ATO looks to tech to combat staff cuts

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ATO looks to tech to combat staff cuts

How to maintain service standards?

The Australian Tax Office has turned its eye towards innovations in customer service technologies to maintain standards on the front line in spite of a significant job cutting initiative.

In November last year the agency announced a planned workforce reduction of 900 as a result of “efficiency dividends”, the abolishment of some taxes and a wider reduction in the public service workforce.

The ATO has since revealed more than 500 workers have applied for a voluntary redundancy - more than could be met through the program.

In a report tabled yesterday by the Standing Committee on Tax and Revenue - tasked with inquiring into and reporting on the ATO’s 2013 annual report - it revealed the ATO was on a “quest for innovation and the use of information technology” to ensure its frontline service standards are maintained in the wake of the mass job cuts.

It highlighted examples such as voice matching technology for citizens contacting an ATO call centre and initiatives like e-tax as ways to ensure service standards do not degrade with less customer service staff.

“From May this year, we will invite taxpayers to record a voice print with which they can identify themselves to our contact centres. That saves 45 seconds each time that person contacts us,” the ATO told the committee.

“That does not sound like much, but that is 100 FTE [full-time equivalents] across our call load for the entire year. So, when there is enough customer take up of that, I can either take that 100 FTE as a resource dividend or improve the service standard; and that is a choice that we will make in the context of our budget.

“So we are not sitting still waiting for the heavens to fall, we are innovating and trying to restructure our business in such a way that we can achieve effective taxpayer service and maintain revenue collection to the maximum degree possible,” the ATO said.

The Committee also heard that 300,000 citizens had taken up e-tax for Mac last year, accompanied by a 33 percent reduction in paper lodgements to 400,000.

“Paper returns were all scanned or keyed, requiring ‘armies of people’,” the report stated.

“Lodgements via e-tax were far more efficient, as information came into the core processing system ‘clean’, enabling rapid processing. A reduction in paper lodgements had the potential to reduce the need for staff in this processing area.”

The Committee said it was optimistic about the ATO’s efforts in such innovations, and encouraged the tax agency to look at overseas examples like Norway and Denmark for best practice. 

But it said it acknowledged that achieving these efficiencies "takes time, is reliant on taxpayer take-up of these innovations, and may only lead to efficiencies in the mid to long term".

The ATO is also currently working on implementing priority areas identified in its May 2013 Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) capability review.

The review identified ATO’s ICT efficiency and agility as a priority area - it found only four percent of the ATO’s ICT budget for 2012-13 had been dedicated to working on innovations to simplify the system for taxpayers.

By contrast, 74 percent of the ICT budget was directed to running costs and maintenance, and 22 percent went towards government policy and legislative change. 

The APSC is expected to conduct a further health check on the ATO’s progress on the recommendations towards the end of the year.

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