A career as a tax professional was never my dream; but tax has offered me a rewarding and intellectually satisfying career. I can honestly say that in my 20 or so years in the profession, I have come to appreciate the full spectrum of tax, accounting, legal and other technical acumen.
While a lot has changed in the way businesses are conducted and in the way tax compliance is managed, the fundamental role of the tax professional in helping individuals and businesses assess, anticipate and manage the implications of the changing tax and regulatory environment, has not.
What is different though, is the nature of today’s challenges that is giving rise to a new role for the tax professional. Gone are the days when the tax function merely required a technical expert who knew the law. URA is rapidly changing and the skills that businesses are looking for in a tax professional are increasingly at odds with the skills that graduating students possess.
Today’s tax professional needs a much broader skill set than was necessary in the past. This new reality has profound implications for tax education and training.
Consider this… Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) has dramatically increased the ability of taxpayers to interact with them directly through e-tax, and not face-to-face as it was in the past. The interaction includes online facilities to apply for tax registration, lodge tax returns, access to tax calculators and auto-population of computations with various tax assessment tasks, assistance with technical and administrative matters through online queries, objections etc.
Most of these everyday functions for dealing with URA can also be accessed via the URA App. By the look of things, URA may, in the very near future, actually bypass tax returns and unilaterally tell taxpayers how much they owe.
The development of real-time tax “dashboards” and visualization techniques using data analytics and Artificial Intelligence offers game-changing opportunities for the taxman to determine taxable income and issue assessments accordingly.
Moreover, the introduction of the digital tracking solution, electronic tax devices and the data mining e-hub for data matching to conduct analysis and comparisons leading to highly sophisticated and targeted audits, will be a game changer.
In this environment, challenges for tax professionals are real and profound since tax considerations must take on an increasingly central and strategic place in business decision making, and tax professionals must refocus their efforts to identifying and decreasing risk for the businesses they serve.
This demands new skills and new mindsets that beg the question – What is the role of a tax professional in this changing landscape of tax administration that is characterised by the fast-evolving tax compliance environment and the increased use of data analytics and other innovative technology to streamline transactions for basic tax compliance obligations?
Are the existing training programs keeping up with the needs of businesses that need practice-ready graduates?
Skilled tax professionals are more critical than ever, and companies are struggling to find the qualified people who are practice ready! There is a large gap between the skills businesses need and the skills that professionals possess.
The scope and role of the tax function in companies are changing and focus is consequently expanding from mere tax reporting and compliance, to assisting businesses in the development of tax-related risk management, tax planning and in working through the tax-related implications of complex business decisions.
In other words, there is need for tax professionals to be able to consider the broader legal, economic, commercial, or public policy implications of business undertakings and the risks associated with such ventures.
These changes definitely have an impact on the skills profile of tax professionals. A strong technical orientation will always remain important, and there will always be specialist roles, but tax professionals will also need a more rounded skill set. They must be able, for example, to assess the quality and meaning of data, to communicate complex tax issues in a manner that is easily understood by the business owners, and to work collaboratively with people outside their area.
Such a skills profile, accordingly, requires new, multidisciplinary approaches to tax training that goes far beyond the historical emphasis on tax law and accounting. Tax professionals must be equipped to deal with the entire range of risks in the real world.
Specialist knowledge of tax law is of little relevance if it is not coupled with a broader understanding of other areas of law and human endeavour.
The existing tax training schools therefore must strive to embrace a more integrated approach to the teaching of tax so as to make their students practice ready. The tax profession needs practitioners who recognise that although a client turns up with a tax problem, often the first issue to be answered is not a tax question but the resolution of an issue concerning a different area of human endeavour.
The profession needs practitioners who not only understand tax law, but can apply it to broader legal, economic, commercial, public policy and political considerations. The profession needs practitioners who understand that tax law pervades most of life’s problems.
And finally, the profession needs practitioners who understand that tax is more than numbers and often more than tax!