Just some weeks ago, I filed my tax in Singapore. It took me about twelve minutes at my computer at home on a Sunday afternoon in April. It was not straight forward, I needed to make some amendments and additional inputs to what IRAS had already prepared for me. Yet, it was really easy to understand, very effortless to do and I have the strong feeling I did not make a mistake. Twelve minutes. Really.
Chatting with a Singaporean a while ago, we touched the taxation system in Germany. And, I have to admit that I may not know exactly how it works nowadays, because I have been out of Germany for many years. However, from what I remember about my motherland, I can easily conclude that nothing changes very fast. And the changes are not always for the better for the people. They are often designed for political window-dressing as a result of some half-hearted promises given before election.
When I explained to my Singapore friend, that we have tax consultants in Germany who do not belong to the government, he did not understand immediately. “What do they do?” he wanted to know. I explained that the German tax regulations are so complex that no normal taxpayer understands them. Hence, when I was living in Germany, I paid a tax consultant every year to help me prepare filing my tax. “Isn’t it the job of the government to ensure people understand their regulations?” I told him that we have only 103,000 people working for the Ministry of Finance. No way.
“Can you not learn the tax regulations over time? After all, you file every year”, was his question. Yes, you file every year. But it is very likely they change the regulations just in the moment you thought you got it. They seriously do. The system in Germany is so complicated because every Müller, Meyer, Schulze – in Germany we don’t have Tom, Dick and Harry – gets his special tax exemptions or regulations. You have a strong lobby, you can save tax. This is a benefit of democracy. Or, democracy gone wrong, depending on who you are.
My friend further thought, that I might be an exception because of my job. “How many people need a tax consultant, really?” I told him that we have about 86,000 tax consultants who make a decent income from that job every year. I think it is a valid assumption, that many, many people need this kind of support. If the finance authorities would do their job, all these tax consultants would be out of that job – and could do something really value-added.
However, the chance that you catch German tax staff doing some process innovation, must be quite slim.
IRAS has been reinventing tax collection for many years. My friends tell me about the old days, when you could drive by IRAS and drop the tax returns from your car on your way to work. Now, tax collection in Singapore is a breeze. The best part is, IRAS is not leaning back and taking a well-deserved rest after all the accomplishments. No. They work very, very hard to get even better.
In my opinion, IRAS is one of the showcase institutions for continuous improvement and innovation to the benefit of tax payers in Singapore. And, highly effective processes are usually efficient, too. I.e., management and staff have been optimising their internal processes to be able to support the well-known excellent service delivery with minimal effort.
However, these results did not come over night. Over many years, they have been building a strong foundation of continuous change and innovation. They have a core of facilitators who have the capability to support this change and managers with the strong will to drive it – and to walk the talk. Their innovation initiative is supported by many small interventions, events and systems that all together form a homogeneous message: Get better every day.