The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) has recently reviewed the ATO's complaints-handling processes. Although the ANAO found that the ATO's complaints-handling framework is well designed, it found that there are opportunities for the ATO to improve its practices, including by obtaining a better understanding of the issues that are the subject of complaints and the needs of the complainants themselves.
 
It said there is scope for the ATO to:

  • improve reporting against complaints-handling timeliness measures;
  • implement a more coherent agency-wide quality assurance framework for complaints and other feedback;
  • restrict sensitive information about named ATO officer complaints from being included in records on the ATO's client relationship management computer system; and
  • implement measures to periodically check that ATO officers have not accessed client relationship records inappropriately.
The ANAO made three recommendations, all agreed to by the ATO, which are aimed at improving the ATO's handling of complaints and its monitoring and reporting of performance in managing complaints.


The Australian National Audit Office's (ANAO) Report No 19, which assesses the effectiveness of the ATO's complaints and other feedback management systems in supporting service delivery, was tabled in Parliament on 12 February 2014. The report noted that the ATO said the main sources of complaints in recent years were: audit and review activities, in particular those concerning the Income Tax Refund Integrity Program; refund delays; delays in processing; and access issues, in particular the length of wait times. The three most common issues for complainants in 2012-2013 were: registrations (23% of complaints); form processing (19%); and account management (16%).
 
The focus of the ANAO audit was primarily the ATO's management of complaints. The report said the significant increase in the number of complaints received by the ATO in the three years from 2009-2010, averaging over 42,000 for that period, contributed to a marked decline in taxpayer satisfaction with the complaints-handling processes in 2011-2012. The Community Perceptions Survey (July 2012) and Professionalism Survey (May 2012) both identified complaints handling as an area requiring improvement.
 
The ANAO made three recommendations, all agreed to by the ATO, aimed at improving the ATO's handling of complaints and its monitoring and reporting of performance in managing complaints. These were as follows:

  • To improve transparency, the ANAO recommended that, in reporting performance against its published timeliness resolution target, the ATO reports on the percentage of complaints that are finalised within: (i) the target timeframe (which, from 2013-2014, is 15 business days) without adjusting for extended timeframes that may be arranged with complainants; and (ii) any extended timeframes arranged with complainants separately.
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  • To better monitor the quality of complaints handling, the ANAO recommended that the ATO: (i) implement an agency-wide quality assurance framework for complaints and other feedback that provides results at an agency-wide and individual business and service line level; and (ii) include these results in monthly complaints and community feedback reports.
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  • To better address the privacy risks associated with named officer complaints, the ANAO recommended that the ATO: (i) restrict information detailing the nature of the complaint and its investigation from being included in the complainant's record on the client relationship management system; and (ii) investigate implementing measures to periodically check that named officers have not accessed related complaints records.
 
The ANAO said opportunities remain to more fully address the principles of fairness, accessibility, responsiveness, integration and efficiency as outlined in the Commonwealth Ombudsman's Better Practice Guide to Complaint Handling. There are, the report said, also opportunities to improve complaints-handling practices, including better understanding of issues that are the subject of complaints and the needs of complainants. The report also noted that given that a major cause of complaints relates to processing issues, there is scope for the ATO to identify changes to processing arrangements that may reduce the number of such complaints.
 
Other points made in the report included the following: 
  • The ANAO said the ATO is transparent about the way a complaint will be handled, but there is not always evidence that the outcome of a complaint has been communicated clearly to the complainant and that complainants have been advised of their review rights when a complaint is not upheld. This is because most ATO complaints resolution staff do not advise complainants in writing of the outcome of their complaints and in many cases do not make a record that they have advised complainants of their review rights. Where written advice is not provided, the ANAO said complaints-handling staff should make an electronic file record of the advice they have orally given the complainant.
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  • Notwithstanding advice that the ATO's policy is to minimise the incidence of naming the ATO officer in complaints records, including attachments, the ANAO said there were 12 instances out of 20 named officer complaints sampled by the ANAO where the officer's name, and details of the investigations, were included in linked activities on complaints records. The ANAO was concerned that including such details means that any ATO officer who accesses a taxpayer's records is able to examine details of any complaints made about ATO officers and details of the investigations.
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  • In terms of efficiency, the ATO does not currently have information on the cost of managing complaints.

Source: Australian National Audit Office's Report No 19, "Management of Complaints and Other Feedback", www.anao.gov.au/Publications/Audit-Reports/2013-2014/Management-of-Complaints-and-Other-Feedback.