After accountant bodies issued the Australian Taxation Office an ultimatum to dramatically improve its poor online and telephony services, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) sped up the launch of a new tax portal.
To alleviate a number of tax administration issues that have been at the centre of tax agents' complaints, the ATO launched a Tax Agent Portal. Yet accounting body CPA Australia cautioned that ATO has put out the system "earlier than it wanted to" and "there are some risks to go with that".
According to the ATO, tax agents can access their clients' detailed information online through the secure portal.
Tax Commissioner Michael Carmody said the portal should ensure quicker access to client files and is the latest step in providing tax professionals' access to new and improved products and services.
However, senior taxation counsel for CPA Australia, Paul Drum said the portal "hasn't been tested for load capacity".
To avoid overloading the portal, Drum said ATO is staggering the implementation by issuing passwords over a few weeks rather than making it available to everyone from day one.
Both CPA Australia and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia (ICAA) said they will wait to see results before giving it a full endorsement.
In August, ICAA and CPA Australia threatened to abandon electronic lodgement from October 28 and flood the ATO with paper returns if the Tax Office did not improve a perceived lack of efficiency and support.
Drum said CPA Australia worked with the Tax Office to develop this system.
"We are hopeful this initiative will go a long way to alleviating the administration problems our members are experiencing. A great deal of time has been spent to ensure results are delivered quickly. But we will wait to get feedback from our members before giving the tax agent portal a ringing endorsement," he said.
"I think the portal, if it delivers, is going to be a breakthrough in alleviating the tax agents' burden [under the new tax system] that our members' have been experiencing in the last two years," Drum told Computerworld.
Drum added that the central issue of members' complaints about ATO call centres was not related to the technology, such as the telephony system that the ATO is using. Instead, the issues surrounding ATO's call centres are "symptomatic" of poor tax administration such as management of information and slow access to data that is critical for tax agents.
"[ATO] doesn't need a new PABX system. The problem is that information is not available [to tax agents]," he said.
Similarly the ICAA, whilst welcoming the initiative, will remain in "alert mode" with the members' "work to regulation" ultimatum not yet abandoned.
Chief executive of ICAA, Stephen Harrison, said the initiative is "a start", yet it must be considered in the wider context of the ICAA's calls for improved service and support from the ATO.
"This is the first practical implementation of one of the promises made by the ATO exactly a month ago. On September 3 the ATO outlined core initiatives aimed at improving the ATO performance in terms of service, support and liaison with tax practitioner's, on behalf of their clients," Harrison said.
"The Institute welcomes the launch of the Tax Agent Portal, but we need to see rapid implementation of the full package. The other promises are equally important if the ATO is going to demonstrate that it is committed to really making an impact on the systemic problems highlighted by our members," he said.
Other ATO initiatives proposed in the September 3 announcement include improvements to its telephone service, by rationalising the number of call centre access points to specific areas of expertise and more use of smart technology support.
"Our membership complaint has been that too often, encouraging noises have been made by the ATO, only for the actions to disappoint on delivery," Harrison said.
"The demands from our members have been specific: no more 'pass the parcel' treatment on the telephone help lines. No more tinkering around the edges with old models; we are looking for fundamental re-engineering of tax systems." The ATO claims the Tax Portal Web site will help tax agents call up a client's account statement, reset passwords for electronic lodgment, or look up a client's tax history.
The portal will be available through the Tax and Superannuation Professionals area of the Tax Office Web site at www.ato.gov.au. As the portal contains confidential information about tax agent's practice and their clients, access will be gained by login.