How the tax profession can stay relevant

by Steve Healey CTA (Life) *

Some members of the tax profession have argued that the Australian Taxation Office – by introducing automation, standard business reporting and other efficiencies – has stepped ‘over the line’ and is ‘taking’ processing and compliance work away from accountants and tax advisers.

Examples they have cited include myTax and the expansion of other ATO self-service products at the expense of maintaining and improving those that supported tax practitioners such as Electronic Lodgement Service (ELS), Practitioner Lodgement Service (PLS) and Tax Agent Portal.

I suggest that the ATO isn’t reducing the traditional work of accountants. Technology and technological change is. It’s essential for practitioners to accept this fact and move forward. The profession’s reaction is, of course, similar to that of other professions and industries that are seeing their traditional models disrupted by technological change. Examples include the taxi, transport and accommodation sectors, to name but three.

With change comes uncertainty and, the greater the rate of change, the greater the concern from those operating under traditional business models. That said, it can be equally held that change brings opportunity and provides a platform (often said to be a ‘burning platform’) for the creation of new offerings, together with renewed approaches to the traditional way of doing things.

According to the ATO’s Future of the Tax Profession Symposium Closing Address, larger firms have implemented the use of Robotic Processing Automation (RPA) or artificial intelligence to undertake Goods and Services Tax (GST) and Business Activity Statement (BAS) preparation as well as simple audits and lodgements. Many of these firms believe that automation has enabled the delivery of services beyond the traditional tax practitioner services at reduced cost and risk.

Concerns about changes brought about by technology don’t end at job reduction. The ATO’s report states the change in the nature of tax work for the young professional who may struggle to build up sufficient capability and skills.
The ATO’s report also shared concerns that more open access to data increased cybersecurity risks, the potential for breaches and identity fraud.

The decline of the ‘knowledge guardian’

In developing a presentation and white paper on this subject, I settled on a term that I believe encompasses where we need to be as tax professionals in the future. That term is the ‘trusted concierge’.

It’s critical that we adopt such a mindset, as guardians of a body of knowledge that’s no longer exclusive to us as tax professionals.

These changes are also creating new platforms and paradigms for professional services practitioners and don’t mean there will no longer be a role for practitioners. Rather, practitioners will play an even more important role in distilling a plethora of information, data and knowledge to deliver forward-looking insights, using tools and connections across a far wider spectrum than traditionally possible.

The concepts of ‘knowledge guardians’ and trusted practitioners are not exclusive to accountants, lawyers and tax practitioners, but span all professions (e.g. the medical and education professions). With the expansion of technology solutions, the unfettered access to knowledge via the internet, and the ever-increasing capability of machines (and therefore increasing consumer empowerment), traditional models for delivering professional services and engaging practitioners will continue to disintegrate.

The rise of the ‘trusted concierge’

When we think of a concierge, we think of someone who may work in a hotel or, perhaps, a personal concierge performing errands for their affluent employer. That said, the word ‘concierge’ evokes thoughts of connectivity, resourcefulness, cooperation, problem-solving, advising, empathy and effective communication.

The concierge also seeks to ask questions to more accurately target customer needs. It is a word that carries trust although, given the importance of trust in any profession (including our own), it’s worth reinforcing that.

The term ‘trusted concierge’ represents a model in which the professional occupies a privileged position with the client (a position of absolute trust), is able to facilitate solutions to a wide range of complex problems and, while not necessarily having all the answers, has the ability to source and deliver those answers.

Recognising client empowerment

It’s critical that we recognise our clients are now far more empowered and armed with much greater knowledge. They are also increasingly demanding and determined to pay far less than they once did for what might be described as the provision of traditional services. With the ever-increasing amount of information available, it’s essential to change both the services we deliver to clients and the way we deliver these services.

We will need to ask more questions and seek information faster and more efficiently, using a combination of technology and human connectivity. We will need to shift our mindset from the ‘expert who has all the answers’ to the ‘trusted concierge who listens and works with clients and other sources to provide the answers’.

Although the future of the tax profession is a matter for the ATO, it is also a matter for the profession itself. Change is inevitable. While technological changes may affect the way tax practitioner services will be delivered, it is unlikely to fundamentally shift the demand for them in the shorter term. Practitioners will need to consider how they adapt to these changes.

For many, this is a fundamental but critical shift in thinking and in the way we approach our relationships with our clients, our people and the broader connected community.

* Steve Healey CTA is a Partner and National Head of Tax and Private Advisory Services for Grant Thornton. He is also a Chartered Tax Adviser, a life member of The Tax Institute and was The Tax Institute’s President in 2015. This article is excerpted from Steve’s white paper, ‘The future tax professional, which you can download here.

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