Are IRS Outreach Efforts Working?

By Christina Camara

The IRS, which has been turning to online services and "facilitated self-assistance" methods to inform taxpayers, needs better information to determine if those efforts are successful, according to a new audit report.
 
The IRS is giving taxpayers options to the traditional method of getting help face-to-face at taxpayer assistance centers and volunteer sites. The agency is testing facilitated self-assistance, which involves using a computer kiosk and video conferencing technologies. 
 
A new report by the US Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) – Better Information Is Needed to Assess Ongoing Efforts to Expand Self-Assistance and Virtual Services to Taxpayers – notes that the IRS has not set goals and initiatives to gauge success, including data to determine whether the efforts are cost-effective. The report also says that TIGTA had a hard time contacting the volunteer sites that offered the new services.
 
The IRS offers facilitated self-assistance for individuals who have a simple tax return and need a little help or do not have access to a computer. Certain sites offer a computer kiosk and an IRS volunteer or employee who helps taxpayers navigate the IRS website to prepare and electronically submit tax returns, print tax forms, and do other tasks.
 
The IRS reported that about 41,500 taxpayers used the kiosks in the 2011 fiscal year. Virtual services were used by 8,514 taxpayers from October 24, 2011, to March 24, 2012. Facilitated self-assistance, which was started on a pilot basis in 2008, received national recognition for customer service improvement by the US Department of the Treasury. Additionally, a satisfaction survey conducted late last year showed 87 percent of users were happy with virtual services.
 

IRS Taxpayer Assistance Resources

The Volunteer Program

  • The IRS sponsors the Volunteer Program, which provides education and services year-round, such as no-cost federal tax return preparation and electronic filing, to help elderly, disabled, low- to moderate-income taxpayers, and limited-English-proficient taxpayers in their own neighborhoods and local communities. 
 
Facilitated Self-Assistance
  • The IRS offers Facilitated Self-Assistance kiosks in 37 of the 398 Taxpayer Assistance Centers and 877 of approximately 12,500 Volunteer Program sites. Taxpayers in the Taxpayer Assistance Centers can access these public computer terminals to perform any task they can conduct on IRS.gov, the IRS's public Internet site.
 
Virtual Services 
  • The IRS offers Virtual Services in 10 Taxpayer Assistance Centers, two partner locations, and 74 Volunteer Program sites. Virtual Services provides assistance in locations that are not staffed or are unable to meet taxpayer demand.
 
– TIGTA Report
However, the report noted some problems in tracking success of the programs: "The IRS does not have data to show whether taxpayers who use the kiosks complete their tasks or whether they still need assistance from an IRS employee. It also does not have data to determine why 68 percent of the taxpayers who visited a Taxpayer Assistance Center for a service that could be accomplished through a kiosk decided not to use a kiosk."
 
Problems with virtual services include the fact that the IRS does not have an accurate list of the volunteer program sites that are participating in virtual services for the 2012 filing season, the report stated.
 
The TIGTA made the following four recommendations in its report:
  1. Develop sufficient measures, including a customer satisfaction survey, and goals for the facilitated self-assistance initiative.
  2. Develop goals and measures for the virtual services initiative in the volunteer program sites, once a baseline has been established, to ensure it is meeting expectations.
  3. Emphasize to employees and volunteers the need to consistently offer taxpayers the options of using facilitated self-assistance when available.
  4. Accurately publicize these alternative service options on the IRS website.
 
The IRS agreed with three of the four recommendations, but the agency contends that usage is a better way to measure the success of facilitated self-assistance rather than a customer satisfaction survey. The IRS is collecting data during the 2012 fiscal year to establish a baseline measure that will be used for comparison purposes when looking at future usage.
 
The IRS has also expressed its commitment to develop other convenience services, such as adding payment kiosks and video conferencing that can be accessed from other government agencies or a taxpayer's home.
 
"In today's environment of limited resources, funding may not be available for all initiatives," the report said. "To make sound business decisions, decision makers need to know the expectations or goals of the initiatives, how the IRS plans to achieve the goals, and if it is achieving them."
 
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