28 September, 2014

How we can benefit from better tax administrations

By Michael Keen
Acting Head of the TADAT secretariat

No one likes paying taxes. But everyone benefits when collection of those taxes is efficient and fair. For almost all developing countries, building more effective and trusted tax administrations is critical. This helps finance much needed social spending, infrastructure, and reduce dependence on aid, now subject to its own pressures. It’s also a key pillar in building accountable, effective and respected government institutions.

Achieving this is partly down to good tax design. But it is also largely a matter of building strong tax administrations. This is not easy. A new instrument being developed at the International Monetary Fund with donor support and technical input from a wide range of experts — the Tax Administration Diagnostic Assessment Tool (TADAT) — aims to help.

The tool — which is welcomed in the Communiqué of the First High-Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation — provides an independent, standardised, evidence-based, quality-assured, all-round assessment of the performance of a tax administration. All of these adjectives are critical, as will become clear. TADAT provides, in effect, a revenue-side analogue to the highly successful Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) framework.

The technical design of TADAT will be completed in the next few months. The tool itself will be posted on the TADAT website for public comment in a few weeks. It has already been piloted in three countries – in Zambia, a low-income economy; high-income Norway; and the emerging economy of South Africa. Countries differ greatly in circumstances, culture and organisational/legal structures, and it is important that the tool be robust enough for use under a wide range of circumstances.

With several more pilots planned, results have been uniformly encouraging so far. All three pilot countries have found the tool extremely helpful. One striking regularity is that administrations often found that they were not performing as impressively in some areas as they had thought — but that they were also not doing as badly in others as they had feared. This is exactly the value of an independent, standardized assessment.

TADAT works by evaluating a tax administration in each of nine ‘Performance Outcome Areas’ (POAs), shown in the TADAT ‘wheel.’ This starts with taxpayer registration — making sure all are in the tax net who should be, and that records are up to date – and goes all the way to looking at how tax disputes are handled and whether the tax administration is working transparently. A score is given for each area, with 27 ‘indicators’ forming part of 54 detailed ‘dimensions.’

This is all much simpler than it may sound. Take, for instance, POA 5: Payment of Obligations. Clearly any tax administration wants to make sure that taxpayers pay on time and in full – so one of the two indicators here is timeliness of payments. We can assess this by looking at such things as whether VAT payments are made on time, recording an ‘A’ if the proportion is above 90 percent to ‘D’ if it is below 50 percent.

This exercise doesn’t aim to reach some overall score or country ranking. Nor does it come up with immediate recommendations or advice. This is diagnosis, not prescription.

The idea, rather, is to help countries themselves to identify their own tax administrations’ relative strengths and weaknesses, and develop reform strategies accordingly. TADAT’s standardization and rigid insistence on firm evidence for all assessments will make a major contribution to more effective development co-operation, helping donors and other stakeholders identify and agree on the areas where support is most needed, coordinate their efforts and debate the issues in an agreed framework.

And with repeat assessments, TADAT will give a systematic and structured view of progress being made.

Importantly, TADAT is not only for developing countries. Tax administrations in all countries face the same basic challenges, and indeed the years since the 2008 financial crisis have exposed weaknesses in many tax administrations in advanced economies, and lent renewed urgency to fair and effective tax collection in many more. At the same time, many have been asked to do more with fewer resources. For them too, a hard-nosed and independent assessment of their strengths and weaknesses can provide an invaluable perspective in deciding their own priorities for improvement.

Its implementation is being overseen by a Steering Committee of enthusiastic donors – the European Union, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and United Kingdom along with the IMF, World Bank and South African Revenue Service. A technical advisory group provides, well, technical advice. Day-to-day operations are overseen by a small secretariat within, but at arm’s length from, the IMF.

This secretariat will be responsible for developing the tool, and — crucially — for assuring the quality of TADAT assessments.

These assessments will be undertaken by a wide range of organisations: regional development banks, international organisations, consultancy firms and others. A key element of the TADAT philosophy is that assessments should be undertaken only by tax administration experts specifically and extensively trained to do so. Over the next few months, a core goal is to build up a highly professional pool of accredited assessors to undertake the substantial work ahead and ensure that the unique and exciting potential of TADAT is fully realised.


KeenBioMichael Keen is Deputy Director in the Fiscal Affairs Department at the IMF, and Acting Head of the TADAT secretariat. For more information on TADAT, see www.tadat.org or contact secretariat@tadat.org.

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