The vision for changing tax culture in Australia

Financial district
Chris Sheedy By Chris Sheedy, CA Today

26 June 2017

A recent event organised by the ICAS Sydney Committee highlighted how an outsider has been able to transform the culture of the Australian Taxation Office. Chris Sheedy looks at the role of effective leadership in tax.

When most Australians think about the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), they think about a long-established and bureaucratic organisation focused on revenue collection and protecting the country’s revenue base.

Chris Jordan AO (Order of Australia), Commissioner of Taxation, certainly thought so when he was appointed to the role in 2013 as the first Commissioner to come from outside the ATO.

A former KPMG partner, Chris realised that as customer experience becomes the new battleground across all industries and market sectors, government departments are not immune.

He views the ATO as a key contributor to the economic and social wellbeing of Australians and realised that building a service-orientated culture was crucial to its future.

What is the culture shift?

During a fascinating Q&A session organised and hosted by ICAS Sydney, Chris outlined his leadership objectives and challenges, and his ability to successfully bring his years of commercial experience to bear in the public sector.

Smooth and efficient running of a public department has a lot to do with finding a balance between the fast pace and quick decision making of a nimble corporate.

The ATO, Chris revealed, is shifting its culture from a revenue collection focus to one of service where interactions with the ATO become as infrequent, fast and painless as possible.

His vision is for interactions to be highly automated, simple, self-explanatory and in an environment in which the taxpayer is familiar and comfortable – perhaps a shopfront, webchat, an app or within a social media platform.

Smooth and efficient running of a public department such as the ATO, Chris said, has a lot to do with finding a balance between the fast pace and quick decision making of a nimble corporate – which is the type of insight and knowledge he brings to the role - and the strong integrity and risk management procedures for which Government departments are better known.

Today’s Government must be good at both, he said, whilst constantly passing on new innovations and efficiencies to its clients.

Unlocking a new market of talent

To focus on new strategic goals, the ATO has had to unlock the potential of those within the organisation as well as tap an entirely new market of ‘external’ talent.

One approach, Chris explained, has been to offer employment on a contract basis to women taking career breaks to look after school-age children.

A department is only as strong as its leader.

By employing these parents during school hours, from 9am to 3pm and only during school terms, a rich seam of talent has been uncovered and is helping to propel the ATO into the future.

And of course, a department is only as strong as its leader. Chris said he has made a constant conscious effort to ensure he has the time and bandwidth to think strategically.

Meetings are not the priority

How does he achieve this? He organises his days so they are not filled with meetings, meaning he has ample ‘thinking time’. This allows him to focus on strategy, staying out of the detail and trusting the strong team around him to get the work done.

During this time, he’ll often find himself standing in the shoes of the ATO’s stakeholders and clients, developing a clear understanding of the relationships and needs from their position.

With time to develop a clear vision and strategy, courageous decisions are absolutely possible.

He also sets his own priorities at the beginning of every week, focusing only on issues that are achievable and within his power. This way, matters of significance and priority not only become clearer but blockages and opportunities are easily identified and addressed.

With time to develop a clear vision and strategy, courageous decisions are absolutely possible, and with a capable and empowered team, those decisions are quickly actioned, Chris said.

For these reasons and more, clients of the ATO should expect continued and noticeable change in the near future.

Read more from CA Australia

About the author

Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning HeraldVirgin Australia VoyeurThe Australian MagazineGQIn The BlackCadillac, Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.


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