Date posted: December 15, 2015

Michael Inglis is a tax barrister with Blackstone Chambers, Sydney

RTATO_imageThe ATO is undergoing fundamental change that will impact us all. There is obvious need for Australia’s tax system to be designed for the majority of taxpayers who do the right thing; not for the few who don’t. To do this, the ATO is being reinvented. It’s transforming how it goes about its core business, and is becoming more contemporary and service-oriented. Now into its third year of reinvention, the ATO has launched the first of many new products and approaches with a new online look and experience.


The launch is the beginning of something big. We’re entering a new era of continuous evolution on the ATO website, driven by us – the taxpayers. Our feedback and needs, plus the ever-changing technology, is what’s guiding the continual improvement of the online experience.

Why the ATO’s digital and cultural transformation is so important to all of us

 I’m glad to have this opportunity to say a few things about the digital and cultural transformation currently taking place at the ATO, and why that transformation is so important to all of us, the people of Australia.

This transformation has been underway for three years now, and – in my respectful opinion – has not yet attracted the wide media coverage it so clearly deserves and justifies.

That is due, no doubt, in large part, to the technical nature of the subject matter, and to the long lead times necessarily involved in such fundamental change, indeed transformation, of an organisation of such size and complexity.

The ATO is, of course, a very large, diverse and complex organisation. You might be surprised how much they actually impact our lives, it’s worth checking out what the ATO does.

The ATO plays a central role in the affairs of this country, and Australian society as a whole.

As such, the way the ATO goes about its business, and the success that attends its large endeavours, are both keenly important matters. They affect not only the viability of our society as a properly functioning liberal democracy, but

also the life of every Australian, and every taxpayer, both big and small.

As 2015 closes, I now see very clearly the progress that has been made at the ATO over the past three years, and also strong evidence and promise of more good things to come, in the key areas of making willing participation in our tax and super systems easier, simpler and less time-consuming.

The less time and trouble people are required to invest in tax compliance, the more they’ll happily support our tax and super systems. And the more they’ll respect and thank the ATO for doing all it can to simplify, support and speed up taxpayers’ interactions with the ATO (and with our tax and super systems, generally conceived).

Outline of this article

 Here’s a quick outline of the topics I’ll be covering in the body of this article:

  • What the Commissioner said, and did, back in March 2015
  • Continually improving its website is now a major priority for the ATO
  • Searching the ATO website is now easier, and more productive
  • The ATO is increasingly conscious that time has a cost, and acting accordingly
  • What’s handy about the ATO app?
  • Stop the press: how voice authentication is making it easier for you to access ATO services
  • How to enrol your voiceprint via the ATO app
  • The traditional options are still available
  • You can help in further improvements to the ATO website
  • How the ATO’s digital transformation supports the ATO’s cultural transformation
  • Two key ATO themes: improving transparency and providing greater certainty
  • Getting back on track

What the Commissioner said, and did, back in March 2015

Back in March during a speech to the Tax Institute, Tax Commissioner Chris Jordan posed the question – what else is coming this year? And his response reassured us that improvements were on the way:

Everyone should start to see and feel a change when they deal with the ATO – whether that is on the phone, in our written correspondence, in person, or online. In particular, you will see a marked improvement by the middle of the year to our website – it will be easier to search, navigate and understand.

Commissioner Jordan also announced the release of the Reinventing the ATO Blueprint. The Blueprint describes the kind of experience Australians want to have when they deal with the ATO. Most importantly, it will guide everything the ATO does in the coming years – including the improvements to the online experience.

“It has taken almost a year to pull together – reflecting input from thousands of people from different market segments, from members of the tax and legal professions, from other agencies, and from our own staff,” said Jordan.

Just think of that: input from ‘thousands of people’. That’s a big fact, and one that reflects very well on the openness and inclusiveness of the ATO’s reinvention exercise overall.

The Commissioner told the Tax Institute that the ATO knows people want to spend less time and effort complying with their tax and super obligations. You can’t argue with that, and it was a key change identified in the ATO’s wide consultation exercise:  

We conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with various stakeholders including business and intermediaries, to understand their current experience and how they would like it to change.

Taxpayers also want the tax office to get the basics right, red tape to be minimised and the bugbears and irritants in the systems to be fixed. This means things like improving the website by removing useless material, rewriting content to make it easier to understand, and of course improving the all-important search function.

You can even see a video of the Commissioner explaining in simple terms what the ATO is Reinventing and why, it’s worth watching to see his commitment to working with all Australians and doing better.


Continually improving its website is now a major priority for the ATO

 The ATO are making sure that the upgrade to the online experience is a main concern. Commissioner Jordan recently released the ATO Corporate Plan 2015-2019 which lists the very first priority as: improving the website by focusing on the content, structure and functionality.

You may have already seen some of these improvements and change in action. The search function is already being improved to cut down the time we all have to spend hunting for information.

Last year the ATO did research with professional associations and tax professionals to understand what is important to them and how they want our experience in the tax and super systems to change. What the ATO heard was that people are continually searching for the answers themselves, therefore search functions need to be a priority.


Searching the ATO website is now easier, and more productive

Search results will now flag new content and will show the date on which it was last updated. In the near future results will also include relevant social media posts and videos. These small changes will make a huge difference in time spent searching and will assist in indicating information relevance. If you find yourself having difficulty locating what you’re looking for, the ATO has helpfully put together handy tips for searching their site more effectively.

One of the changes you will first start to notice is the content model. A new model has already begun being applied to key topics (i.e. BAS and FBT). The purpose of the new model is to simply make finding information easier. There will now be a homepage for each topic, which lets you get a feel for it at a glance, and where relevant, go straight to completing a task.

That’s critical, as I see it. This new ability – to orient yourself before you start to drill down into the detail – will save us a lot of time, and wasted effort. Further, the introduction of the topic homepages will help make sure that what you’ve found is what you were looking for.

August is when we started seeing the bulk of the transformation. The launch of an uncluttered design with a simplified layout is another step in the right direction for ease of use. The layout comes with improved navigation and ‘mega menus’ to show the most popular topics.

Menus are broken down into categories to best reflect your personal circumstances (i.e. Individuals, Business, Non-Profit, Super, and Tax Professionals). From here a drop down menu of the most popular topics for each group will be available. This will speed up information search significantly because there’s a great chance that you’ll find what you’re looking for right there on the ATO homepage.


The ATO is increasingly conscious that time has a cost, and acting accordingly

The reboot of the website shows that the ATO are conscious that time has a cost, and taxpayers don’t want to spend their time searching for information. A user-friendly and easy to navigate website will help the ATO achieve their overall mission: to contribute to the economic and social wellbeing of Australians by fostering willing participation in the tax and superannuation systems.

 In March this year, Commissioner Jordan said that to achieve their mission, and make the reinvention a success, they will need to use the best lever at their disposal – the service they offer. The reinvention program is aimed at improving the client experience by making it easier for people to comply with their obligations and in turn increase willing participation in the tax and super systems. This of course goes above and beyond the ‘renovation’ of the website, as such.


What’s handy about the ATO app?

People expect a range of easy to access, secure and convenient channels that can be used when and how they want – including more through digital means. We love apps and want more information and services available on mobile devices. The ATO app puts tax and super help in your hand, making it easier for you to conduct your affairs on the go, at a time and location that suits you. If you’re an individual taxpayer, small business owner or self-managed super fund trustee, you can access relevant info and a number of helpful tools all in one place.

What’s handy about the ATO app for the individual taxpayer? Here’s a quick list:


  • ABN lookup
  • Find your lost super
  • Check the progress of your return
  • Tax withheld calculator
  • Payment plan estimator
  • Set key date alerts so you don’t fall behind on your tax and super obligations
  • FAQs
  • News and Updates
  • Plus the myDeductions tool allows you to record your deductions, store photographs of receipts, record car trips, and back-up and share your data throughout the financial year. Then by using this deductions data, your tax return will be pre-filled.

The ATO app also offers plenty for small business owners:

  • Business performance check tool
  • Employee or contractor decision tool
  • Fuel tax credit calculator
  • Super guarantee contributions and Super guarantee eligibility decision tools
  • Look at key dates and set reminders for tax and super obligations
  • Access to Small Business Assist where you can enter a question and it will find the answer
  • The Small Business Newsroom with all the latest info and updates on small business matters.

The app can help with your superannuation too:

  • SMSF Assist, where you can type in a question and receive an answer
  • Access your super to view or consolidate your accounts
  • Find lost super
  • SMSF checklists
  • FAQs
  • Resources such as informational videos, key rates and dates, record-keeping requirements and tips, and useful links.

There’s also a strong focus on ensuring a smooth online experience no matter what device you’re using. The site will be easier to use on smaller screens, with larger, touch-friendly buttons, user-friendly mobile menus, and larger text. With more and more people searching for information on smaller devices, this change is vital if the ATO are to keep up with client expectations.


Stop the press: how voice authentication is making it easier for you to access ATO services

As I was finalising the text of this article, the ATO happened to issue, on 1 December 2015, an important, and very relevant, Media release on the topic of “Voice authentication making it easier to access ATO services”.

Here are the key points, all keenly relevant to the themes I’ve just explored:

  • For more than a year, the ATO has been using voice authentication to verify taxpayers’ identity.
  • Its work on voice authentication has been externally recognised, at the highest levels: for example, the ATO won the National Innovation Award at the 2015 Auscontact Association Awards in Sydney. The ATO was also recognised in the Australian Business Awards – for Outstanding Achievement through Innovation for Voice Authentication.
  • Since September 2014, more than 1.3 million taxpayers have enrolled their voiceprints and have been using their voiceprints to authenticate themselves when calling the ATO. As an aside, I’ve just enrolled my own voiceprint, as part of updating my ABN details, when phoning the number nominated in the relevant ABN update request letter.
  • Now, the ATO is improving access to online services through the introduction of voice authentication in the ATO app.
  • Assistant Commissioner John Dardo says the extension of voice authentication, to the ATO mobile app, will provide individuals and sole traders with faster, easier access to the ATO’s online services.
  • “With people using their smartphones and tablets for their day-to-day tasks more than ever, we wanted to make it as easy as possible for clients to use our services on their devices,” says Mr Dardo.

How to enrol your voiceprint via the ATO app

Assistant Commissioner Dardo notes that individuals and sole traders can download the latest version of the ATO app from their app store and enrol their voiceprint now.

Helpfully, he then provides this guidance for anyone wanting to enrol their voiceprint via the ATO app:

  • “You will need to have the ATO linked to your myGov account before enrolling a voiceprint via the ATO app.”
  • “To enrol your voiceprint, just open the individuals’ section of the app, select online services, log into your myGov account and follow the prompts. Save your voiceprint in your device and next time you can use your voice to log in. You can then use your voiceprint to verify your identity if you need to phone us.”

And, of course, you may indeed need to phone the ATO, a point that Commissioner Jordan himself very much acknowledges.        


The traditional options are still available

Although there is a massive digital push at the ATO right now, there are still the traditional options available. Commissioner Jordan says that people also want to be able to use click to chat or after-hours call back services like the one available for small business. So taxpayers shouldn’t fear that they might be losing the option of talking to a real person. The ATO expects that these new services will actually free up resources, so that the congestion felt during peak times on traditional phone and front line services will ease. As a result, all taxpayers, whether they use these new services or not, will notice improved access and support from the ATO.


You can help in further improvements to the ATO website

Once these changes are in place, the updates won’t be done and dusted. Taxpayers will be able to play an even bigger role in creating an that works best for all of us. The ATO has just launched a beta site, which will allow the testing of new concepts, and services directly with the community on a live site. It’s called ‘iterative design’- where the ATO design something, test it with us, use our feedback to make changes (or, indeed, abandon the idea), and then test it all over again. It’s a thorough process that will ensure only the best ideas will become permanent fixtures on the website.


How the ATO’s digital transformation supports the ATO’s cultural transformation

The ATO’s mission involves embedding a culture in the ATO that is service orientated, pragmatic and conscious that time has a cost. Enforcing the notion that the ATO much prefers to give taxpayers an opportunity to self-correct and provide information where needed, as opposed to adopting a ‘gotcha’ approach.

Regardless of the issue – big or small – the ATO wants a good working relationship with taxpayers and, if relevant, their advisers as well.

As part of that, the ATO wants to resolve issues, wherever possible, on a cooperative basis. It’s not a matter of ‘finding people out’, but rather getting to resolution in an efficient, respectful and cost-effective manner.

“We can no longer have a culture of risk aversion or simply doing things the way they’ve always been done. We are trying new things, listening and responding to feedback and putting ourselves in the client’s shoes,” says Commissioner Jordan.


Two key ATO themes: improving transparency and providing greater certainty

The ATO are working towards being more transparent and providing the community with greater certainty of their entitlements, obligations, and position in the tax and super systems. By making information easier to find online and improving the search function of the ATO website, the ATO is taking a big step in the right direction.

With this new focus on transparency, Building Confidence was launched by the ATO, online, in March. Building Confidence is the new and improved Compliance in Focus, and it is being augmented and updated, over time. The purpose of the rename and relaunch is to improve confidence in the ATO and its administration of, and the integrity of, our tax and super systems.

The online publication is hosted on the ATO website and is about being transparent in their approach in fostering willing participation and dealing with non-compliance. Significantly, it includes an outline of what attracts the ATO’s attention , so we can get things right up front.

People want to know what the ATO knows about them so they can understand their tax and super position. Taxpayers want to have the opportunity to self-correct and provide information where needed. However, the ATO has said that in order to achieve this, the transparency needs to be two-way. Where your dealings are transparent, the ATO can tell you what they know about you so you can work with them where needed to get things right.


Getting back on track

Although the majority of us do the right thing, it can sometimes be difficult to stay on track with your tax obligations. The ATO has always encouraged us to get in touch when we have trouble paying a debt, but now as part of Reinventing the ATO we can expect it to be even easier.

You’ll be able to use your myGov account to enter into a payment plan for your pay as you go instalments, and receive clear information on how to manage payments. The ATO will be providing easy-to-understand info explaining what you have to do, how to pay, and how to get help when needed.



These announcements and changes are a promise to make it easier for us to participate in Australia’s tax system. Interactions are being simplified, automation maximised and costs are being reduced. We can see there has been major change at the ATO, and it is only the beginning of their digital and cultural transformation.