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Taxing Times

Taxing Times

Bill Gibson might be the Australian Taxation Office’s first CIO, but he’s no stranger to dramatic changes in policy.

For a man in the middle of a whirlpool, in one of the highest public sector CIO roles around, Bill Gibson is pretty happy with his position.

As the recently appointed CIO of the Australian Taxation Office, Gibson says: “I know I’m enjoying it, and I believe that my team and everyone around me have welcomed me and I’m getting right in amongst it. I really couldn’t give it a greater rap than that.”

No stranger to the public service, but having joined the ATO from a gig in the private sector, Gibson thinks he sees one main line of differentiation. “One of the good things about government agencies is they’re very transparent with how they go about their business.”

Yet that statement is, in itself, difficult to reconcile with Gibson’s own stance, given his reluctance to comment about recent developments at the ATO, despite an almost constant peppering of comments from the media since taking up his position in October last year.

These have included suggestions that the ATO has developed too close a relationship with Microsoft (notwithstanding a recent study on the potential uses of open source software); that the ATO had controversially cancelled a recent tender process just days before the successful bidders were to be announced; that it was bypassing normal tendering processes by appointing Accenture to a number of consulting positions; and that that appointment would move jobs offshore (a claim rigorously denied by Second Commissioner Greg Farr in one media outlet, having seemed to have stated just that according to another media outlet).

While Gibson would not be drawn on these subjects, he did say that his direct report, Commissioner Farr, was getting personally involved in dealing with them. Farr is one of three ATO second commissioners, who respectively cover law, compliance and operation. As chief operating officer, Farr is thus senior IT executive.

It all points up to an extremely volatile environment.

Changing Times

But Gibson is no stranger to dramatic changes in policy and environment.

Born in Glasgow but raised in Canberra, from the late 1970s to the late 1980s he worked in a number of public sector departments, most notably the Health Insurance Commission, where he was involved in the Medibank and Medicare Private programs. It was a stimulating time, he says, involving as it did the creation of new programs to benefit the community. Nevertheless, it was a long way from the responsibilities and high-profile position he now occupies.

“When I was in the public service in the mid 1970s it would have been at a junior level. Quite frankly at that time I wasn’t too fussed with how we procured. I was just more interested in getting on and delivering some exciting outcome for the agency,” he says.

Then in 1988, he joined Qantas, leaving one public service organization for another, albeit one that was to be among the pioneers of the Labor government’s series of privatisations.

Qantas at that time, he says, had a lot of similarities and hallmarks to the government departments he had just left, but major cultural changes were on the horizon, including the partial sale of Qantas to British Airways in 1992, full privatization in 1995, and the collapse of Ansett in 2001.

Qantas management claims the company achieved eight years worth of growth in one day when Ansett went under, but not so the airline’s IT department.

It didn’t grow quite so dramatically, Gibson says, despite it having endured the busiest call centre day of its entire history. “We had robust architecture; we just plugged in additional boxes, cloned them and it worked very well. We made sure the architecture and the Web site were scalable,” he says in the matter-of-fact way that so characterizes his style.

Having risen to the position of group general manager, infrastructure and operations, he left Qantas in October 2002, taking a year off to reacquaint himself with his family and to work on some property renovations. A really refreshing break, he calls it.

New Role, Same Attitude

Ready to dive back into the fray, Gibson saw an ad for the ATO’s CIO position on the Internet. Particularly appealing was the fact that this was a new role, bringing together all of the applications delivery and infrastructure. Previously there had been two separate and distinct lines covering applications solutions and technology.

“There’s been a major change in the emphasis so that there is now a single point of accountability for delivery of IT services to the agency.” These changes had been initiated by Farr, following a series of reviews under his sponsorship.

Gibson considers that he has had good preparation for the multiskilling required by his new position. At Qantas, in addition to his infrastructure and operations role, he was also responsible for systems delivery (the software development arm), plus strategy and planning.

“I ran all of the systems delivery at Qantas for a while. I did some planning for a while, and I did all of the infrastructure operations as well. I was involved in all of those, so it was a very natural and I think logical progression for me — and I was ready — to move up into the overall responsibility.”

Focus areas for the newly unified Information and Communications Technology (ICT) service line are: human resources, infrastructure provisioning, management services, service management, software development, strategy and architecture, and trusted access. At time of writing, the ATO was still looking for someone to fill a CTO position.

As Gibson found when moving from government departments to Qantas, so too he found in his move to the ATO: “There are actually more similarities than differences. Aligning with business — that’s a common, it’s industry-wide and it’s perennial. Things like ensuring IT delivery is cost-effective — we demonstrate value for money, we promote IT solutions in the correct context.”

In association with the Business Solutions Consulting division, run by Paul Madden who headed the previous applications solutions section, the responsibility of his department is to ensure that customers have a proper appreciation of all that is involved in IT projects. “You need to understand the business problem and the appropriate range of options involved, and that may or may not involve IT. That’s what I mean by promoting the IT solution in the correct context,” Gibson says.

An additional emphasis is to ensure that there is a balanced investment in IT across the competing business lines within the agency. “We don’t just want the loudest voice necessarily to get the largest investment, so Paul and I ensure that that balance occurs.”

Further similarities with the private sector include the need to motivate staff always to excel in what they do, to feel that they have recognition and understand their place in the service delivery chain. Gibson says that that is no different in the ATO from how it would be in a bank or at Qantas.

“Contrary to any serious doubts, I’ve found that [the people at the ATO] are among the most committed and positive I have ever worked with. They work to extreme deadlines, so there are no real differences there. The stereotyping [as in the denigrated ‘public service attitude’] is really inappropriate and I’m very delighted to be working with people of that calibre.”

Of course, not everything is the same. There are at least some areas of stark difference between public and private sector, Gibson has found.

“There are two dimensions where I’ve noticed a difference. One is, because we are trading in public money, we have an appropriately strong emphasis on probity and ensuring that the integrity of all of the processes around procurement and entering into contracts are as transparent as we can make them. We are subject to parliamentary review and questioning, to Senate estimates, et cetera. It’s a very robust process that we go through.

“The other dimension is there is a whole-of-government responsibility in ensuring that what we do is neither at odds with policy and/or end cost of other programs, so that we ensure that overall costs for government investment are minimised. We clearly don’t want to build up any silos that then create additional costs across the whole of government. So we’re very active in that space as well.”

IT Reliant

The ATO is pushing much of its activities and especially its interaction with tax agents and the taxpaying community online. There is the ATO site itself (www.ato.gov.au), a tax law site and a Web site for tax agents launched last year. As recently as March this year a similar site was launched for small business, where users can achieve many previously time-consuming activities online, including the lodging of business activity statements.

The ATO Commissioner, Michael Carmody, says this is part of a program to make the tax system “cheaper, easier and more personalised … One of the things [small businesses] wanted was to be able to deal with us online. The Business Portal is a major milestone and delivers a free, secure and convenient Internet service.”

Putting much of your functionality and services online, although definitely convenient, is also potentially setting yourself up for a fall — just ask the banks and any ISP. This is one area where Gibson’s matter-of-fact approach might be a little bit ruffled.

“We’re not perfect. No one’s got 100 percent availability 100 percent of the time every day of the year.” But Gibson says that the acceptance of the sites by the community, particularly the tax agent site, is “very, very positive”, and he is looking for the same reaction from the business portal as well. Both channels will undergo continued enhancement to meet community needs.

“We’re very happy with our online reliance. We know that there’s a responsibility here but we’re confident that we’ve engineered it in a way that we can deliver on those expectations. What we’ve seen with the tax agent portal is that the take-up has been phenomenal — I think that last week we actually hit a million transactions in one week. That’s just growing and growing and growing.”

Gibson asserts that Carmody and his second level commissioners understand that IT is critical to the success of its forward initiatives. He quotes the ATO’s Change Program, which has featured strongly in much of the recent media coverage, as something that Commissioner Carmody has been pushing very strongly. The need for the Program came out of a series of community initiatives that the ATO undertook in the last year or two.

“This highlighted that when you interact with the Tax Office it can be complicated, it can be convoluted, it can be confusing. We have made major progress in making it easier and more effective for the community to interact with the Tax Office. And the Change Program is a big step down that path.”

The Change Program is a three-year rollout of initiatives that will make dealing with the ATO, as in Carmody’s words, cheaper, easier and more personalized.

It follows the principles of ensuring customers:

  • can do business with the ATO online, whether through its own services or commercial services
  • can have online access to information that is personal to their dealings with the ATO
  • can deal with a tax officer who has an understanding of their dealings with the ATO and, in some cases, their industry
  • can receive notices and forms that make sense in their terms and that reflect their personal dealings with the revenue system
  • can receive high-quality responses to their issues and interactions along with quick turnaround times
  • can be sure the ATO will be reasonable about the level of record keeping required for them to practically comply with tax obligations
  • can be sure the ATO will facilitate the use of commercial services developed to ease the cost of record keeping and compliance with the law, and
  • will experience compliance action which takes into account their compliance behaviour, personal circumstances and level of risk in the system

The Program is one of Gibson’s biggest challenges. It will run in parallel with his “business as usual” activities, which means … “We’ve got two complex IT problems to manage. They’ll have to converge at some point in the next two or three years. That will have to be handled in a transparent way so that there’ll be no disruptions.

“There’s a high expectation being set that the Tax Office is prepared to interact with the community … and so we’ve got to ensure that we don’t let them down as well.

“The shift to the Internet as a channel is crucial. We see this as a very strong opportunity, and I think that will keep us pretty busy for some time to come.”

Busy is an understatement. In amongst the turmoil of the recent media attention and apparent contradictions, is the possible move to open source software (OSS).

The ATO commissioned Gartner to do a study on the maturity of the OSS “movement”. A draft OSS policy has been prepared which, if approved, “will position the Taxation Office as an organization that guides selection and implementation of open source software on a basis equivalent to that used for commercial software”.

The policy is currently with Gibson’s office for review. Once finalized, the ATO says, the Taxation Office will be one of a few agencies at the federal government level with a policy in place in this area.

The ATO is definitely out there, wanting to be seen as a leader in the uses of technology to enhance its interaction with the community and to improve its internal processes. Whether that means some hasty decisions are being made is for others to decide, media attention notwithstanding.

One problem for Gibson, though, is how (or whether) he’ll make his mark in all of this.

Matter-of-fact attitude and a capable and welcoming staff or not, in a volatile environment and with supportive albeit obviously strong-minded management, it will be interesting to see what he can bring to such a highly IT-dependent workplace as the ATO.

Five months into the job, and you could not find any search results for “Bill Gibson” on the ATO’s Web site, and he still hadn’t made it onto the ATO’s organization chart. Sometimes you wonder . . .

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