Not the most loved government department anywhere in the world but the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) in Hong Kong has been part and parcel of the city's life for more than 60 years and its public profile is constantly on the rise.
In recent years, the IRD not only invested in modern technology to improve overall work efficiency, but has also focused strongly on enhancing effective communication with the public and its own staff. These efforts have been recognised in this year's Civil Service Outstanding Service Award Scheme, and the IRD walked away with a Champion of the Best Performance Pledges Award, a new category in the biennial programme.
Over the years, the IRD has increased its performance pledges from an initial 13 items across eight categories to the present 28 items over 15 categories, covering the bulk of its public services. The department issues annual reports on its performance pledges, detailing the targets set for each item. "Rather than set rigid goals, we constantly review their attainability," says Vincent Chiu, an IRD chief assessor.
"If certain targets are consistently exceeded, we conduct a thorough review to assess the possibility of setting a higher benchmark, with a view to raising the level of service," notes Yip Sham Yin-har, who is also a chief assessor. "This helps to reflect our accomplishments and drive for continuous service improvement."
Mrs Yip says that performance targets for purchase and redemption of tax reserve certificates, tax refunds arising from revised assessments and the processing of tax audits and investigations were enhanced early this year. "We believe that advanced information technology and a sense of commitment are the key to ongoing improvement," she stresses.
As additional services are launched, new performance pledges are added accordingly, Mrs Yip points out. This year, these have included an electronic stamp-duty service and the issuing of electronic receipts to eTAX account holders.
To identify taxpayers' needs and concerns before setting performance pledges, the IRD established a wide range of communication channels including a 24-hour telephone enquiry system, an opinion survey and suggestion box to collect public opinions.
An independent "users committee", comprising legal practitioners, accountants, academics and other professionals, was formed to monitor the department's services. They also undertake to provide professional input on enhancing work efficiency.
"They pay regular visits to our frontline staff to get insights into their work procedures and to listen to their views, in order to come up with suggestions for improvements," says Lam Fung-shan, a senior IRD assessor.
The department meets with the committee on a quarterly basis and submits statistical reports on the performance pledges. "The committee members are also taxpayers, so they are in an ideal position to offer their opinions from both a user's point of view and a professional perspective," Ms Lam adds.
Staff support is crucial for continuous improvement. For this reason, an internal departmental service standards committee and several sub-subcommittees, representing different operating units and sections, have been established.
The IRD believes that involving staff representatives, particularly those working on the frontline, in regular meetings with the management can help generate ideas on how to improve work efficiency and achieve performance targets.
"Staff that are in daily contact with the public have the best understanding of taxpayers' needs," says Ms Lam, adding that performance targets tend to be the products of in-depth customer needs analyses and experience gained previously.
IRD employees have the benefit of easy access to a comprehensive handbook and regular circulars detailing work procedures and monitoring guidelines on the department's intranet. Meanwhile, the department also has in place a number of training programmes to equip staff with the skills they need to provide quality service and to implement new ones.
The IRD has in recent years applied information technology in driving overall productivity. One example is the document management system introduced in 2003, which gives staff access to digital file records and enables the efficient processing of tax returns.
"Staff no longer has to refer to individual sets of paper documents to respond to enquiries. This significantly reduced the time required for retrieving documents and handling taxpayers' requests and queries," Mr Chiu explains.
The launch of a workflow management system in 2006 increased efficiency in handling applications for holdover claims and objections. The system enables supervisors to monitor work progress and formulate solutions, such as workloads reallocation, with greater flexibility and speed.
"All our employees are delighted with the Best Performance Pledges Award, which recognises our team effort in pursuit of service excellence and continuous improvement over the past 60 years," Ms Lam concludes.
New and enhanced
- Flexibility key to achieving practical service targets
- Customer-oriented approach effective in identifying taxpayers' needs
- Independent users committee acts as external watchdog
- Staff engagement crucial to continuous improvement