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ATO’s ‘nudge unit’ goes to work on its own public servants

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Public servants from the Tax Office’s “behavioural insights” team have turned their skills on their colleagues in an effort to persuade 19,000 tax officials to accept a new pay and conditions deal.

But ATO bosses insist they had nothing to do with members of their “nudge unit” orchestrating a workplace campaign to promote the management line on the giant agency’s long running industrial dispute.

Members of the Tax Office's 'nudge unit' have been using their powers of persuasion on their own colleagues. Members of the Tax Office’s ‘nudge unit’ have been using their powers of persuasion on their own colleagues. Photo: Louie Douvis

The ATO’s Behavioural Insight Team’s day job is using advanced psychological techniques to subtly persuade taxpayers to pay their debts. 

But now nudge unit members have quietly taken to the battlefield in the bitter three-year industrial war between Tax Office bosses and their own public servants, most of whom are still resisting attempts to impose the Coalition’s Abbott-era workplace policies.

The revelation comes just a month after the Tax office was exposed handing a vast trove of potentially sensitive employment information on its public servants to a private sector contractor who used the data to map areas of industrial resistance within the workforce. 

Behavioural insight techniques are growing in popularity in government and some private sector operations, looking to take advantage of advanced understanding of human behaviour.

The Tax Office has claimed some success in recovering tax debts with letters and other communications drafted using the emerging BI science.

But the ATO workforce is not aware that a “grass roots” campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in its next enterprise agreement ballot is being orchestrated by members of the Tax Office’s Behavioural Insights Team. 

Tax Office public servants have been receiving emails from a group called the “Yes Network” in recent days, urging individual officials to accept the next pay deal that is offered, to forward the email to five colleagues and to join the network themselves.

The email contains promotional material for the network, including posters and desktop prisms carrying the slogan “this time I’m voting yes.”

The Yes Network says it is a grass-roots staff effort, and an ATO spokesman told Fairfax on Wednesday that the network was a staff-initiative.

“The network is independent of the ATO and we’ve gotten the AOK internally on its creation,” the network’s email states.

But the supporting material supplied with the mail-out reveals the creators of the posters, the network’s “charter” and other documents all members of the Tax Office’s Behavioural Insights unit.

In response to questions, the ATO spokesperson said staff were encouraged to participate in the debate about the next enterprise agreement and that there was no official encouragement from agency bosses to members of the insight team.

“The ATO has consistently encouraged staff to be actively involved and engaged in the enterprise agreement,” the spokesman said.

“The Yes Network is a staff-initiated and voluntary network of ATO staff supporting the ATO’s Enterprise Agreement, and is one of the ways staff have chosen to be involved.

“The network is open to, and comprises, staff from across the ATO and represents their individual views.

“Neither the ATO nor the Enterprise Agreement bargaining team engaged the ATO’s behavioural insights team to convene this network.

“Involvement of staff in the Yes Network is entirely at their discretion.”

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