Last week seemed like a bad case of déjà vu with parts of Metro Manila being under water again, some 11 years ago after the last serious flood. TV stations broadcast images of people trapped on their roofs waiting for rescue, pets being rescued by their humans, and government resources stretched to the limit in responding to the needs of those devastated by the typhoon.
As if the COVID-19 pandemic were not enough to test our mettle, the typhoons wreaking havoc on parts of the country seemed designed to test just how resilient we really are.
Even so, life goes on. Businesses and citizens have found ways to adapt to new practices and policies. Without the new practices, their ability to get through this trying period is compromised. The same is true for government agencies. The strict quarantine rules at the start of the pandemic forced a lot of government employees to work from home. Even with the easing of quarantine, some government agencies were still operating with a skeleton force and alternative work arrangements. These resulted in delays to some government services or some taxpayer requests being left unattended.
Notably, most government agencies had e-filing and e-payment systems in place even before the lockdown. However, a lot of them do not have procedures allowing for online communication with taxpayers and applicants in lieu of face-to-face meetings.
Prior to the lockdown, taxpayers could go to government agencies and discuss their concerns with officers. In some cases, a phone call to a government agency yielded the needed information. However, with the health precautions in place at most government offices, face-to-face discussions and submissions of documents have not been allowed. Even a phone call is not an option as the handling examiner or case officer may not be in the office to answer the inquiry.
The inability to communicate with government officers handling an inquiry or application is immensely frustrating. In some cases, the application or request is not acted on because additional requirements were not communicated to the taxpayer or applicant in time. On the side of the applicant or taxpayer, there is always an element of uncertainty whether documents couriered or left in a drop box have, in fact, reached the handling officer.
Thus, it is encouraging to see that some government agencies have put systems and procedures in place to ensure effective communication with taxpayers or applicants despite the lockdown and alternative work arrangements. These systems assure us that the government is also keeping pace with the need to adapt to the new normal in ensuring that government services are not delayed.
For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) now requires the submission of official e-mail addresses and mobile phone numbers by all entities under their jurisdiction. On the one hand, the SEC will also use such official contact details for sending orders, decisions, replies and other notices to the corporation, association, partnership or individual. On the other hand, the official e-mail addresses and phone numbers must be used by the corporations and associations for online filing and submission of letters, requests or other applications to the SEC.
The submission is required under Memorandum Circular No. 28-2020 posted on the SEC website on Oct. 27. The compliance deadline is not later than 60 days from the effectivity of the memorandum circular.
Likewise, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) has made available the eAppointment system for large taxpayers who want to schedule an online/virtual meeting with revenue officials from the Large Taxpayers Service (LT Audit Divisions and LT Field Operations Division). While the system is available only for large taxpayers for now, we hope all other offices of the BIR will also discover the convenience of virtual meetings and use them as the default mode for meeting with taxpayers.
Of course, systems have to be in place to make virtual meetings with government officers viable. Most importantly, the government has to make a serious investment in capacitating their offices with fast and reliable internet connections. Every government employee dealing directly with applicants must have an official e-mail address through which applicants can directly communicate with them.
It is disappointing that some government employees do not even have official e-mail addresses and have to rely on their personal Yahoo or Gmail addresses in communicating with taxpayers and applicants. In some cases where they have official e-mail addresses, the restrictions on use do not allow for any sort of document to be sent as an attachment, making them virtually useless.
With the BIR recognizing virtual conferences as an acceptable mode of meeting with taxpayers, we hope other government agencies and local government units will follow. With business permit renewals due in January, taxpayers are expected to crowd the city halls to submit documents. There must be an efficient e-submission, e-payment and e-meeting system in place to allow taxpayers to efficiently renew their business permits and pay their taxes without having to queue.
Indeed, we are all forced to adapt, and the government must keep up with the changing modes of delivering services if they are to thrive in this new normal.
Let’s Talk Tax is a weekly newspaper column of P&A Grant Thornton that aims to keep the public informed of various developments in taxation. This article is not intended to be a substitute for competent professional advice.
Eleanor Lucas Roque is a principal of the Tax Advisory & Compliance division of P&A Grant Thornton, the Philippine member firm of Grant Thornton International Ltd.
As published in BusinessWorld, dated 17 November 2020