Communicating Tax is a research project which explored the role of communications in shaping people’s attitudes towards fiscal issues. Working with a range of stakeholders, we evaluated the government’s Annual Tax Summary (ATS), a personalised statement sent to income tax payers, and we explored alternative ways of communicating about tax and public spending.
Building on existing research on the ATS, the project aimed to explore the possibilities that might follow from rethinking its design. We were also concerned to place the paradigm of ‘transparency’, which provided the rationale and justification for the government’s introduction of the ATS, under scrutiny. Finally, we sought to address the central role that data visualisation – that is, the encoding of data in the form of graphic objects – plays in fiscal communication.
The project unfolded in three phases:
- A collaborative workshop which brought together stakeholders and designers to explore alternatives to the ATS.
- A series of key recommendations, based on the outcomes of the workshop.
- A speculative design intervention, entitled the The Ministry of Tax, in which a team of designers developed and exhibited an alternative tax summary.
In March 2018 we organised a workshop for academic and non-academic stakeholders with an interest in personal taxation. Through a series of workshop activities, the group performed a deep analysis of the design and communicative elements of the ATS. Workshop participants were subsequently invited to speculate on alternative ways of reporting on tax and public spending. The designers from our project team were on hand to help participants model and visualise these alternatives. During the course of the workshop, this collaborative and speculative approach enabled the group to explore and prototype a range of interesting proposals. They were also able to identify and discuss certain problems relating to tax and public spending which they saw as presenting significant challenges for progressive tax communicators.
Drawing on the findings from the workshop, we developed identified four problems with the ATS: four ways in which it can be seen to shape people’s understanding of, and attitudes towards, taxation. In response to each of these problems we developed a recommendation.
In the face of widespread anti-tax sentiment, there are many individuals and organisations in the UK who seek to champion the positive role that tax plays in society. The recommendations emerging from our project are intended to serve as a resource for these progressive ‘tax communicators’.
Challenge the perceived neutrality of tax transparency.
Fiscal transparency initiatives such as the Annual Tax Summary are not politically neutral. On the contrary, they tend to position taxpayers as sceptical regulators of state spending and efficiency, and to foster anti-tax sentiment. Progressive tax communicators should seek to identify accessible forms of communication that promote openness and accountability while challenging the logic of public sector inefficiency that transparency initiatives often serve.
Adopt non-monetized framings of value.
Forms of tax communication that monetize individuals’ contribution imply that each individual taxpayer ‘pays’ for a share of government expenditure. This reductive way of framing fiscal contributions could be challenged through communications that express the value of tax in terms of the common good, and by foregrounding what government spending does for society, rather than what it costs the individual.
Promote inclusive taxpaying identities.
Forms of communication that set certain groups of people in tension with each other – typically ‘taxpayers’ and ‘non-taxpayers’ – should be avoided. Tax communicators should seek more inclusive ways of positioning people in relation to the payment of tax in society, whether or not they pay income tax.
Assert the contingency of data visualization.
Data visualization is widely seen to deliver transparency, yet this communication tool can obscure decisions that have been made in the design process. Tax communicators should encourage people to regard data visualization as an interpretation of data rather than a statement of fact, for example by empowering end users to make decisions about how to organise and visualize fiscal data.
We tested out these recommendations through a speculative design intervention called Ministry of Tax, with the aim of producing an alternative to the ATS. Along with the diverse proposals generated in the workshop, the Ministry of Tax adds to a series of prototypes created within this project.
The Ministry of Tax was displayed in the exhibition Everything Happens So Much at London College of Communication as part of London Design Festival 2018. The display comprised an institutional setting with a bureaucratic aesthetic, staffed by a ministry official. Participants were invited to sit at an office table and input their income into this website, generating a tax and public spending receipt. With the exception of the ‘welfare’ category, this information was redacted through an overlay applied by a ministry official, while the tax summary was supplemented with fine detail relating to the ‘welfare’ category of spending. At the end of the process, participants can take the tax summary away with them, or add it those on display in the exhibition.
The Ministry of Tax responds to the recommendations contained in this report in a creative and playful way. It engages participants’ attention through the familiar medium of a letter while delivering different and surprising data about the outcomes of public spending. By drilling deep down into the data on public spending, it surfaces details which have the potential to evoke powerful stories about the impact of state spending on people’s everyday lives. In inviting deeper scrutiny of the much-debated ‘welfare’ category of spending and drawing attention to the political decisions that are made when diverse objects of government spending are grouped under this category, the Ministry of Tax encourages people to regard visualisation as an interpretation of data, rather than a statement of fact.
The Ministry of Tax does not represent a definitive alternative to the ATS. Its purpose is to illustrate how some of the recommendations made in this report might be applied, and in so doing, it raises further questions and challenges. Along with all of the other prototypes generated in the course of this project, it is intended to contribute to further debate on future possibilities for progressive tax communications.