Rethinking communication strategies and relations between tax authorities and taxpayers

Exchanging on best practices on the implementation of innovative tools, solutions and approaches to hedge against the continuing and long-lasting impact of the Covid-19 crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit Mali, Canada and the UK in different ways. But despite the differences in tax systems, they all faced a common challenge: to adopt communication channels and provide information in uncertain times. The Network of Tax Organisations (NTO) hosted a webinar on Thursday 29 April 2021 where representatives from the tax authorities of Mali, the United Kingdom and Canada shared their approaches on communication strategies and citizens’ service during the pandemic.

This webinar session on “Tax & COVID-19” – moderated by Ismaïla Diallo, Deputy Secretary General  of CREDAF – brought together more than 150 participants from around the world. With the webinar, the NTO aims to enhance knowledge exchange and promote peer-learning. The objective is to enable engagement among tax administrations on best practices on the implementation of innovative tools, solutions and approaches which enhance or safeguard revenue mobilisation and to hedge against the continuing and long-lasting impact of the Covid-19 crisis. 

The webinar led to fruitful discussions among the participants on the common challeng of adopting communication channels and the provision of information.

Reforming tax systems to build back better 

In times of a global pandemic, global platforms like the NTO – which promotes the exchange of experience, knowledge and best practices on tax administration – matter more than ever. In his opening remarks, the Head of NTO Council, Márcio Ferreira Verdi confirmed this importance by giving examples of how the pandemic impacted tax systems particularly Latin American and Caribbean countries and how cross-country collaboration matters: “Lessons must be drawn, and mutual learning needs to influence the tax systems of tomorrow”

A central lesson is the importance of open and transparent communication within tax authorities and with their customers. The pandemic has shown that uncertainty can only be addressed through innovative and functioning internal and external communication channels. Examples from Canada, Mali and the UK illustrated this.

A people centered philosophy to change tax culture

Mark Quinlan, Assistant Commissioner for Quebec, presented the new instruments and emergency measures of the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) for external and internal communication. Before the pandemic, the CRA developed the “people first philosophy”, a concept which promotes a culture of empathic service. The pandemic emphasised the need for this philosophy and made it a priority. Furthermore, this concept is reflected in all working areas of the CRA and has guided its adaptation to the challenges presented  by the pandemic. For instance, Mobile working structures were set up, Covid-19 specific information was provided and new policies and special protocols were communicated. Externally, existing ties with federal and provincial government agencies such as Revenue Quebec, were strengthened and new relationships with local jurisdictions, tax professionals and tax administrations emerged. Additionally, a targeted communication policy towards Canadian tax payers was developed. As part of this policy the revenue agency created a new section on the website to allow to provide information to various stakeholders and keep them informed about the changes related to the pandemic. Furtheremore the communication policy aims at reducing the reputational risk of the agency and to increase trust among tax payers. By providing additional information in challenging times and putting the people at the center of the communication, the agency’s external communication policy focusses on building trust.

Mali goes digital: how the pandemic accelerated digital communication

Alidji Sidi Toure, Head of the Public Relations and Communications Unit at the General Directorate of Taxes of Mali emphasised the importance of better communication to staff and taxpayers in order to understand issues and challenges related to the health crisis as well as to revenue mobilisation efforts. In his presentation Alidji Sidi Toure highlighted some internal and external methods of communication used by the the General Directorate: “For instance, the internal and external web pages were used to provide information about compliance with infection prevention measures, minutes of weekly briefings, information on working procedures and preventive measures to fight the pandemic”.

In addition to providing information about the pandemic, the General Directorate of Taxes of Mali used the opportunity to improve its web presence by redesigning the websites to be more informative, user friendly and modern with the aim to improve services to taxpayers with eTaxes. Alidji Sidi Toure stated that the implementation of the infection prevention measures of the pandemic has forced government officials and taxpayers to expand digital  means of communication and the General Directorate of Taxes adapted to this challenge by introducing among other things electronic tax declaration for large enterprises, expansion of mobile payment options, use of digital information and creation of awareness among taxpayers.   

From tax collection to assistance provision

The costumer approach adopted by HM Revenue & Customs UK, shifted considerably with the Covid-19 pandemic. “We have been primarily seen as the organisation that pulls tax in and collects tax for public services, but now we were absolutely putting money out and the importance of that cannot be overstated” explains Rachel Forster, Deputy Director of Communications, HM Revenue & Customs, UK in her contribution. To do so the HMRC had to completely change the way it communicates with customers.  

The pandemic and its cognitive and emotional overload for customers were taken seriously by the HMRC who focused on making the communication as simple, easy and action oriented as possible. Therefore, communication and workflows went digital and virtual teams were set up. This meant developing a culture and the environment to work from home. Communication needed to become more flexible and the HMRC learnt how to improve internal prioritisation.

 

Exchanging lessons learnt and approaches in such a webinar format helps to foster collaboration and is part of this new digital way of communication. Therefore, digital peer-learning will remain a central approach. The NTO thanks all the speakers and guests for their contribution and is looking forward to invite participants to its subsequent webinars  and the  first NTO Technical Conference which will take place in October, 2021.