Stop the BYOD (Bring Your Own Data) Game

Regardless of the ongoing tax legislative discussions outcome, one thing is certain – we will continue to pay taxes. All of the digital capabilities required to make our lives easier are available today. While it is too late to impact 2017 taxes, 2018 and beyond is open for improvements. Let’s start applying data and technology to create a better tax game.

Kristina Podnar
March 20, 2018

Imagine this scenario: You walk into your doctor’s office and are asked for your current blood pressure, temperature, and weight. After a short pause, you are asked what your blood pressure was the last time you were at the doctor’s office. If this scenario seems wildly absurd and would never happen, I agree. So why then, do we tolerate the equivalent of that behavior with tax preparation?

Every year looks about the same, with similar scenarios playing out:

  1. You launch TurboTax or similar software which you used last year to prepare your taxes. Luckily it stored most of your information. However, you still must enter your W-2 information, charitable donations information, and the name of your new baby.
  2. You receive a paper-based information-gathering packet from your friendly tax accountant with the fax number of the accounting firm prominently printed on the first page so that you can promptly return the engagement letter before they will consider working on your returns.
  3. You put a slew of random papers in to a folder and head to your local H&R Block branch. You spend most of a weekend or two there sorting through receipts and trying to guess the right answers to the series of questions you are asked.

Regardless of which one you participate in, there is bound to be pain. Banks only provide 12 months of rolling raw data, subjecting anyone who didn’t download the data in time to hunt through monthly statements. If you own a small business, work from a home office part of the time, or do anything other than clock 9 to 5, the process can be even more convoluted. For each utility you pay, you need to login to a unique portal and gather the data.  Given that we all have to bring our own data to the game, is it so surprising that:

  • The Tax Foundation estimates that 8.9 billion hours are needed for everyone – individuals and companies – to comply with the tax code every year.
  • The same study shows that about 64% of those hours are put in by citizens filing individual taxes.
  • If you participate in an Individual Retirement Account, you contribute to the 48,731,780 hours required to file the necessary paperwork just for those alone.
  • Bloomberg reported last year that despite the rise in availability of tax preparations software, such as TurboTax and H&R Block’s online filling, human preparers – including tax accountants – have steadily raised their fees.

It might seem like there is no escape from the excruciating pain of tax season, but could there be another way? What if we could break away from our negative pattern and use existing big data and artificial intelligence to give us those hours back?

Models of simplicity

Easier taxes might seem like a pipe dream but other countries have proven that it is an achievable goal.

  • In Estonia, tax filing takes about 5 minutes of online work. The country has a tax filling compliance rate above 90 percent. Tax payers receive pre-filled tax forms.  If everything is correct, they just press “send” and are finished.
  • In Sweden, citizens receive a document from the government with all relevant information already filled out so that submission is easy. If their taxes are straight forward, individuals can simplify further by agreeing to their tax filling by texting “yes” regarding their prepared statement.
  • The Netherlands, Japan, and Singapore are also models for making taxes easy, but not because of their tax code. Rather it is through the collection, pre-filing of tax-related data, and use of digital that makes these tax systems more efficient and the taxation less burdensome.

Don’t think this is possible in the United States? The reality is that most individual taxpayers have a single employer (and thus a single W-2 income reporting form) and bank with a single institution. Because employers and banks must already submit this information to the government, it ought to be as simple as an individual confirming the data is accurate in order for the tax returns to be processed.

The same is true for businesses. Not only does the IRS understand how much money was spent by an organization in a given year, they receive quarterly reports and payments from businesses based on accounting principles. The government already has a sense of what the business will earn throughout the year and can reconcile that information with bank statements and payment transfer reports. 

Resisting the change or changing the resistance?

Unsurprisingly the tax preparation world has been slow to embrace change and adopt digital solutions to make tax filing easier. The culture is mostly characterized by the phrase ‘knowledge is king’ and made up of individuals who enjoy reading and interpreting the tax code in all of its possible variations. Don’t look to the tax preparation industry to disrupt itself any time soon.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) with big data at its fingertips can make this process a reality. It seemed like it might be heading in that direction last year, as the Agency set out on a path to upgrade it 25-year modernization overhaul but the effort may have stalled. If the agency were to alter digital policy to allow for additional data sharing, take on artificial intelligence applied to its data set, we could easily see:

  • AI processing structured data, like how much has a citizen made at their job, how much interest was earned from the bank or investment firm, or how much money was contributed to your favorite charity.
  • A taxpayer-centric dashboard, much like those used by the credit scoring agencies, that allow a user to login, review how much tax has been paid in previous years, and what obligations the taxpayer has to date.
  • Machine learning driving predictable form completions, based on the “same as last year” (SALY) approach. More advanced methods can be used to support businesses in detecting trends within tax filing periods or quarterly, monthly, or annual reporting trends, including increases or decreases in cash flow and accruals.
  • Do you volunteer? Those miles traveled for your volunteer gig can automatically be transferred from your wireless-enabled car to the IRS.
  • A significant decrease in tax fraud and audits as machines learn patterns in data and can sport abnormalities early for correction by the taxpayer.

Regardless of the ongoing tax legislative discussions outcome, one thing is certain – we will continue to pay taxes.  All of the digital capabilities required to make our lives easier are available today. While it is too late to impact 2017 taxes, 2018 and beyond is open for improvements. Let’s start applying data and technology to create a better tax game.

Photo by Paul Bergmeir

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