ATO rectifying tax agent 'irritants' following string of IT outages

The taxation office has told a House of Representatives committee that fixing the 'irritants' that tax agents have with the ATO's systems is a key priority.

It has been a tumultuous year for the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) where IT infrastructure is concerned, having suffered a handful of outages over the past 10 months from "one-of-a-kind" SAN outages to mainframe reboots.

The department has responded with promises of "smooth operating" IT, as well as the assurance of a more "connected and bulletproof" system than ever before. But CDO John Dardo and Assistant Commissioner of Client Engagement Business Improvement Strategies Andrew Watson have both said the ATO is focused on making sure its tax agents are happy.

It is clear to Dardo that the outages impact more than just ATO staff, and that the entire ecosystem including tax agents, software developers, and super funds also suffer.

The duo told a House of Representatives Standing Committee on Tax and Revenue that as a result, the ATO is undertaking an ongoing program of working with tax agents around irritants in the system.

"We've sat down with around 180 tax agents in the last two months," Watson told the committee on Friday.

"What we are seeing is the greater we've got stability in the system, [then] the issues of 'your systems don't work' are going and [shifting] to more around 'I would like this stuff available' or 'when I look at your online correspondence, I want all of it there'."

According to Watson, this feedback is somewhat affirming that the irritants are real and there are improvements to be made in the ATO's systems.

"The office's ability to rally from those outages and recover is beyond what I think most people can imagine," Dardo added. "If you look at the tax time performance this year, it is the best tax time in the history of the ATO."

The ATO has seen over 2 million tax returns lodged through its system so far this year.

"We've processed returns faster than ever before, refunds faster than ever before, more refunds and more returns than ever before, complaints are down 30 percent compared to last year -- every single indicator you look at has blown previous years out of the water," he explained.

"People don't realise there's very few places in the IT world that have to deliver at the scale and the speed that we do for tax time. You're talking new code, new IT systems, new products for regulatory or legislative change, releases of new product for the agent community -- all that was done and on top of that, we blew away every stat."

The ATO's biggest investment in the IT space is its standard business reporting capability, Dardo explained, moving from the "old world digital" that comprises mainly portals into the "new world digital", which is essentially machines talking to machines.

"In that new world digital, what you must have is APIs," he said.

In 2014, the ATO boasted 70 application programming interfaces (APIs); now, it has over 250. It also now has over 346 providers connected.

"Our biggest investments at the moment are how we turn those APIs into more resilient systems because as we become more connected, people are depending on us to be available more than just 6am to 6pm," Dardo told the committee.

"Last year we did 12.5 million interactions in one of the gateways, we'll probably hit 1 billion next year and it will be 10 billion the following year. We're talking scale, availability, investment, standards, technology, security -- that is our biggest focus in the digital world. We are absolutely up for the journey."

For tax agents, the ATO currently offers a product that Dardo simply described as old, but he promised a refresh in the coming 12 months.

"We are not going to try and compete with software developers in terms of the really awesome stuff that exists in the new practitioner lodgement system or practitioner-enabled software. And over time -- it might be a few years -- even the agent portal will probably diminish because they'll be able to do it in their own software once and not twice," he added.

He said the ATO has also been asked by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to do some work around how APIs are managed and regulated.

"As far as we know, we have not found a single country that has as many APIs as we do on as broad a range and with the sensitivity that we do," the CDO said. "And in fact if you'd asked me three months ago, the cumulative figure of all the APIs around the world in regulatory agencies were still less than what we had -- we are that far ahead."

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