portal release. √ Accuracy and privacy—exposing client information online means data has to be accurate and up-to-date. The Tax Office confirms data quality before exposing information on the portal. √ Different user environments—to effectively deliver online services it is necessary to cater for a range of hardware and software platforms. The Tax Office designs products and services for a range of operating systems based on data about users of the Tax Office and Business Entry Point websites. √ Accessibility—online products must be accessible to those with special needs. The Tax Office liaises with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and regularly undertakes usability testing before implementation. √ Meeting expectations—as more products and services are provided online, expectations for improvements also increase. Through collaboration with tax professionals and committing to a three-year cycle of improvements, the Tax Office lets tax agents know what's coming. √ Speed to market—there is a tension between delivering improvements quickly and ensuring those improvements are of a high quality. Part of meeting this challenge has been the Tax Office creating reusable code to eliminate duplication when providing similar services to different client groups. √ Stability and availability—as users rely more on online products and services, interruptions to availability can have an adverse impact on their businesses and their attitude towards the product and the organisation. The Tax Office has developed testing strategies to ensure arrangements are in place, which can address outages and users know of problems and downtime.

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