Are job cuts at I.R.D. really a sign of modernisation?

It has been announced that in a bid to modernise the Inland Revenue Department and the services it offers, 1,500 jobs are going to changed or ended between 2018 and 2021.

But there is a limit as to what a computer or automated service can achieve. There will always be a few clients whose queries on a given day do not fit within the design parameters of a computerized system, no matter how well run it is. There will always be inefficiencies in handling the data feed, again no matter how well run it is.

I have rarely reached the I.R.D. on the phone on the first attempt. Nearly always I have had to be placed in a queue to be rung back sometimes over an hour later. Okay, fine, but I am sure there have been instances when for one reason or another people ringing I.R.D. simply did not have an hour to spare waiting for a call back.

There will be a whole host of other issues as well, big and small that will not fit in the straight jacket of modernization. Such as:

  1. Elderly and those on low incomes without access to a computer will rely on paper and telephone for details, so there will always need to be someone who can talk to a deaf or sight impaired customer
  2. Computers are not good at spotting mistakes (and possibly not at spotting deliberate deception – only a human can do that), and artificial intelligence still has work to do in this field
  3. For purposes of quality control, there will always need to be human oversight of some sort

Optimum calibration might not be a term in government agency jargon yet, but it might as well be. It would refer to a system with the best calibration that can be achieved – everything is running as well as it can, the system parameters are suitable and doing their job – in other words anyone who thinks a “fix” is needed would be well advised to leave it alone. In a perfect world, “optimum calibration” would be the definition of everything is running perfectly. The reality, somewhat different as it is, is that maybe 95% of the time this is nearly true.

The services expected to be provided by a Government agency are considerable. As the collector of tax on the Government’s behalf I.R.D. is loathed by some, but the vast majority of people understand that in order for the Government to pay for its expenditure it has to raise money somehow. The tax code in New Zealand might seem complex and at times inefficient to a New Zealander, but when you compare it to say the United States Federal tax code – more than 1 million words long someone told me – perhaps it is not so bad.

So, what does one make of a big agency tasked with one of the most essential jobs in New Zealand?

Imperfect would be a good word. Like all New Zealand Government agencies it has been subject to controversy. In 2012 it was subject of a huge privacy breach involving more than 6,300 people. At the time the Minister for Revenue, Peter Dunne, said that measures were put in place to stop it happening again.

But compared with the I.R.S. in the United States or Her/His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in the United Kingdom, New Zealand is comparatively lucky to have a transparent and – for the most part – accountable revenue collector. I sincerely doubt there is a single person in the U.S. who knows their federal tax code for what it is inside out, and every time I think about it I wonder how much would be gained by Americans from a bottom up overhaul of it.

So, when you next get on the phone to the Inland Revenue Department to query your finances, ask for assistance, compliment them or lay a complaint, just remember the person on the other end has to pay tax too. The very vast majority of them – there are always a couple of rotten apples in each department – honestly want to help. Be grateful that their call centre is in Wellington and not in another country.

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