Communication of Tax Administrations during and beyond Covid-19 - IOTA Forum on Communication 2020

Adrienn Juhász's picture
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The second IOTA Forum on Communication was held in the cyberspace on 5th and 6th November 2020. 75 participants from 32 countries participated in this year’s event with the theme: “Communication of the Tax Administrations during and beyond Covid-19”. The plenary sessions and group discussions focused on innovative initiatives and responses of tax administrations’ communication strategies that were implemented during the Covid-19 crisis, as well as the changes and future implications of these.

The main aim of the IOTA Forum on Communication is to allow IOTA Member Tax Administrations to share experiences, knowledge, tools and best practices within the communication field. The Forum is a network of communication experts, who had the opportunity to organise and participate in this event for the second time since its establishment in 2019.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Tax Administrations had to rethink the way they communicate both towards tax payers as well as towards their own employees. In order to facilitate dialogue on these issues, the theme of the IOTA Forum on Communication in 2020 was “Communication of the Tax Administrations during and beyond Covid-19, more specifically the changes and strategies brought by the pandemic this year. The Forum was held digitally, as a combination of plenary sessions and group discussions, as well as a panel debate, over the course of two days.

5th November 2020, Day 1

Mr. Frantisek Imrecze, Executive Secretary of IOTA, opened the event. In his opening remarks he shed light on the importance of communication for tax administrations by saying that “(...) there is nothing without communications. You may introduce great digital services for your taxpayers but if you do not communicate with them properly, is it worth nothing.” Mr. Imrecze also mentioned that although in 2019 the Forum took place physically, no one could have foreseen what impact the Covid-19 pandemic would bring in 2020, how Tax Administrations would need to refocus their communications as part of their response.

The plenary session on the first day of the Forum comprised of five 15-minutes long presentations. Firstly, Ms. Angharad Corona (Head of Tax Policy Communications) from the United Kingdom discussed how HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) focused on introducing business support schemes in response to Covid-19, which did not only help to save millions of jobs but also made sure that taxes were brought in to support the most essential public services in the country. In terms of communication strategy, this meant making sure that target audiences understood and were aware of the schemes, that they knew how to access these schemes, and that during all this HMRC was seen as competent and trusted to deliver on the schemes.

Next, from Spain, Ms. Gema Jiménez Martín (Tax Inspector) and Ms. Teresa Bernácer Sales (Head of the External Communication Area) spoke about how the Spanish Agencia Tributaria re-shaped their internal and external communications during the pandemic. Some of their examples included the postponement of debt payments, the benefits of their digital identification system, their virtual VAT assistant, and how they communicated to the public about all these changes and services. Their internal communication also introduced new initiatives, such as emailing all employees about the organization of remote work as well as safety recommendations to protect their health.

The third presentation discussed the successful tourist voucher initiative introduced in Slovenia during the pandemic, and was showcased by Ms. Nina Zakrajšek (PR Officer). As a part of their execution strategy, the task was to inform and educate both the stakeholders as well as the beneficiaries about the vouchers. For this purpose, channels such as social media, a dedicated website, press releases, a mobile app and a call centre were all utilised.

Mrs. Karin Christophersen (Program Director, Collections and Payment Transactions at the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration) from the Netherlands gave an interesting presentation with the title “Everything becomes liquid under pressure”, where she spoke about the Dutch Tax & Customs Administrations (DTCA) main aims during the crisis being: keeping a continuous dialogue with major employers’ organizations to keep a V-shaped recession and avoid downsizing, maintaining strong external communications via online and offline channels, and solving the challenges employees faced due to working from home. Among other things, Ms. Christophersen spoke about how such a crisis showed them that the DTCA was able to adapt quickly ”like liquid”.

The last presentation of the first day came from the Republic of Moldova by Mrs. Valentina Timofeev (Acting Head of Cooperation and Exchange of Information Department), who spoke about the external communication tools and channels the Moldovan State Tax Service used during the pandemic. These included a call center, their website, emails, their Facebook page, and even Zoom. Mrs. Timofeev also mentioned that while before the pandemic they would share news only occasionally and hardly receive any email requests, after the beginning of the pandemic this has turned upside down: they began sharing news daily and started receiving numerous email requests.

The presentations were followed by a Q&A session, a break, and group discussion in the afternoon.

6th November 2020, Day 2

Similarly to the first day, there were five 15-minuteslong presentations taking place in the plenary session on the second day of the Forum. The first one of these was given by Ms. Terhi Karttunen (Communications Specialist) from the Finnish Tax Administration. Her presentation has shown that their initial internal challenge was going remote: before the pandemic, 60% of their employees worked from home occasionally, which has changed to 98% of employees working remotely full time. Their organization chose not to communicate via email with the employees but rather build up a strong and informative intranet system to strengthen their internal communications.

The second presentation of the day came from Ms. Jennifer O’Sullivan (Lead of Communications and Knowledge Management branch at the Revenue Commissioners of Ireland). She spoke about the Irish response to the pandemic. Their communications approach relied on making the most out of existing, familiar channels while also changing the pace of external communications and relying more on electronic channels. The latter was also reflected in the increased use of Revenue’s online personal accounts and related enquiries service by taxpayers.

Unlike the first Finnish presentation of the day that spoke about internal communications, the third presentation of the day also by the Finnish Tax Administration by Ms. Nilla Hietamäki (Communications Manager) focused on external communications instead. The Finnish Tax Administration identified a need to align some of their policies and practices in the new situation caused by Covid-19. The communications unit had an active role in this and worked in close cooperation with leading tax experts and process owners. In addition, there were adjusted practices and policies to both corporate and individual taxpayers on e.g. payment arrangements, extended schedules, mask and health care deductions, streaming of events, tax cards and customer service.

Mr. Šarūnas Kubilius (Communications Specialist) spoke about the importance of keeping communications simple, clear and easy when facing the challenges of remote work, information fatigue and the introduction of a dozen different help packages at the same time. The Lithuanian case was a stark example of how communication principles change during a pandemic.

’External Communication About Audits During COVID-19’ was the topic of Mr. Andreas Olden (Senior Advisor, Priority Risk Division) from Tax Norway, who gave the last presentation of the second plenary session of the Forum. As response to the crisis, he explained, they decided to reduce tax audits in order to ease the burden on tax payers – but how is it best to communicate reduced audits? Mr. Olden talked about the benefits of using survey experiments that can give insights into how communication affects beliefs and norms, and how to adopt the communication strategy with the help of survey results.

The presentations were followed by a Q&A session, a break, and group discussion  where participants explored more informally the risks, challenges and lessons learnt for the future. The 2020 IOTA Forum on Communication ended with a panel debate, which Members of the Steering Group, Chairpersons of Discussion Groups as well as other participants could attend.

The presentations andc notes from discussion group are available for IOTA members on the event page.