Crazy to think the effective collection of tens of billions of our tax dollars every year is dependent on museum-grade technology.
The Inland Revenue Department has been pleading for a new computer system for years. Its current one (known as FIRST) was built in 1992 when the Internet was still in nappies. Google didn’t exist and Facebook was more than a decade away.
In February this year, the Prime Minister said tax policy was being held back because the computer systems “can’t actually support radical changes from Government.” He also said “You don’t want to be in a position where Parliament is held hostage to a lack of technology.”
But New Zealand is being held hostage to this technology. Well placed sources tell me that the Government couldn’t currently implement a capital gains tax - even if it woke up to the need for pro-growth tax reform to support our exporters - and actually wanted to follow the advice of tax experts including Treasury officials, the World Bank, the OECD, and others.
This Government has tinkered with tax-thresholds and it gave tax cuts to the most wealthy in 2010, but it hasn’t made the big structural changes necessary to get our economy on track. Perhaps it is afraid of getting burnt again after an attempt at building a new system to cope with Student Loan changes was abandoned with $21 million spent last year. Certainly development plans have gone quiet since.
Despite Key’s statements in February, no credible timeline for the necessary comprehensive replacement system has been ventured by the Government.
Meanwhile the legacy FIRST system creaks on. Unlike in modern IT, changes made in one part of the FIRST system do not flow through to others. Consequently even mild changes are time-consuming to implement. A limited budget means resources supporting the antiquated system are not available in the same measure to support other core activities. Resources are stretched - and so more and more mistakes are being made.
Yesterday, Peter Dunne responded to my press release concerning the urgent need for upgrade, by defending IRD’s most recent performance lapses as the result of human error and poor forecasting (leaving the personal slights aside). Well and good, but with all due respect – those are precisely the kinds of errors that are made when an organisation is stretched. And to those could be added around $7 Billion in outstanding debt and a surprisingly high number of unprocessed tax returns.
What is urgently needed is commitment from the Government to a system upgrade, accompanied by project details including a credible timeline for implementation. Any response prominently featuring the word ‘relaxed’ and speaking of 5-10 years simply won’t cut the mustard.
Updating our IT shouldn’t be that hard. We can learn from others. After all, we’re not the only country in the Western World with a tax system.