Tax

SMEs call for review of ATO’s reliance on online services as dropouts saga continues

Emma Koehn /

Accountants and business groups are calling for a broader review into the continued outages at the Australian Taxation Office, amid heavy criticism of the ATO’s reliance on unreliable online systems to file important tax information.

Tax office services are only just coming back online this morning after another unscheduled outage at the end of last week, marking close to two months of significant disruptions after systems were wiped out in December 2016.

After a period that small businesses have described to SmartCompany as “very challenging”, “frustrating” and “stressful”, accountants are now calling on a review of the office’s reliance on data lodgments.

Shelley Whitton at Newcastle’s Real Balance Business Consulting says her business has always been prepared to adjust workflow around planned outages at the ATO, but the recent unplanned dropouts have proved very stressful.

Whitton says it feels like the tax office has been reckoning with challenges around maintaining its many online portal services for some time, and while it’s not the fault of front line ATO staff, the problems should be escalated to be resolved.

“I reckon it needs to go higher—and I think the ATO is playing catch up too with all the online world. You’ve got all the new systems, and they’re just trying to play catch up,” she told SmartCompany.

The tax office updated clients at 6:30am on Monday morning, saying that while most services had come back online, there were some continued issues to be expected.

Council of Small Business Australia (COSBOA) chief executive Peter Strong says the situation speaks to a bigger issue SMEs have been facing about the integration of technology from large organisations like the ATO into their work.

“Obviously people out there are very frustrated—it also leaves you wondering whether they’re going to fined,” Strong says.

“I think people are starting to notice all these glitches and outages, and are thinking ‘we have to do something.’”

Read more: What caused ATO systems to crash?

Over the past two months accountants and tax agents have called on the ATO to provide compensation for the disruptions to workflow caused by the outages, highlighting to SmartCompany that the dropouts have a direct effect on invoices because clients only pay accountants once their paperwork has actually been filed.

The ATO made repeated assurances that nobody will be disadvantaged if they are unable to file documents by deadlines due to system errors. PricewaterhouseCoopers has been engaged to review the causes of the issues, and a report will be delivered in March.

However, parliamentarians have said little on the situation or claims from businesses that the ATO is struggling to keep up with the variety of platforms that tax agents must use, and that these platforms must be reviewed.

This morning SmartCompany contacted Financial Services Minister Kelly O’Dwyer for comment on potential resolutions or assistance for small businesses, but was referred to the ATO for comment.

The tax office said it had nothing further to add to its public updates this morning.

Business owners have been sympathetic to ATO technicians working round the clock to restore dropouts, but many are frustrated with the now familiar routine of crashes and repairs.

And while many small business owners have praised the tax office for its regular updates, there’s one concern that won’t go away: how to explain the troubles to their own customers.

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.

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