The objective of the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) was to examine how the ATO manages its responsibilities under the Taxpayers' Charter as an important element of its performance. This involved an examination of the ATO's: systems and processes used to develop, maintain and update the Charter; strategic commitment to implementing the principles of the Charter; integration of Charter principles with its business processes; and monitoring and reporting of its performance against commitments in the Charter.
The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) is the principal revenue collection agency in Australia. In 2003–04, through the self-assessment system and a broad range of compliance strategies, it collected revenue of around $199 billion. The ATO uses compliance strategies to help optimise collections and to instil confidence in the community that the taxation system is operating effectively. The ATO draws authority from the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 (the Act), which allows it to exercise broad powers in collecting revenue.
In 1993, the then Joint Committee of Public Accounts (now the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA)) assessed the ATO's administration of the Act. As part of the inquiry, the JCPAA highlighted concerns about an imbalance of power between the ATO and taxpayers. It recommended that the ATO adopt a Taxpayers' Charter to redress this imbalance. The Government supported the JCPAA's report. In March 1997, in a statement entitled ‘More Time for Business', the Government announced that Service Charters were to apply to all Australian government departments and agencies, whenever they provide a service to the public.
The Taxpayers' Charter (the Charter) was introduced in July 1997 and sets out the way the ATO will conduct itself when dealing with taxpayers. It defines the relationship that the ATO seeks with the community—a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.
The Charter is designed to help taxpayers understand their rights and obligations and to describe the ATO's service standards, complaint handling and review procedures. It consists of two overview booklets and ten supporting booklets. It explains 13 Charter principles (taxpayer rights) and outlines six taxpayer obligations.
Significance of the Charter to the ATO
The ATO has stated that:
It is fundamental to the system of self assessment that taxpayers must have sufficient confidence in the collecting authority—confidence that we will provide them with the information they need and that we will act fairly and treat taxpayers according to their individual circumstances. We believe we need to position ourselves in such a way that demonstrates to Australians that we are fair and reasonable and that we treat people according to their individual compliance behaviour.
The ATO uses three interlinked tools—the Charter, the Compliance Model and Brand Management—to support community confidence in the revenue system. The Charter provides the ‘common ground' of fair and reasonable treatment, which all taxpayers, whatever their compliance behaviour, can expect in their dealings with the ATO. The Compliance Model, on the other hand, analyses taxpayers' compliance behaviour and determines what is a ‘fair and reasonable' approach towards individual taxpayers based on their behaviour. The Taxpayers' Charter and the Compliance Model are supported by the ATO's approach to Brand Management. This directs that the ATO adopt a consistent style in its various forms of communication—one that projects an image that aligns with the ATO's professional approach to managing the community's revenue systems.
Audit objective and scope
The objective of the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) audit was to examine how the ATO manages its responsibilities under the Taxpayers' Charter as an important element of its performance. This involved an examination of the ATO's:
- systems and processes used to develop, maintain and update the Charter;
- strategic commitment to implementing the principles of the Charter;
- integration of Charter principles with its business processes; and
- monitoring and reporting of its performance against commitments in the Charter.
The audit did not examine the ATO's strategies to monitor taxpayers' conformance with the latter's obligations. These are primarily implemented through the ATO's approach to compliance.
Audit findings and overall conclusion Development and Review of Charter (Chapter 2)
The original Charter gave a commitment to be independently reviewed every three years, with the first review due in July 2000. However, in 2000, the community and ATO staff were just coming to grips with the implementation of the New Tax System. Therefore, the review was delayed to incorporate the impact of tax reform. The revised Charter was released in November 2003. It complies with the key elements from the Client Service Charter Principles1 and incorporates most suggested charter elements.
However, the ANAO has made a number of observations regarding the Review of the Charter to bring about improved Charter reviews in the future. These observations related to Client Service Standards2 , Charter principles3 and timely completion of future Charter reviews. They aim to make the findings of the Review more relevant and allow more effective implementation of recommendations.
Strategic Commitment (Chapter 3)
The ANAO sought to determine whether ATO management has given the Charter principles both explicit and implicit recognition in key elements of its management processes to enhance its performance.
The ANAO found that the Listening to the Community program4 is practical evidence of the ATO's strategic commitment to the principles of the Charter. It gives community stakeholders an opportunity to influence how the ATO conducts its business, in particular its administrative processes. The ANAO also found that, within key elements of the ATO's Strategic Statement and sub-plans, there is substantial evidence that the principles of the Charter are being effectively applied by the ATO.
Apart from specific references to the Charter in some of the higher-level discussion, much of the Charter's application in the sub-plans is implicit, rather than explicit. The ANAO considers that the information presented in the sub-plans relating to the Charter does not adequately assist a reader in readily grasping the relationship between planned strategies and the Charter principles. Explicitly reinforcing this relationship would provide staff with necessary guidance on how the Charter principles are embedded in the ATO's strategic planning processes. This would assist the ATO to achieve better performance in meeting its challenge of ‘living' the Charter.
Commitment to underlying systems relevant to the Charter
The ANAO also examined whether high-level direction applied within the ATO on questions such as the:
- application of privacy principles to taxpayers' information;
- confidentiality of information that taxpayers provide to the ATO;
- provision of advice to clients; and
- handling of complaints.
Corporate Management Practice Statements (CMPS) within the ATO provide direction, assistance and a point of reference on the practices to be followed and obligations in performing corporate management duties. CMPS that have some relationship to the Charter principles include: data matching; secrecy and privacy obligations; requests for information from Telecommunication Carriers; information technology security; and freedom of information. These CMPS provide guidance on many of the matters covered under the Charter. The ATO has a Certificate of Assurance (CoA) process that involves relevant national program managers and Second Commissioners providing statements on the level of conformance with a broad range of internal integrity matters. Generally there exists a CMPS to support each CoA.
However, the ANAO noted that, although there is a CoA relating to Customer Service, there is no corresponding CMPS. Customer Service is a major part of the ATO's responsibilities related to the Charter. The ANAO considers that a CMPS on customer service would better guide the ATO staff on how they are to meet their responsibilities under the Charter.
Charter Support Mechanisms (Chapter 4)
The ATO demonstrates its commitment to implementing the Charter through its strategic initiatives and planning processes, as discussed above. The ANAO aimed to establish whether this strategic commitment was reflected in the ATO's business processes. In this context, the ANAO examined some key support processes (training, clearance processes and marketing and education) that can contribute to an effective implementation of the Charter within the ATO.
The ATO makes a number of commitments5 under its Charter. These commitments require that staff maintain their professional excellence, which includes technical knowledge and understanding. In addition, the Charter Review recommended a need to develop and implement an ongoing education and support strategy to assist and encourage people in the ATO to ‘live' the Charter.
Overall, the ANAO considered that the ATO has already implemented, or is in the process of developing, a coordinated approach to increasing staff awareness and understanding of the Charter and its principles.
The ATO requires a systematic clearance process to honour its undertaking to provide assurance that all advice, information and products issued by the ATO comply with the principles of the Charter.
The ANAO noted that the ATO has systematic processes in place to help provide assurance that all advice, information and products that are issued by the ATO comply with the principles of the Charter. Although the quality of the written binding advice is tested through a structured quality assurance mechanism, this is not the case with technical publications.
The ATO is in the process of publishing a Law Administration Practice Statement (Practice Statement) on technical clearance of ATO publications.6 The ANAO has recommended that, to be confident that technical publications issued by the ATO take account of the Charter principles, the draft Practice Statement should include explicit references to the Charter, or comment on the relevance of its principles to the technical clearance process.
Marketing and education
The ATO considers effective marketing and education as crucial in its aim to maximise voluntary compliance7 . For the Charter to be an effective tool in influencing compliance behaviour, taxpayers need to be aware of their rights, obligations and of the available feedback mechanisms under the Charter.
The ANAO noted that, although the ATO has undertaken a series of initiatives at a corporate level, there is no systematic approach to ensure that Charter messages are considered when developing communication products for taxpayers. The ANAO has recommended that the ATO develop protocols and procedures to advise taxpayers of relevant Charter rights and obligations as a normal part of all interactions with the ATO. To maintain a consistent and coordinated approach, this recommendation could be incorporated in the ATO's overall strategy for managing marketing and education activities across the ATO.
Quality Assurance (Chapter 5)
Quality assurance provides useful information and assurance that business processes conform with an organisation's policy, procedures and practices. It can also be used as a continuous improvement mechanism to systematically identify the causes of problems and initiate improvements through constructive and timely feedback. Results can be also used as a measure of the effectiveness of the Charter.
We examined some of the quality assurance processes undertaken to determine whether they provide assurance that Charter principles are embedded in the ATO's business processes.
Technical Quality Reviews
Technical Quality Reviews (TQR) involve an examination of a random sample of completed work items. They assess the quality of decisions on the interpretation and application of the laws administered by the Commissioner and communicated in writing to the ATO's clients. The ANAO recognises that the TQR process provides a measure of technical decision-making, and, to some extent, assurance on clarity of advice. However, this process has some limitations with regard to its approach to sample selection and its focus on technical accuracy.
Recognising the limited scope of the TQRs, Lines8 have implemented, or were in the process of implementing, supplementary quality assurance processes to gain additional assurance on their case-work. However, the ANAO noted that the supplementary quality assurance processes were not implemented systematically across the ATO. These were unique to each Line with many of the processes either evolving or in their initial stages of implementation.
The ANAO considers that a systematic approach to supplementary quality assurance processes would enable focus on broader aspects of the ATO's business processes. This includes compliance with a range of Charter principles that are not necessarily addressed through the TQR process. Such an approach would be consistent with the ATO's initiatives in achieving efficiencies by harnessing efforts across Lines. A consistent methodology across the ATO would also provide increased assurance about the results.
Telephony Quality Reviews
Oral technical advice is an important aspect of service provided by the ATO to assist taxpayers in a self-assessment system. Telephony Quality Reviews provide a ‘corporate health' measure on the quality of advice provided to the ATO clients.
Broadly, there is consistency across the ATO with regard to Telephony Quality Reviews undertaken. The ANAO considers that the Telephony Quality Reviews provide a useful measure of Charter conformance. The telephony quality assurance processes measure and uphold a range of Charter principles relating to provision of reliable and accurate advice, adherence to privacy principles, and provision of professional services and assistance.
The ANAO noted that, currently, the Telephony Quality Reviews do not include calls that are transferred to other areas within the ATO. The ANAO has suggested that the ATO consider the merits of including these calls, because it could benefit from a more complete corporate health measure on the quality of oral advice across the ATO.
Handling of Complaints (Chapter 6)
An effective complaints handling process is a useful monitoring and reporting tool on the ATO's performance against the Charter. It can serve as a sound compliance mechanism, as well as contribute to the ATO's continuous improvement process.
In June 2003, the Commonwealth and Taxation Ombudsman (Ombudsman) published a report on the ATO's management of its complaints. The object of this investigation was to examine both the ATO Complaints' and Lines' complaint handling practices and procedures.9 The Ombudsman noted ‘the lack of a single complaints handling system is a major contributor to the inefficiencies within the complaints handling system as a whole'. The review identified several weaknesses with the ATO's complaints handling processes and made a number of recommendations, many directly relevant to effective implementation of Charter principles within the ATO.
The ANAO found that the ATO has implemented, or is working towards implementing, the Ombudsman's recommendations. The new Complaint Management Information System, when implemented, should be an effective compliance mechanism and a valuable source for assessing Charter performance. However, the ANAO has also identified opportunities for improving the current arrangements relating to complaints with a view to strengthening its relationship to Charter performance.
Monitoring and Reporting (Chapter 7)
The Client Service Charter Principles specify that agencies should publicly account for their performance against their charter. The public and staff would then be aware of the Charter. It would also allow the public to assess and provide feedback on the agency's related service performance. In reviewing this area, the ANAO aimed to establish whether the ATO effectively monitors and reports (internally and externally) on its performance against the commitments in the Charter.
Monitoring Charter performance
At the time of the audit, the ATO did not have a strategy or a systematic approach to measure its performance against the Charter principles. The measures being used provided limited assurance that practices and procedures comply with Charter principles. The ANAO has suggested some additional qualitative measures based on our review of business processes. These additional measures do not require the ATO to introduce new processes to measure the effectiveness of Charter principles. They involve the use of existing information and procedures, such as, the results of quality assurance processes and complaints as well as results of external surveys. The ATO advised that it is in the process of formulating a Charter measurement strategy with a view to reporting on its Charter performance by March 2005.
Internal and external reporting
The ANAO found that the ATO had limited internal and external reporting arrangements in relation to the management of its responsibilities under the Charter. The regular internal reports that refer to the Charter are limited to certain timeliness measures. However, there are a range of internal reports that contain information which would assist in reporting against the Charter principles.
The ANAO considers that the ATO should examine the material that is available from its existing reports, and develop a framework for regular internal reporting in relation to its Charter responsibilities. These reports could be quarterly or half yearly, and would include information against qualitative and quantitative measures.
Although the ATO reports annually on its performance against the Client Service Standards, it does not provide a holistic view on its performance against the broader commitments made in the Charter, that is, the thirteen Charter principles. The ANAO considers that, by implementing the recommendations relating to monitoring and reporting on Charter performance, the ATO would be in a better position to build an effective external reporting framework.
Overall, we concluded that the ATO is managing its responsibilities under the Charter. The ATO has systems and processes to develop, maintain and review the Charter. This framework will be strengthened when the ATO fully implements the recommendations of the recent Charter Review. The ATO has shown its commitment to the Charter principles at the strategic level, and is working to fully integrate these principles with its business processes. The ATO is yet to effectively monitor and report on its performance against the Charter.
The ANAO has identified a number of areas for improvement so that the ATO achieves better performance in meeting its challenge of ‘living' the Charter. These include:
- explicitly documenting how relevant strategies and measures within its sub-plans relate to the Charter principles. This would provide staff with guidance on how the Charter principles are embedded in the ATO's strategic planning processes;
- developing a Corporate Management Practice Statement to provide guidance to ATO staff on how they are to meet their responsibilities under the Charter;
- developing appropriate protocols and procedures to advise taxpayers of relevant Charter rights and obligations as a normal part of all interactions with the ATO;
- implementing a systematic approach to quality assurance processes to enable the ATO to focus on broader aspects of the ATO's business processes, including compliance with Charter principles;
- finalising the Charter measurement strategy using qualitative measures to provide assurance on the quality of the relationship with the taxpayer and the quality of services provided; and
- examining the material that is available from existing internal reports to develop a framework for regular internal reporting in relation to responsibilities under the Charter.
The ANAO has made nine recommendations to improve the ATO's management of its responsibilities under the Charter.
Summary of ATO response
The Charter was introduced in 1997 and was one of the first ‘service' charters introduced by a Commonwealth agency. Since its introduction, we have been concerned with ensuring that our practices reflect the Charter's principles. Our approach is to advise taxpayers of the service they can expect, what is expected of them and what they can do to seek redress if needed. This goes to the heart of the relationship we seek with the community.
The Australian National Audit Office report recognises and acknowledges the commitment we have to our Charter, the work that we have done in reviewing and updating it and the practices we have in place that underpin it. We agree with their recommendations and see them as suggested improvements to our current practices in relation to the Charter.
1 The Department of Finance and Administration (Finance) originally provided guidance to all government agencies on their Charters. In 2000 it launched a publication, Client Service Charter Principles to provide a framework for agencies developing charters as well as a focus on measuring, monitoring and reviewing charters. Responsibility for charters was transferred to the Australian Public Service Commission in November 2001, following changes in Administrative Arrangements Orders.
2 These are primarily timeliness measures and form part of the Charter and are currently linked to the ATO's Agency Agreement.
3 The 13 principles/commitments made by the ATO under the Charter.
4 An initiative of the ATO to work jointly with taxpayers and agents to make the tax process easier, cheaper and more personalised.
5 Examples are: give you advice and information that you can rely on; offer you professional service and assistance to help you understand and meet your tax obligations; explain to you the decisions we make about the tax affairs; and be accountable for what we do.
6 This Practice Statement will apply to all ATO publications with technical content. However, TaxPack, publications referred to in TaxPack, and precedential ATO view documents as defined in paragraph four of Law Administration Practice Statement PS LA 2003/3, will be excluded from this definition as they are subject to substantive established clearance processes.
7 This is because clients need to understand what they have to do to comply and to believe that the revenue system is fairly and firmly administered (resulting in everybody paying their fair share), and that those who deliberately seek to avoid paying tax will be detected and dealt with.
8 The ATO has several Business and Service Lines that plan and manage delivery of sub-plans.
9 Complaints are handled within the ATO at three levels: Line; Relationship Management; and ATO Complaints.