Dr Liam Stanley, Lecturer in the Department of Politics and Associate Fellow of SPERI, and Dr Rebecca Bramall, Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, examined the government’s Annual Tax Summary – a document which provides UK taxpayers with a breakdown of how their Income Tax and National Insurance contributions are spent.
The summaries attracted controversy when they were first issued in 2014, when the then Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was accused of manipulating welfare spending information to stoke anti-benefits sentiment in the context of austerity cuts. The policy was defended by the government as a way of increasing transparency.
The new report ‘Communicating Tax: exploring alternatives to the UK government’s Annual Tax Summary’ explores how such information could be communicated differently and presents recommendations through an alternative to the Annual Tax Summary.
Dr Stanley said: “Tax is the lifeblood of society. It funds public services and contributes to the formation of citizen identities and solidarities. While public opinion continues to favour the payment of taxes, this support is jeopardised by prominent figures and organisations who advocate for a low tax society.
“A better understanding of the role of communications in shaping people’s attitudes towards taxation will enhance the work of individuals and organisations who strive to counter anti-tax sentiment and to foster public confidence in the tax system.”
The report draws attention to the political interests that inform fiscal transparency initiatives such as the Annual Tax Summary, and challenges common sense confidence in data visualisation as a tool for delivering transparency. It questions forms of communication that monetise and individualise taxpayers’ contribution to public spending, and that set certain groups of people in tension with each other.
The report offer recommendations for communicators who seek to champion the role of tax in society. It recommends that tax communicators should:
- Challenge the perceived neutrality of tax transparency. 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 a non-monetised framework of value. Tax communicators should express the value of tax in terms of the common good and what government spending does for society, rather than what it costs the individual.
- Promote inclusive taxpaying identities, and avoid forms of communication that set certain groups (such as ‘taxpayers’ and ‘non-taxpayers’) in tension with each other.
- Assert the interpretive status of data visualisation, by encouraging people to regard data visualisation as an interpretation of data rather than a statement of fact.
Dr Stanley and Dr Bramall tested their recommendations through the development of a design intervention called the Ministry of Tax (www.ministryoftax.uk) which presents an alternative to the Annual Tax Summary.
Users can enter their salary to see different and surprising data on public spending, including deeper scrutiny of the much-debated ‘welfare’ category of spending – drawing attention to the political decisions that are made when diverse elements of government spending are grouped under this category.
Dr Stanley said: “The Ministry of Tax doesn’t represent a definitive alternative to the Annual Tax Summary, but it does illustrate how some of the recommendations of our report might be applied.”
Dr Bramall added: “The report is intended to contribute to a broader emergent debate about communication, culture and the economy. Academics, artists, professional stakeholders, and campaigners can all play an important role, and we advocate more sustained collaboration and knowledge transfer between these areas of expertise. We hope that this report will enhance and sustain this debate, and that our recommendations will be of value to individuals and organisations who seek to champion the role of tax in society.”
Download the report: Communicating Tax: Exploring alternatives to the UK government’s Annual Tax Summary