ATO urged to fix 'unreliable' legacy tax agent portal

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ATO urged to fix 'unreliable' legacy tax agent portal

Scrutiny committee hears of 'damaging' technical issues.

The Australian Tax Office has been urged to address "serious" problems with its online tax agent portal, which has been classified by agents as unstable, slow and unreliable.

Since 2002, the online portal has been used by tax agents to access ATO systems and client records, and to communicate with the ATO on behalf of clients.

The ATO is planning to migrate agents onto a new portal dubbed ATO Online at some point in the future, but is yet to offer a date the new system is expected to go live.

The office is continuing to make minor changes aimed at stabilising the existing platform, but big improvement works aren't feasible given the planned migration.

However, despite two releases earlier this year intended to improve the website's performance, the ATO is being flooded with complaints about the current portal's usability.

The lower house committee tasked with reviewing the ATO's annual report said it had received a rush of complaints about the site's technical capabilities at a hearing for tax practitioners in September.

In its report, released today, the committee said tax agents complained of losing business, productivity and incurring damage to their reputation because of the "unreliable" and "unstable" website.

Tax Services Australia described the portal as "variously and regularly unavailable, slow, and extremely costly for tax professionals to interact with".

Pressing refresh for 350k clients

Part of the problem, according to tax agents, is that the portal is now the sole method of communication with the ATO for client correspondence.

Prior to the introduction of the MyGov platform, tax agents were sent correspondence about a client directly from the tax office, but such communications are now sent directly to the client's MyGov inbox.

It means agents need to access the portal in order to view these communications through a 'client correspondence list' tool.

However, agents report that the information available in the tool can be either inaccessible or incomplete - an area the ATO admitted was an emerging theme in complaints.

Agents also complained that the portal did not have a notification function for new pieces of client correspondence - meaning agents have to continuously check the portal to see whether anything new has come through.

"The ATO says these documents are ‘available’ via client correspondence on the unreliable tax agent portal, but we have found this to be highly unreliable. For example, the search results for a previous day/week vary from time to time, depending upon when you conduct the search (more/less search results appears)," Tax Services Australia told the committee.

Commissioner of Taxation Chris Jordan claimed the inability to view a complete list of correspondence for a client had been addressed

"There have been some teething problems, I shall describe it, in terms of the agents’ ability to search and see all of that correspondence that has gone to their clients," he told the committee.

"I now understand that that is all rectified, that agents can look at their total client list; they can look at an individual client’s correspondence."

Jordan admitted the ATO had not properly considered the effect of MyGov on tax agents.

"It probably was not our best example of co-design—trying to do something for the benefit of the citizen, the individual taxpayer, and probably not taking into account sufficiently the impact on the business model of the agent," he told the committee.

He blamed some of the portal capacity issues on large numbers of agents attempting to access client correspondence at the same time.

"... we are finding some very large agents that have something like 350,000 clients are getting in, in the morning, and pressing the refresh button for all 350,000 clients going back over the last 60 days, when really they should only be looking at the last day, if they do it every day. There has been some incredible, probably unnecessary, pressure put on the system that has overloaded it," Jordan said.

He said the ATO IT team would consider the potential for a push notification function for client correspondence.

"We have to acknowledge that this was not done in the best way. We think we have nearly fixed it," Jordan said.

The house of reps committee said a large number of tax agents were being negatively affected by the portal's technical performance, which was a concern given 70 percent of individuals and 95 percent of business use agents for their tax affairs.

It "strongly" suggested the ATO develop a notification function for the portal to flag when new correspondence is sent to a client's MyGov inbox.

The committee said it considered the issue to be a "serious" one and promised to continue monitoring the agency's efforts to address the problems with the portal.

It said it planned to meet with the ATO and peak tax bodies early next year for an update on progress rectifying the technical issues, as well as data on the number and types of complaints received about the portal and how the tax office had responded to them.

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