SARS augments IT systems in preparation for over 5m taxpayers

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Intikhab Shaik, head of technology and solutions delivery at SARS.
Intikhab Shaik, head of technology and solutions delivery at SARS.

The South African Revenue Service (SARS) has revamped its IT systems in preparation for the over five million South African taxpayers who are anticipated to use the SARS MobiApp or eFiling platform to file their tax returns.

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, a record number of people are expected to turn to the taxman’s online services for the 2020/21 filing period, with the organisation encouraging South Africans to use its online platforms instead of visiting the branches.

SARS is under pressure to make the filing process seamless and convenient for taxpayers, with revenue collection for the 2020/21 filing period expected to be R304.1 billion lower than the 2020 budget estimate. This is attributed to a shrinking tax base, as a result of the massive job losses and business closures due to the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Intikhab Shaik, head of technology and solutions delivery at SARS, told ITWeb that SARS has introduced new technologies aimed at enhancing its services and making the preparation process easier for four main categories of taxpayers: automatically assessed taxpayers, those who do e-filing via the SARS e-filing system, provisional taxpayers, and for first-time registrations.

After trialling the auto-assessment system with a small group of individuals last year, the number of auto-assessments has this year been increased to 3.1 million South Africans who have been issued with SMS notices of their automatically assessed returns – making it easier for them to receive their tax refund within 72 hours of approval.

To manage the large volume of taxpayers who are expected to file, SARS opened the filing period for the auto-assessment system first, on 1 August until 16 November, while individual income tax return filing resumes on 1 September until 16 November.

“SARS has always made technology a high priority area and this year our digital strategy focuses on the pre-filing preparation season, where we want to prepare taxpayers for the various online administration processes, aimed at providing convenience, while helping people to comply.

“We’ve observed branches with the highest number of walk-in visitations and we’ve digitised certain processes. For instance, we have a high number of first-time registrations who do not have a tax number – they can now register their names and capture personal details and they instantly get their tax number – a process which took days in the past.”

SARS has also put in place online tools aimed at making it easy for those who forget their tax reference number to go online, and by filling in their personal details, they are able to have their tax number instantly sent to them either via the app or an e-mail, adds Shaik.

For functions such as auto-assessments, SARS extracts data from third-party sources such as banks, medical aids, IRP files and insurance companies. Using data analytics and artificial intelligence technologies, the tax collector is able to analyse and conduct automatic assessments on behalf of taxpayers to simplify the process for them.

An SMS is then sent to the auto-assessed customer who will either approve the assessment or opt to edit the information, by adding additional info before approving the process.

“Over 460 000 people have already accepted their auto-assessment SMSes, with many having received their tax returns.

“If, for some reason, they don’t accept the auto-assessment SMS, and prefer to conduct their e-filing via eFiling or the MobiApp, we’ve also made this method easier by increasing the third-party data, by pre-populating some of their income sources and their personal details. As with the provisional taxpayers, this method allows users to simply fill in the blanks and then use the tax calculator to calculate their total returns,” notes Shaik.

Good return on investment

For those who prefer walk-in branch visitations, a newly-introduced appointment e-booking system can be used to schedule an appointment prior to coming into the branch.

Furthermore, the Notice of Registration for VAT is now available on SARS’s e-filing, to allow VAT vendors to view, print or save their notice of registration.

“Over five million people are expected to file for tax returns this season, and this number also includes those who will be filing for previous years. We really appeal to South Africans not to come to the branch until they have used our new booking system available on the app or on our Web site.”

It takes about six months and almost 200 IT specialists, including developers, business analysts and system testers, to successfully deliver one tax filing season, notes Shaik.

The large array of specialists who are involved include risk engines staff, core tax calculation staff and those who are in charge of focus groups which play an important role in helping SARS to test and pilot the systems and processes before they go live.

In addition, SARS works with IT vendors and partners that develop the systems, which are designed by the organisation.

“While I cannot mention how much we’ve paid for our IT systems, according to our auditors, SARS has paid under the expected norm for the state of art technology that we use. Considering our valuable functions points, we predict that we have paid less and we are getting a very good return on our investment in our globally-competitive technologies,” concludes Shaik.

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