By Julian Bajkowski
A long running push by Australia’s independent software community to spur the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) into improving and adding new features to the revenue agency’s eTax lodgement interface has just taken a bold new twist.
Plucky mobile developer Wave Digital claims it has given up waiting for the taxman and launched its own expenses app “in frustration” with the pace of change.
The app’s launch comes as the cut-off for lodgement of tax returns with the ATO again looms on 31st October.
The mobile code factory had clearly been hoping that it would have, by now, had some way of plugging its expenses management functionality into the ATO’s eTax interface – but has since resorted to launching its own free app, dubbed “ATO Expenses”, rather than holding its breath.
While the app still doesn’t talk directly to the ATO’s systems, Wave says that it uses “expenses per the ATO’s eTax categories”.
For many taxpayers trying to configure US or European apps, that in itself will be progress.
However Wave’s move is just one of a growing number of product and app launches where technology creators simply aren’t waiting around for government services to come up with their solutions.
The rub for government agencies is that once such apps are launched, it can sometimes put the spotlight on where the public sector’s own efforts may be behind the rapid pace of the commercial world.
Australia’s most notorious showdown between IT bureaucrats and developers came in 2009 when then New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees ordered train provider Railcorp to stop legally hounding a developer who had dared to provide commuters a public transport timetable app.
Since then numerous government departments have embraced coding and app development competitions in an effort to inject creativity and fresh thinking into their use of technology.
Wave is hardly a stranger to government work, having built a traffic app for VicRoads and Australia Post’s mobile interface for its online store.
“We love eTax. But developing a useful app to keep track of your deductible expenses wasn’t anywhere on the cards for the ATO – so, we just built our own app instead,” Wave said in a statement announcing its launch.
“With this year’s tax deadline fast approaching many users are rapidly trying to find all their receipts to accurately complete their returns on time. More than 2.6 million people lodged their tax returns with e-tax last year, so this is a fantastic tool for those users to maximise their tax refund in future years” Wave Digital’s managing director, Guy Cooper said.
Wave says that users can export a digitised summary of happy-snapped expenses to give to their tax adviser or just use the app for their own personal own record keeping.
Given that thermally printed receipts for everything from petrol to entertainment expenses can often fade faster than an end of financial year claiming deadline, a product that is both ATO and eTax compatible is very likely to have solid appeal over copying or scanning receipts through more conventional means.
Once regarded as on the cutting edge of government service delivery, the heritage Windows-based eTax client application progressively attracted growing criticism over recent years because there was not a Mac compatible version available until July this year.
When the Mac version did finally launch, many critics wondered why the ATO had persevered with a client software product rather than opting for a full online delivery model similar to internet banking.
Despite its numerous challenges, the ATO clearly acknowledges need to change and says that work is underway.
“We are actively promoting new contemporary services that make it easier for people to lodge online,” an ATO spokesman told Government News.
“We have also launched a new app, ATO Tax 2013, which provides information on lodging your return, answers frequently asked questions and lets people monitor the progress of their return.”
The spokesman also noted that some of e-tax’s existing features were still quite appealing to users.
“One of the other reasons people continue to use e-tax to lodge their tax return is because of our information download service – or what we call our pre-fill service. Pre-filling helps people complete their tax return by downloading information the ATO has received from employers, financial institutions, government agencies and others straight into the relevant questions in e-tax,” the ATO spokesman said.
“Pre-filling on e-tax can save people a lot of time completing their return and reduce the chance of them making mistakes like typos because their tax information is automatically downloaded to their e-tax form.”