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A Guide to Open Government and the Coronavirus: Tax

Open Response Teal

Recommendations | Examples | Resources | Partners | Back to Main

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, it was widely recognized that countries must have adequate tax revenue to achieve the sustainable development goals – from addressing issues of poverty and equity to providing education, sanitation, and avoiding catastrophic climate effects. In the context of COVID-19, responses to the economic, social, and, sometimes political effects are being addressed not only through spending, but also through changes in revenue collection such as tax holidays or deferments. Even without changes in tax policy, enforcement and administration, there will be major changes in revenue structure as the amount of revenue collected shifts – whether that is in property, wealth, income, international trade, or consumption. 

The motivations for improving tax and finance are interrelated. 

  • Capacity: The potential benefits for state-building and improved service-delivery across sectors;
  • Sovereignty: Independence from foreign and multilateral development assistance;
  • Democracy: Taxation regimes encourage public demand for performance and better democracy (often referred to as the “tax bond” or “social fiscal contract”);
  • Equity: Ensuring that taxation is fair and supports pro-poor development;
  • Competitiveness: Supporting efficient markets by rewarding innovation over tax evasion and regulatory capture; 
  • Solvency: Balance sheets allow for sustainable management of debt and delivery of services.

Approaches to dealing with these issues include:

  • Improving tax administration;
  • Improving policy to ensure equity in tax burden and efficiency in administration;
  • Improving tax enforcement and reducing tax evasion; 
  • Improving tax morale.

Because a strong COVID-19 response will require massive financial mobilization and changes in tax policy, it presents a huge chance for policy capture, shifting of tax burdens, and even fraud. Weaving transparency, accountability, and participation throughout changes to tax policy (even if temporary) can help to resolve these issues. Without transparency, it is difficult to assess the distributional impacts of policy changes. Without participation, tax policy and administration will fail to represent the broadest spectrum of interest groups. Without accountability, it is difficult to identify where and when there has been maladministration or illegal preference shown to certain parties.

This guide provides recommendations to strengthen transparency, accountability, and participation in tax policy and administration in the context of COVID-19. For related policy recommendations see the sections of this guide on fiscal openness, public procurement, and social safety nets.

Recommendations

Open Response

Open response measures place transparency, accountability, and participation at the center of immediate government efforts to curb contagion and provide emergency assistance. 

The following recommendations are grouped into three categories, according to whether they strengthen tax equity, improve the efficiency of tax administration, or address tax enforcement and evasion. All three categories are relevant to both the open response and open recovery phases of pandemic response.

Equity

Tax equity is essential to building a strong foundation for future economic resiliency. Equitable tax policies ensure that tax burdens are fairly distributed across a society. Tax policy changes can mitigate or worsen the economic inequality that has been deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Issues of equity go beyond policy; enforcement (see below) is also critical to ensuring equity.

  • Transparent policymaking: Proactively publish information on tax policy decisions taken in response to the pandemic, including who is making decisions and justifications for decisions.
    • Policy change transparency: In particular, widely publish any policy changes related to deferred payments, filing deadlines, suspended penalties and debt recovery, tax exemptions and relief, debt payment plan extensions, and reduced tax rates. Rules should be clear about who qualifies for these changes and data should be available on who receives these benefits and what the impact – financial and otherwise are.
    • Revenue projections: At all levels, government should publish revised projections of multiple scenarios related to changes in tax revenue following the effects of COVID-19. This should cover the entire budget and sources of tax: consumption, income tax, corporate tax, property and wealth, as well as resource revenue.
    • Distributional impacts of policy change: Policy-setting authorities should make public the estimated changes in distributional impacts when there is a change in tax policy. Such impacts can cover informal labor, unpaid labor, self-employed workers and those in the gig economy. Many of these issues disproportionately impact women. At the other end of the spectrum, transparency about distributional impacts on the wealthy can help to shed light on the efficiency, fairness, and equity in a given policy. In the recovery phases, comparisons of traditional tax tools can be used with relatively new ideas such as solidarity taxes and excess profit taxes which are relevant for equity.
    • Regular channels for policy-making: Tax policy changes should proceed through normal channels. Such channels should comply with standard notice-and-comment or other participation rules in place. Exceptions to standard regulatory processes should be explicitly, directly related to COVID-19, have a clear sunset period or built-in reviews, and be proportionate to the need for acceleration.
    • Multistakeholder advisory council and oversight: Organize (virtually if needed) an inclusive council of stakeholders from across government, experts, civil society, special interest groups, and vulnerable communities to review measures related to tax policy in the COVID-19 response. Practice maximal disclosure by documenting and publishing records of deliberation and supporting documentation and giving members the right to communicate directly to the public.

Open Recovery and Reform

Open recovery measures place transparency, accountability, and participation at the center of medium-term government efforts to rebuild in the wake of COVID-19. Similarly, open reform initiatives ensure that the public is at the heart of government in the post-pandemic world.

Efficiency (Tax administration)

Global economic decline and decreasing government revenue demonstrate that efficient tax administration is more important than ever. The following recommendations seek to reinforce efficient tax administration in the COVID-19 context.

  • Awareness-raising: Ensure that information on tax policy changes is comprehensible and proactively disseminated through multiple media channels so that it reaches all sectors of the population. Provide multiple channels of communication, such as hotlines and website chat functions, to answer questions and provide clarity on policy changes.
  • Digitized tax services: Provide online tax registration, filing, and payment processes. Share the availability of these processes widely and ensure they are accessible to all segments of the population. Provide multiple channels of communication, such as an email and hotline, to answer questions and address technological issues.
  • Adaptive tax policies: Develop a process to continuously monitor and respond to changes in the context. Identify what factors will determine when temporary tax policies end. Design flexible policies that acknowledge that various sectors will move through the recovery phase at different speeds.

Enforcement and evasion

Significant amounts of money may be sheltered from lawful collection. Some of this activity may take the shape of tax minimization or avoidance of regulation by citizens and companies, while other efforts are outright corruption, embezzlement, or organized crime. Evasion results in equity issues as well as inefficiencies in the market and in other distortions.

The following areas can help bridge the gap between needed revenue and currently collected revenue.

  • Beneficial ownership: 
    • Require public disclosure of companies’ beneficial owners in a national register to improve tax collection and accountability. 
    • Publish information in an open data format in alliance with the Beneficial Ownership Data Standard to facilitate data sharing across jurisdictions and policy areas.
    • Consider making companies registered without publicly available beneficial owners or registered in recognized tax havens ineligible for government subsidies or tax exemptions.
  • Budget transparency: Transparency around public spending and audits can improve public trust and support for tax collection. View our guide on fiscal openness for more information. 
  • Tax audit transparency: Empower civil servants in the revenue agency to carry out comprehensive auditing as part of the enforcement strategy and publicly report on tax gaps and budget-to-revenue levels for the agency.
  • Country- and project-level reporting: Require multinational corporations to regularly report: the countries where they operate; their value of assets and gross and net assets in each country; their subsidiaries and affiliates in each country; and each subsidiary and affiliates’ performance and tax charge in its accounts.
  • International coordination: Increase communication among international organizations, public sector agencies, and banks to facilitate information sharing and coordinated response to illicit financial flows, such as tax evasion. One option for greater access to international information exchange is the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes. This may be particularly important in cases of trade-based money laundering and natural resource smuggling.
  • Banking secrecy: Require adequate due diligence and transparency on the part of private (or public) banks.
  • Maintaining oversight
    • Judicial oversight: Continue investigations into tax evasion, fraud, and white collar crime throughout the crisis. Pay particular attention to fraud associated with government stimulus spending, healthcare spending, and procurement. In some countries, jurists may choose to expand standing for public interest advocates or expand the types of claims (such as citizen enforcement) that may be brought in cases of waste, fraud, or abuse.
    • Executive oversight: Ensure the supreme audit institution has the authority, resources, and manpower to continue carrying out its mandate during the crisis.
    • Whistleblower protections: Provide a formal mechanism and strong safeguards for whistleblowers to reduce tax evasion and corruption.

Examples

The following examples are recent initiatives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and are drawn from our crowdsourced list as well as partner materials.

  • Global: Wales, France, Belgium, Scotland, Denmark, Canada, Poland and Argentina have banned government bailouts for companies that store their wealth in overseas tax havens.
  • Brazil: The Receita Federal do Brasil (RFB) website features a ‘COVID-19’ page listing all recent measures taken. The RFB has increased the hours of their online chat services and the scope of services provided. RFB is also creating a chatbot to answer questions regarding personal income taxes through a digital app.
  • Iceland: Iceland Revenue and Customs have increased services and materials to aid foreign language speakers to compensate for the lack of access to in-person services.

The following examples are commitments previously made by OGP members that demonstrate elements of the recommendations made above.

Tax administration

  • Afghanistan (2019-2021): Committed to creating an electronic revenue collection system at the municipal level.
  • Guatemala (2014-2016): Sought to create a public database of information on companies’ differentiated tax treatment, beneficial owners, and taxes due among other information.
  • Guatemala (2016-2018): Committed to publishing tax statistics, studies, and information on tax evasion and Guatemala’s compliance with international tax standards.
  • Nigeria (2019-20121): Committed to standardizing and enforcing corporate taxes.
  • Sierra Leone (2019-2021): Committed to publishing tax incentive information.
  • South Korea (2018-2020): Committed to strengthening mechanisms for voluntary customs tax compliance.
  • Uruguay (2012-2014): Committed to creating an electronic tax receipt and invoicing system.

Beneficial ownership

  • Armenia (2018-2020): The government of Armenia committed to creating an open beneficial ownership register that meets the Beneficial Ownership Data Standard.
  • Nigeria (2019-2020): Nigeria committed to legally require the collection of beneficial ownership information and publish it on an open register according to international standards.
  • Slovak Republic (2019-2021): Committed to fully implementing the Beneficial Ownership Transparency Disclosure Principles
  • Ukraine (2016-2018, 2018-2020): Created a free, open, centralized and verified company register and committed to its integration with the global OpenOwnership Register.
  • United Kingdom (2013-2015, 2016-2018): Created a public beneficial ownership register, which was later expanded to include companies that hold land in the UK, operate in overseas territories, and bid on government contracts.

Resources

Partners who can provide further support and information

Thank you to our partners at Tax Justice Network and the International Budget Partnership for sharing recommendations and reviewing this module.

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