E-Ghana and Revenue Administration: Musings of a precocious Tax Student by Prosper Batariwah

Mr. Speaker, to improve domestic revenue mobilization, we have restructured GRA and put measures in place to automate processes at the ports, and these are already yielding positive results. We see a new sense of responsibility from those entrusted with collecting our taxes and we know that they will make this country proud by keeping the tax gates and ensuring that we raise the necessary tax revenues to continue to effectively fund priority programmes for the benefit of all Ghanaians.

This was our Finance Minister, Ken Ofori Atta, at the Mid-Year Fiscal Policy Review of the 2019 Budget Statement and Economic Policy. There are some children whom their parents consider a failure. These children are despondent and no remedy seeks to bring reprieve. Over the years, the Ghana Revenue Authority’s state can be likened to this type of children. These days however, the government has essentially told the GRA to pick up its mat and walk. It has been told to go and proclaim the good news of fulfilling tax obligations. The finance minister’s comments do not therefore come as a surprise. Anyone who has been following tax issues in this country will be familiar with two statements: ‘Increase the tax base!’, ‘I tell you this, if we want more money, we must restructure the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA)!’

Ghanaian governments over the years have pursued, sometimes half-heartedly, the digitization of government operations. This has achieved a crescendo lately. Digitizing government operations is termed e-government. The literature demonstrates that there are certain stages a country may go through when it intends to embark on e-government. First, the state only provides government information online. After this stage, the state proceeds to provide certain limited services. For example, forms for certain government services may be made available online. Full blown services may then be provided later on. For example, registering of companies and renewal of licenses. Integration of government services across government departments may then follow giving rise to a fully-fledged functional electronic government. The benefits of e-government are limitless. Two of these benefits which stand out from others is speed and efficiency in the provision of government services. At least it is not for nothing that section 26 of the Revenue Administration Act, 2015 speaks life into the Commissioner General with respect to the establishment and operation of a system for electronic filing of documents, electronic service of documents, electronic payments of persons and the issuance of tax clearance certificates by electronic means. Section 50 of the same Act provides for the establishment of and operation of a system of taxpayer tax accounts. At long last, we have legislation which takes technological innovation and development into consideration.

Empowered by this mandate with respect to revenue administration, the GRA has made some strides in the use of IT in revenue administration. For instance, the GRA is happy about the Total Revenue Information Processing System (TRIPS) and the paperless clearing system at the ports. These can be said to have revolutionized revenue mobilization in Ghana. Then in 2019, the GRA finally launched the ITAPs which tax consultants and policymakers have wept so long for. This system is an online interface which enables persons to, among other things, file their taxes online. No more stress on the 15th day of every month. This is no doubt a welcomed improvement; but I must make a few observations:

First, the idea of the digitization of tax services appears to be incompatible with respect to broadening the tax base by roping in a very large informal sector. The digital divide is real as it is perceived. This divide is the line or border which separates those who have access to technology and those who do not have access to technology. Even with those who have access to technology, IT literacy is not uniformly distributed. If care is not taken, technological initiatives may make tax collection for the formal class easier but the effect on the largely informal class may be very negligible.

Second, hacking is no new phenomenon. Even in advanced economies, disruptive hacking attempts such as ‘WannaCry’ have left industries and institutions in shock. What more of developing countries like Ghana? The 3rd Strategic Plan of the GRA indicates that most IT systems are largely outsourced to private companies. There is nothing wrong with outsourcing to private companies, however, due to the sensitive nature of the information tax systems handle, one would think that the institution itself, within the wider government framework would have very strong IT departments. Yet the GRA continues to complain about the lack of expertise and skilled staff. Ghana has got to take a step back and critically reflect on the need to grow its cyber infrastructure by investing heavily in IT capacity development. Teaching methods in schools will have to change. IT students ought to stop coding on paper. I understand that we have a National Cybersecurity Policy and Strategy. Hope it helps us.

Digitization of operations is important, but unless the utility offsets the cost, we may have to still do some chin-elbow-knee thinking.