Marketing, Tax

ATO spends nearly $1 million on market research, revealing 46% of Aussies believe its dispute processes are unfair

Dominic Powell /

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has spent nearly $1 million over three years to assess Australians’ perception of the tax office’s level of “fairness” — and found almost half of those who’ve engaged with the tax office’s via dispute think it’s not.

As first uncovered by the ABC through Freedom of Information laws, the ATO has admitted to spending $973,530 (excluding GST) on three surveys from 2014 to 2017, commissioning research and information giant Kantar Millward Brown to complete the reports.

According to the ABC, the results of these reports — which fielded responses from both individual taxpayers and businesses — show 44% of Australians who have undergone audits or dispute processes with the ATO believed it is unfair when it came to handling disputes.

A similar amount (45%) also said the amount of time it took to resolve a dispute was not reasonable, and below half thought they were kept well-informed throughout the process.

In a statement to SmartCompany, an ATO spokesperson said while the initial perceptions of fairness of tax disputes sat at 50% in 2014, the tax office has seen a “steady annual increase” over the three years, with the perception of fairness sitting at 56% in 2016-17.

“The insights and value provided through this process led the ATO to significantly expand research to include other finalised client interactions such as audit, advice and debt activities. This research was used to develop fairness metrics across the organisation,” the spokesperson said.

“Regular fairness data and insights allow the ATO to increase its responsiveness to changes in community perceptions. These insights are used internally to drive a range of activities that focus on delivering an experience to both taxpayers and tax agents they perceive to be fair.”

While the ATO’s efforts over the past few years have just managed to tip the scales in the favour of perceivably fair processes, a survey of only business owners could very well paint a different picture.

The tax office has consistently been in the bad books of many SMEs for a number of years, with issues continuing to mount since 2016’s colossal ongoing website outage; allegations of fraud against former deputy tax commissioner Mike Cranston in early 2017; constant vigilance over SME social media accounts; and seemingly random cancellation of sole traders’ ABN numbers.

More recently, a Four Corners investigation levelled a number of accusations of “bullying” at the tax office, with numerous small business owners speaking out against the ATO’s conduct, specifically regarding garnishee notices. The report sparked two inquiries, one from the Australian Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell, and another from outgoing Inspector General of Taxation Ali Noroozi.

“While it is undeniable that there have been many commendable ATO initiatives over the years, it needs to ensure that when approached with concerns, it considers them fully and genuinely and be seen to be doing so rather than be perceived to be diminishing the concerns and those who raise them,” Noroozi wrote in his report.

Market research still worth it

While the price tag of the ATO’s market research efforts may be raising a few eyebrows, marketing expert and director at Marketing Angels, Michelle Gamble, says this type of research is still valuable for organisations of all size. She acknowledges $1 million bucks is “a lot” to spend on market research, but implores SMEs to try a bit of research themselves on a much smaller scale.

“It is an important thing to do, and it’s something I think businesses don’t do enough of. It doesn’t have to cost a bazillion dollars, there’s so many tools out there like SurveyMonkey that let you do your own market research,” she says.

“Or you can even ask a sample of friends and family about things.”

Gamble says even a small market research project can be a great way for SMEs to better understand their target market and business audience, along with building up a strong list of email contacts for future marketing, all for just a few thousand dollars.

SMEs can be averse to market research due to perceived difficulty and lack of value, says Gamble, who thinks many business owners are overthinking it.

“Business owners need to look at it holistically. You’re getting publicity for your business, creating content, and driving revenue. A good survey can provide a lot of tools for businesses,” she says.

However, she does warn some businesses might find out things “you might not want to hear”, and advises SMEs to know what questions to ask.

NOW READ: Problems with focus groups and market research: Some real world examples

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Dominic Powell

Dominic is the features and profiles editor at SmartCompany.

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