IRS Website:

Long-Term Strategy Needed to Improve Interactive Services

GAO-13-435: Published: Apr 16, 2013. Publicly Released: Apr 16, 2013.

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James R. White
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What GAO Found

The Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) existing online services are limited when compared to many other government and private sector organizations. Static web pages make up the majority of http://www.IRS.gov; however, IRS highlights 18 basic interactive tools from its homepage. IRS does not offer dynamic account access to taxpayers. Other federal and state taxing authorities provide a broader range of online services to their customers, including interactive account access.

To improve its website, IRS has been simultaneously (1) focusing on multiple short term projects to deliver new basic interactive tools and (2) longer term efforts to invest in foundational infrastructure, such as security.

IRS does not, however, have a long term strategy for enhancing its website that explains how its ongoing and new efforts fit together. No overall cost estimate exists and there are not enough details on goals, deliverables, future online services, and timeframes to be able to assess progress. Several fundamental elements for a website strategy, as described on http://www.Howto.gov and in other guidance, are missing. Among others actions, IRS is not:

  • using leading practices learned to help formulate a long-term strategy;

  • setting a measureable taxpayer satisfaction goal to help ensure taxpayers' needs are being met;

  • prioritizing the development of new online services based on business cases that outline the benefits and costs; and

  • linking investments in security to a long term plan.

While IRS's efforts to date have already benefited taxpayers and hold the promise of additional benefits in the future, a long term strategy could help managers have a common understanding of IRS's plans, and better assist Congress in understanding what it is being asked to fund and holding IRS accountable for progress.

Why GAO Did This Study

U.S. taxpayers visited the IRS's website over 375 million times during 2012. IRS officials noted there are over 110,000 web pages and downloadable documents plus some basic interactive tools, such as calculators, on IRS.gov. In December 2011, GAO reported that taxpayers benefit from the increased web services, and IRS could realize substantial savings by transferring taxpayers away from costly telephone interactions. GAO was asked to review IRS's efforts to offer more interactive services. Among other things, this report describes the interactivity of IRS's online services and assesses its strategy for expanding the interactivity of its website. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed IRS's website to determine the services it provided as of March 2013, compared the IRS Online Strategy to federal guidance such as Howto.gov, and interviewed IRS officials in the Offices of Online Services and Information Technology.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that IRS develop a long-term strategic plan for its web services that includes, among other things, studies of leading practices at a strategic level; a measurable goal for taxpayer satisfaction; business cases for new online services that describe the potential benefits and costs and prioritized projects; and links to investments in security. IRS agreed with two of these recommendations, did not state whether it agreed or disagreed on two others, and partially agreed with developing business cases because it believes other criteria should be considered. GAO believes this recommendation remains valid as discussed in this report.

For more information, contact James R. White at (202) 512-9110 or whitej@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2014, IRS officials told us that they are developing a long-term strategy for improving web services for taxpayers. Further, officials told us that they are tracking all the recommended HowTo.gov metrics and are working to identify additional performance metrics. Both actions are due 2/15/2015.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service should direct appropriate officials to develop a long-term strategy to improve web services provided to taxpayers, in accordance with Howto.gov and other federal guidance outlined in our report. To accomplish this, the IRS should decide on a complete suite of performance metrics, as soon as practical.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2014, IRS official told us Online Services conducted a study, which was completed on 2/12/14, of best practices of other organizations to understand how web improvement strategies were develeped and priortized. When we confirm these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service should direct appropriate officials to develop a long-term strategy to improve web services provided to taxpayers, in accordance with Howto.gov and other federal guidance outlined in our report. To accomplish this, the IRS should study leading practices of other organizations to understand how web improvement strategies were developed and new services prioritized.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2014, IRS officials told us that Online Services is continuting to work on establishing a numeric goal to measure customer satisfaction, due 2/15/2015.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service should direct appropriate officials to develop a long-term strategy to improve web services provided to taxpayers, in accordance with Howto.gov and other federal guidance outlined in our report. To accomplish this, the IRS should establish a numerical or other measureable goal to improve taxpayer satisfaction and a timeframe for achieving it.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2014, IRS officials told us Online Services enhanced business case development for all online services as of 2/12/2014, to include potential benefits and costs of those projects. When we confirm these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service should direct appropriate officials to develop a long-term strategy to improve web services provided to taxpayers, in accordance with Howto.gov and other federal guidance outlined in our report. To accomplish this, the IRS should develop business cases for all new online services, describing the potential benefits and costs of the project, and use them to prioritize future projects.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2014, IRS officials told us that Online Services worked closely with IT to identify all potential risks for products in development and that as of 2/12/2014 Electronic Risk Assessments are conducted for all projects containing Personally Identifiable Information. When we confirm these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service should direct appropriate officials to develop a long-term strategy to improve web services provided to taxpayers, in accordance with Howto.gov and other federal guidance outlined in our report. To accomplish this, the IRS should review risk mitigations plans for interactive tools to ensure all risks are addressed. If risks are not addressed, IRS should take corrective action and identify the root cause to help prevent similar occurrences in future mitigation plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2014, IRS officials told us that Online Services has integrated the future plans for the use of authentication in to the Online Strategy, including the dependency of "eAuthentication" capabilities. Further, they stated that since mid-February 2014, they are linking the investments in security to the application documentation and the long-term plan. When we confirm these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service should direct appropriate officials to develop a long-term strategy to improve web services provided to taxpayers, in accordance with Howto.gov and other federal guidance outlined in our report. To accomplish this, the IRS should link investments in security to the long-term plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

 

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