The accounting sector is demanding more be done to address the significant reputational damage and mental health effects of continued system outage difficulties at the Australian Taxation Office, as individuals and businesses continue to raise concerns about system faults as recently as this week.
The Institute of Public Accountants has made a public plea for a service standard to be introduced to the tax office, highlighting that while individual taxpayers have not been penalised for late filing of documents due to system knockouts, it has been impossible for tax agents to avoid the costs.
“We’ve had people say ‘clients just didn’t believe us that the services were down for that long, they questioned if they’d been fobbed off’,” Tony Greco, general manager of technical policy at the IPA, tells SmartCompany.
“These things have caused reputational damage,” he explains.
While tax agents and accountants appreciate those working within the ATO are “battling” significant problems, Greco says many small businesses in the accounting sector have been “wearing the pain” since the start of December 2016, when the portal systems first went offline after one of the tax office’s storage area networks failed.
The tax office has since been paid a commercially confidential settlement from hardware provider HPE over the initial failure, but despite a full investigation into the cause of the problems, accountants and individuals say there are still bugs in the system, with individuals taking to social media as recently as this morning to question load times and dropouts.
Greco says it’s impossible to quantify the overall cost to the professional community, because so much of the productivity losses have been linked to wasted time, and the impact of this varies from firm to firm.
However, given the significant IT expenditure of the tax office, the organisation should be held to a service standard by which it would pay some kind of penalty for unreasonable disruptions, Greco says.
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“This [situation] means backlogs are starting, and the ATO don’t have accountability around their systems. For them, too, we hear of [ATO] staff basically twiddling their thumbs when systems go down as well.”
The IPA believes there is political momentum around solving the IT design flaws once and for all, and Greco says given the Inspector-General of Taxation is currently completing a review of the tax profession and the office, this service stability could be a consideration in an investigation in future.
Despite calls for compensation for lost productivity, the tax office’s post-mortem of the December 2016 knockout only pointed tax practitioners towards the Scheme for Compensation for Detriment caused by Defective Administration, which is aimed at redressing disadvantage caused by defective Commonwealth systems.
The IPA insists this is the wrong model for small businesses to make claims, because many dollar amounts would be too small compared to what that scheme usually considers.
Ultimately, Greco says, for the amount of resources spent on ATO systems and processes, the result doesn’t seem to be delivering for the one professional group responsible for helping the majority of Australians submit their tax returns.
“I hate to think the amount of money they’ve spent, and it is not serving the stakeholders very well,” he says.
SmartCompany contacted the tax office for comment about the proposal of a service standard, but was directed to an earlier statement about the ongoing work being done on the ATO’s systems.
In that statement, the ATO said it “understand[s] that tax practitioners, their clients and other taxpayers have been struggling to catch up and meet the various lodgment requirements related to tax”, and will ensure tax practitioners and taxpayers are not disadvantaged when it comes to making lodgments.
“To ensure that there is no disadvantage, where possible, we will be remitting automatically or not imposing penalties for failure to lodge on time related to the late lodgment of 2015-16 income tax returns and activity statements due to be lodged from December 2016, where they are lodged by 31 August 2017,” said the ATO.