The Australian Tax Office is getting better at responding to complaints by tax agents with IT systems issues, but it still needs to up its game, according to tax practitioners.
Late last year the ATO was criticised for failing to address serious problems with its slow and unreliable online portal for tax agents.
The system will be replaced at some point with a new portal dubbed ATO Online, but in the meantime the 14-year old software - used by agents to access ATO systems and client records - is suffering major usability issues.
The tax office has made strides towards better website performance in the interim, but a big overhaul isn't feasible given the migration plans, and small changes aren't doing much to soothe irate tax agents.
In hearings last year, tax agents complained to a parliamentary committee investigating the issue that they were losing business, productivity, and suffering brand damage because of the "unstable" portal.
They said the ATO was doing little to address a laundry list of problems with the existing portal, whilst remaining vague about when agents might expect to migrate to the new platform.
The committee made a number of recommendations to the ATO at the time and promised to revisit the situation several months down the track.
It has since gone back to both parties to see how the issue is progressing, and today reported it was "impressed" with the ATO's efforts to improve its responsiveness to tax agents.
However, a lack of certainty around when the ATO planned to set its new online tax agent portal live was contributing to ongoing frustration amongst agents, and the office needs to clearly outline its timetable for the transition, the committee said.
"[The] poor functioning of the existing portal in past years and possibly into the future is a continuing source of inefficiency and irritation for tax agents," the committee wrote.
While the ATO has committed to working with tax agents to address issues and keep them updated with changes - through features like a dashboard that details in real-time how the portal is functioning - issues with response times, access to both the portal and to reports, and out-of-date client details remain.
Similarly, the dashboard displays that certain functions are working when they aren't, according to the Tax Institute, which complained that the ATO knew when performance issues were occurring but didn't always register them on the dashboard.
The dashboard "could be very useful", the committee said, but only if the ATO was sincere in its stated consultation efforts and acted on reports.
The committee said tax practitioners had resigned themselves to the current state of the portal.
It expects some of the issues will be alleviated through an "impressive" pilot program the ATO started in March that involves visiting the offices of 50 tax agents experiencing the most difficulty with the portal to help them use it more effectively.
But the question of when the new portal - and its unspecified 'improvements' - would actually arrive has yet to be answered.
"The Tax Institute noted that progress on the new portal appeared to be slower than on other digital projects, and that it was still in a diagnostic phase, with the ATO still working out what the issues were and what it would need to do to address them," the committee wrote.
It said it was not clear what progress has been made on the development of the new portal, including what new and improved features it will offer compared to the old version.
The ATO therefore needed to make a "clear public statement" on its timelines for the new portal, the committee recommended.
"The committee looks forward to hearing of progress on the development of the new platform, ATO Online. It should be well advanced by the time of the next hearing," the MPs wrote.