Why digital transformation matters for taxation

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If there is one universal lesson from the Coronavirus pandemic, it is the importance of digital agility. The past few months have shown businesses and governments alike that in the time of crisis, they need to be able to swiftly adapt their operating model. This pressure is particularly acute for tax administrations.  As the global recession places renewed emphasis on revenue strategy, tax administrations are finding themselves on the front lines of a rapid and intense digital transformation, finding ways to conduct everyday and emergency business while complying with mandates to maintain social distance.

Economies with already strong underlying information technology are proving to be more resilient than those without this infrastructure already in place.  At a recent event, I listened to officials from Cambodia and Kenya explain how their strong digital track records are paying off during the current crisis.

In Cambodia, which had previously established an enabling regulatory environment around digital financial services, citizens were already accustomed to sending and receiving payments digitally, making it possible for the government to add tax functionality on to the pre-existing digital payment platforms. Similarly, in Kenya, citizens’ relative comfort with digital payments led to a recent uptick in the use of its e-tax system. The Kenya Revenue Authority has also been able to rely on its digital systems to obtain real-time data on emergency-related shifts in consumer spending, which helps the agency to predict the impact on revenues.

But the type of digital transformation necessary to get to this level is comparable to moving a boulder to the top of a mountain. It’s a long, arduous process, and it’s possible to lose footing along the way. Many economies, especially developing countries, rely on deeply entrenched systems and fight an uphill battle when it comes to public trust. In fact, many of the world’s lowest-income economies struggle to collect enough taxes to cover basic state functions. Add a global crisis into the mix and these tenuous relationships between taxman and citizen are likely to fall apart.

The current crisis provides an opportune moment to rework revenue strategies to be more digitally driven.  Tax administrations must shift the focus from simply processing taxpayers’ data to proactively improving compliance, policies and efficiency. Modern revenue strategies will, to a large extent, have to run on digital platforms because they are necessary to effectively pursuing critical policy objectives such as:

  • Broadening the tax base. Data-centric approaches can be used to close gaps and take advantage of missed opportunities without necessarily increasing the level of taxation. Such measures include: requiring e-commerce platforms to report sales in order to facilitate the collection of VAT and customs duties; analyzing past tax filings of citizens seeking relief under current stimulus programs to verify compliance; and supporting the collection of property taxes by matching the land registry with the taxpayer file.
  • Enhancing transparency and trust. Establishing electronic platforms for tax registration, filing, payment, and dispute resolution make processes clear for citizens, provide assurances that tax payments end up in an actual government account, and reduce the risk of officials abusing their discretion. Implementation of technologies such as the MIT-incubated OPAL (Open Algorithm) provide researches, think tanks, or any citizen the ability to independently analyze tax data without having access to personally identifiable information. This will provide for unprecedented transparency.
  • Reducing the compliance burden. We know from a survey of 190 economies that it is getting easier for people and businesses to pay taxes. There are now 106 economies using electronic filing systems, double the number in 2004. Digital technology is reducing the time spent on paying taxes as well as the total number of individual payments taxpayers must make each year.
  • Improving administrative efficiency. As governments mature in their use of information technology, they will be able to achieve substantial efficiency gains. For countries beginning their digital transformation, AI-enabled data capture of paper-based records can speed up the digitalization and reliability of the data. Others find significant value through the simplification of procedures and matching of filing information with third-party data sets. For more advanced tax administrations, the use of advanced analytics to identify underreporting will be a key value driver. In the current crisis, some administrations are also rethinking their balance between offsite and onsite audits.
  • Advancing growth and other policy objectives. As the central depository of citizen data, tax administrations play an increasing role in advancing non-tax related objectives. For example, by using taxpayer data to: verify beneficiaries under cash transfer programs, monitor the consumption of goods with detrimental health impacts (e.g., alcohol and cigarettes), model tax policy responses to curb carbon emissions, identify growth drivers in the economy, detect labor market violations, and ascertain the well-being of vulnerable groups in society.

Progress toward these objectives has been uneven and the World Bank cannot get this “modernization boulder” to the top of the mountain alone. To help countries accelerate digital transformation, we need partners with multidisciplinary expertise who can help pull while we push. To that end, we co-founded the Prosperity Collaborative. This new multi-stakeholder initiative is dedicated to helping countries create better tax systems through innovative technology. Together with EY, New America, MIT and the Boston Global Forum, we are just getting started on a journey to bring tangible benefits to developing countries.  Our current priorities are -

  • Developing global solutions to build capacity among developing countries and emerging market to undertake successful digital transformation of their tax administrations;
  • Promoting thought leadership on tax and technology;
  • Exploring the creation of a mechanism to identify, prioritize, fund, and implement digital public goods for use by tax administrations;

By bringing these leading organizations together under the banner of the Prosperity Collaborative, we aim to create solutions that are well-targeted and easily replicable across different country contexts. Ultimately, we aim to create digital public goods that can be built once and deployed anywhere.

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