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Africa/Global: Open Data for Tax Justice

AfricaFocus Bulletin
February 28, 2017 (170228)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"Multinational companies typically publish global, consolidated accounts - and international accounting standards now allow these to roll into one all financial information on the substance of their economic activities, or at best to provide regional figures. This means that country-level information on profits, revenues, taxes, borrowings and employees, for example, are not provided. ... As the name suggests, the longstanding proposal for country-by-country reporting (CBCR) would make multinational companies break down and publish their results for each country. This is essential for citizens to know what companies and their affiliates are doing where they live, and what contributions they are making." - Open Data for Tax Justice announcement

The need for CBCR, a demand first advanced by tax justice campaigners in 2003, has become widely recognized, leading to proposals by international bodies such as the "rich states" club of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). The OECD proposal for collecting and sharing such data only by selected tax authorities, however, is in sharp contradiction to the initial goal of public transparency. And further retreats from transparency are already visible in initial actions by the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress (see http://www.africafocus.org/docs17/iff1702.php).

In response, leading tax justice campaigners have set out a roadmap for "the creation of a global public database on the tax contributions and economic activities of multinational companies. " Using new technologies to collect in standard format information from a wide variety of public sources, the database has the goal of making information accessible worldwide for journalists, policymakers, tax officials, and civil society activists.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from the press release and white paper released on February 17, 2017

For more details, see http://datafortaxjustice.net

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on tax justice and related issues, visit http://www.africafocus.org/intro-iff.php

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The Trump Election: Intersecting Explanations

http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/trump-win-reasons.php

Observations (fourth installment, Feb 28, 2017)

Much of the commentary on the narrow victory by Tom Perez over Keith Ellison in Saturday's election for the chair of the Democratic National Committee has had a narrow focus, interpreting it as a victory for the Democratic establishment over progressives who had backed Bernie Sanders in 2016. While to some extent true, that is a highly over-simplified view, and neglects the wide-ranging mobilization and rethinking within the broader context of the highly decentralized Democratic Party, progressive movements, and their common social base.

Several articles on Saturday's results with more nuanced analysis:

Peter Dreier, "Three Cheers for the Perez-Ellison DNC Team To Move the Democrats in a Progressive Direction," Huffington Post, February 25, 2017 http://tinyurl.com/gkqmp46

David Weigel, "Why did Keith Ellison lose the DNC race?" Washington Post, February 26, 2017 http://tinyurl.com/zq7hf9r

James Downie, "Tom Perez's biggest problem as DNC chair: His backers," Washington Post, February 27, 2017 http://tinyurl.com/hqu2vxd

And, for a wide range of articles digging more deeply into the mistakes and structural limitations of the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign, and their implications for current strategy, see http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/clinton.php (10 articles from Nov. 11 - Dec. 20, 2016 and http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/democratic-party.php (15 articles from Mar. 30, 2016 - Feb. 21, 2017

And you can find sources on 19 other relevant "explanations" for the election outcome at http://www.noeasyvictories.org/usa/trump-win-reasons.php

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Launch of White Paper Setting Out Roadmap for Creation of a Public Database of Country-by-country Reporting Data

Press Release

17th February 2017

Leading tax justice campaigners and open data specialists are today publishing a white paper setting out a roadmap for the creation of a global public database on the tax contributions and economic activities of multinational companies.

The open database would draw on various existing information sources to create a central point for publicly available country-by-country reporting (CBCR) data to help tax authorities, tax justice campaigners, investors, journalists and citizens to gain a better understanding of the activities of these companies.

Multinational companies typically publish global, consolidated accounts - and international accounting standards now allow these to roll into one all financial information on the substance of their economic activities, or at best to provide regional figures. This means that country-level information on profits, revenues, taxes, borrowings and employees, for example, are not provided. There may be a set of results for "Africa" or "Europe", but even then the combination of operations in (say) Ghana and Mauritius, or France and Luxembourg, makes it is impossible to unpick these numbers in a useful way.

As the name suggests, the longstanding proposal for country-bycountry reporting would make multinational companies break down and publish their results for each country. This is essential for citizens to know what companies and their affiliates are doing where they live, and what contributions they are making.

An OECD standard has now been introduced which will require all multinationals of a certain scale to report this information privately to the tax authority in their headquarters country. In addition, there are public standards for limited CBCR data with respect to the extractive and financial sectors in the EU, creating multiple requirements for some multinational companies. It is critical that this data is used effectively, and seen to be so used.

The next two to three years provide a window in which to establish a single format for reporting, to ensure lower compliance costs for businesses and to facilitate more effective use of the data by civil society, media and tax authorities alike. This will both confirm the value of CBCR and help policymakers to move towards a global consensus on requiring a comprehensive public CBCR under a single standard.

The paper - What Do They Pay? - is co­authored by Alex Cobham (Tax Justice Network), Dr Jonathan Gray (University of Bath and Open Knowledge International) and Professor Richard Murphy (University of London). It is the result of a partnership between the Tax Justice Network (TJN) and Open Knowledge International (OKI) supported by Omidyar Network and the Financial Transparency Coalition (FTC). TJN has, since its establishment in 2003, led the way in developing and promoting the idea of public CBCR for multinational companies. OKI, who partnered with TJN in establishing the Open Data for Tax Justice initiative, are pioneers in using open data to achieve tangible policy results and human progress. The FTC has championed public CBCR since its inception, as have many FTC members including Christian Aid, Tax Justice Network-Africa and TJN.

The white paper is divided into four main sections. Firstly, the authors present a set of user stories, questions, requirements, and scenarios of usage for a database. Secondly, they look at what kinds of information a public database could and should contain. Thirdly, they look at the opportunities and challenges of building a public database drawing on various existing information sources. Fourthly and finally, the authors suggest next steps for policy, advocacy, and technical work towards a public database.

As leading organisations in this field, TJN and OKI now propose to establish an open database, to include all publicly available CBCR data; to provide a venue for multinationals that wish to lead in transparency by publishing their data voluntarily; and to make the data, and core tools and risk measures, accessible to a wider audience.

Alex Cobham, chief executive of the Tax Justice Network, says:

"This white paper marks an important step towards the creation of a fully public database to track the tax behaviour of both multinationals and jurisdictions from Luxembourg to Mauritius, and from Bermuda to Singapore. We're delighted that so many organisations and experts have contributed to this process, which has really strengthened the analysis and design. And we're delighted, too, at the ongoing discussions with investors and business groups around providing and using data.

"It's striking that civil society is leading on this process, rather than the OECD or a global tax body. But just as civil society created the original proposal for country-by-country reporting, perhaps it's right that we should also take a lead in creating the database that will eventually deliver the full benefits – from lower costs for multinationals dealing bilaterally with different tax authorities, and for tax authorities exchanging information with each other, to the benefits of the public being empowered to hold governments and multinationals to account for their role in international tax avoidance."

Dr Jonathan Gray, Prize Fellow at the University of Bath's Institute for Policy Research and Senior Advisor to Open Knowledge International, says:

"This new report outlines the case for a global public data project that would transform democratic engagement around the role of multinational corporations in our economies. A civil society database would be more than just an information source: it would facilitate collaboration amongst researchers, journalists and campaigners and pave the way for an official database at an international body such as the UN."

Richard Murphy, Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City, University of London and director of Tax Research UK, says:

"Country-by-country reporting was created to be used. Its purpose is to show what is happening in the world and to change it. That's why a database holding all publicly available CBCR data is vital: with it we can see who is doing what, and where and demand change from the governments and companies engaged in tax abuse."

Launched in 2016, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network, the FTC and coordinated by TJN and OKI, Open Data for Tax Justice is a project to create a global network of people and organisations using open data to improve advocacy, journalism and public policy around tax justice.

More details about the project and its members can be found at http://datafortaxjustice.net


What Do They Pay?: Towards a Public Database to Account for the Economic Activities and Tax Contributions of Multinational Corporations

Alex Cobham
Chief Executive, Tax Justice Network
Visiting Fellow, King's College London

Jonathan Gray
Prize Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath Co-Founder, Public Data Lab
Senior Advisor, Open Knowledge International

Richard Murphy
Professor of Practice in International Political Economy, City, University of London
Director, Tax Research UK

February 2017

[Excerpts: for full report see
http://datafortaxjustice.net/what-do-they-pay/]

Introduction

Many of the policy proposals put forward by the Tax Justice Network (TJN) after its establishment in 2003 were so far from mainstream thinking about tax that it was difficult to find a policy audience with which to discuss them seriously (Murphy, Christensen & Kimmis, 2005). But by 2013, just ten years later, these proposals had come to form the basis for the global policy agenda - including "Countryby -Country Reporting" (CBCR) of the tax contributions and economic activities of multinational companies.

So common is the exposé of tax avoidance by multinationals today – think of headlines featuring Apple or Amazon, Google or Starbucks – that it would be easy to forget how recently things changed. But the Tax Justice Network's first front-page media splash was only in 2007. Even the headline, 'Revealed: How multinational companies avoid the taxman', has become so familiar that it would be almost redundant today (Guardian, 2007).

Over the past decade, international media coverage and civil society campaigning has flourished. Investigative journalists have undertaken international collaborations highlighting the scale and societal effects of tax avoidance strategies. In many lower-income countries, the tax treatment of multinationals has risen to the top of policy agendas, driven by civil society mobilisation and public anger. In OECD countries, protesters have taken to the streets to oppose the minimal contributions of high street companies. The issue has caught the attention of populist political movements of various stripes.

By 2013, issues of tax were atop the global policy agenda too. The G8 and G20 groups of countries set the aim of reducing the 'misalignment' between the location of multinational companies' economic activity, and the location of declared, taxable profits. The OECD was given a mandate to change international tax rules to achieve this end, including the specific remit to introduce a country-by-country reporting standard. While there are a range of benefits to this data being compiled and made public, the critical development is that it is intended to show for the first time exactly where companies do business, and the extent to which this is aligned – or misaligned – with where they declare profits. This is would not be a smoking gun to establish that a specific tax avoidance structure has been at play; but it could be a powerful instrument to help a variety of different actors to know where to investigate further, and what the scale of the problem may be.

The OECD standard for CBCR is technically very close to the original TJN proposal (Murphy, 2003) - but politically very far from it. The TJN proposal was for accounting data that it always intended be made public, to ensure the accountability to citizens of both multinationals and of tax authorities. The OECD data, in contrast, is to be provided privately to the tax authority in a multinational's headquarters jurisdiction. It may then be exchanged, under a range of conditions, with other tax authorities in which subsidiaries of that multinational company trade. But under no circumstances are those tax authorities allowed to make the information more widely accessible. Longhorn et al (2016) provide a comprehensive analysis of various CBCR standards, their evolution and the arguments and evidence on their value.

Knobel and Cobham (2016) demonstrate the paths by which OECD reporting could exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, existing global inequalities in taxing rights with respect to multinationals. In addition to failing to respond to lower-income countries' revenue losses, the lack of transparency means that the current standard will also fail to build confidence in the fair tax treatment of these high-profile taxpayers - missing an important opportunity to build tax morale and wider public support for tax compliance.

As things stand, if CBCR data is not made publicly available the OECD initiative would perhaps be the least transparent transparency measure imaginable. And yet, it marks an important step forward for CBCR. With most major multinationals now actually facing the obligation to comply with the OECD requirement, the argument about transparency has turned. The question now is no longer 'Why should this information be collected?' Instead, it is now 'Why should this information, now collected, be kept secret?'.

The OECD is in some sense a late adopter, with multiple country-bycountry reporting standards having been introduced since the original proposal. Notably, these include public CBCR for extractive sector companies in both the EU and US, and for financial institutions in the EU. There were also two notable attempts to include CBCR data in International Financial Reporting Standards, and although both failed the fact that this was not on technical grounds did prove that this data is within the scope of such standards. The data is, to be clear, accounting data rather than tax data: it reflects the location of activities, and is not an extract from a tax return.

That some variations on CBCR have been adopted does, however, mean that in the absence of any official attempts, there is the possibility for civil society to take steps towards establishing a public database of all available CBCR information. This could support greater use of the existing data by various stakeholders, from tax authorities to activists and journalists. The data produced may also be of some interest to investors, many of whom are now showing some awareness of the significance of this data. Importantly, it also provide a platform for the creation and testing of risk measures - above all, those that capture the extent of profit misalignment and therefore allow tracking of progress on the global policy aim of its curtailment. In addition, such a database would provide an avenue for companies that embrace transparency to begin unilaterally to publish their own CBCR.

Overall, the use of such data is likely to provide valuable evidence not only on the underlying issues of misalignment, but also on the challenges and opportunities of CBCR data. In particular, it may help to resolve questions on the need for data quality and consistency, and to motivate convergence towards best practice among existing and possible future standards. Over time, it is possible to imagine such a database being hosted within a more official setting such as the mooted intergovernmental tax body that could be created at the UN (Cobham and Klees, 2016).

For now, this report focuses on what a global public database could look like; what public sources of information already exist and which may be important to prioritise in addition; how far towards ideal CBCR it is possible to reach using existing sources; and what changes would be needed to strengthen the contribution from CBCR towards the shared, global policy aim of reducing corporate tax avoidance by curtailing profit misalignment.

Our aim is not to create the perfect, final product in terms of a public CBCR database. In their "Changing What Counts" report, Gray, Lämmerhirt and Bounegru (2016) emphasise the role that citizen and civil society data can play as an advocacy tool to shape institutional data collection practices. In that spirit, the aim here is to provide not a final product but the basis for discussion, experimentation and iterative improvement, that we hope will help to prepare the way for a global database that is maintained by an international public body in the longer term.

To that end, we would like to experiment assembling and aligning data that has been published in accordance with various existing CBCR standards and publishing requirements. This may be used to construct an open, online database into which researchers and other actors can enter new data as it becomes available, and which has the potential to become a longer term global repository for public data about the tax contributions and economic activity of multinationals, and a useful resource for future research and policy analysis. The proposed database could contain and support a range of different tools and indicators, in order to facilitate different forms of analysis and comparison across companies and across jurisdictions. This would represent an important step towards understanding the role of multinationals in the composition of the world economy – as well as paving the way for an official public database.

The purpose of creating a database would extend beyond that of a technical project to simply gather and publish existing information. There are other things that we might expect a global civil society database to do. As economic sociologist Donald MacKenzie argues, economic models can be considered not just cameras which represent the world, but also as engines which change them in different ways (MacKenzie, 2008). By taking steps to render the economic activities and tax contributions of multinationals publicly visible, measurable, quantifiable and accountable, it might be expected to change not only the dynamics of corporate reporting (as one might expect), but potentially also the operations and organisation of multinational firms as they adjust to new forms of publicity and public engagement. The behaviour-changing effects of public data on the economic activities and tax arrangements of multinationals are certainly deserving of further attention and research.

A public database could potentially play a social function in assembling and facilitating collaboration between different "data publics" interested in multinational taxation. It would thus represent an experiment in socio-technical design to organise public activity around tax base erosion. As well as supporting links between relevant data projects such as OpenCorporates, Open Ownership, the Open Contracting Partnership and OpenOil, it could act as a locus to coordinate the efforts of different actors and groups who are interested in undertaking research, journalism, advocacy, public policy, and public engagement work in the service of building a fairer global tax system. This would not simply be a matter of catering to pre-existing social groups, but also potentially creating new kinds of associations and collaborations between different actors. As such a public database could also be viewed as a democratic experiment – especially if these different groups play not only a role not only in using and consuming data, but also in co-designing and assembling the database (Gray, 2016a, 2016b). Such a database might thus open up space for new kinds of democratic deliberation and public engagement around how the global economy is organised – and how some of the largest most powerful economic actors on the planet - both multinationals and jurisdictions including major tax havens - can be understood, managed and held to account; as well supporting civil society interventions around the kinds of transparency measures and data collection processes we have in place to understand and shape the behaviour of these actors.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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