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 April 2013, GAO found that IRS management was tracking some recommended website performance metrics and considering others, but had not determined a final suite of metrics. In August 2015, an IRS Online Services official told us IRS adopted the 24 performance metrics highlighted in our report. These metrics are now monitored and used in weekly, monthly and yearly reports. However, we have not received documentation to confirm IRS is tracking these 24 metrics. The IRS Online Services official also stated that while IRS is tracking these metrics, leading practices change and therefore more or different performance metrics may be to be tracked in the future. Tracking these metrics will allow IRS to have a more complete picture of the extent to which taxpayers' needs are being met and will provide useful information for making decisions about website improvements.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2013, GAO found that IRS reviewed other organizations interactive tool designs, but had not used leading practices to inform its strategic plan. We recommended that IRS conduct a study of industry best practices of other organizations' websites. IRS completed a study of 19 other organizations interactive websites. Learning from other organizations about their strategy for providing online services could help IRS prioritize future projects by identifying which tools are providing users with the most benefit. An IRS official stated that GAO should be able to see some of the prioritization reflected in its updated online strategy.

    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 April 2013, GAO found that while IRS was tracking a customer service satisfaction with its website via the American Customer Satisfaction Index score, it had not set a goal for improvement. We recommended that IRS establish a numerical or other measurable goal to improve taxpayer satisfaction with the website and develop a timeframe for achieving it. In November 2014, an IRS Online Services official told us IRS had not yet established a numerical goal, but was in the process of updating the survey questions that they use to measure taxpayer satisfaction. In July 2015, IRS reported that the estimated timeframe for implementation of this recommendation is approximately February 2016.

    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 April 2013, GAO found that IRS had business cases that outlined several new interactive services, but those business cases were missing some information and were not being used to set priorities. We recommended that IRS develop business cases for all new online services, describing the potential benefits and costs of those projects and use them to prioritize future projects. In March 2014, IRS provided an updated business case template that described various elements, such as costs, benefits, alternatives considered, risks, and assumptions. IRS also provided us with a listing of new online services that will be developed in future years and the prioritization criteria they used to determine which services would be developed next. IRS officials stated that the business cases and prioritization criteria are used to make informed decisions about which projects to start next. However, we have not received documentation of the new business case template in use for an upcoming online service. Once we have reviewed documentation we will update this status.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2013, GAO found that IRS's security risk assessment process was not consistently followed when implementing interactive tools, such as the First Time Homebuyer Credit tool. In March 2014, IRS officials told us that because of our recommendation, the Office of Online Services (OLS) worked closely with the Information Technology Office to identify all potential risks for products in development and that electronic risk assessments are conducted for all projects containing personally identifiable information, such as a taxpayer's social security number or date of birth. In August 2015, IRS provided us with a monthly report outlining its current projects. This report summarizes the risks and mitigation plans needed to assess all the cited risks. Continuing to review these risks and develop mitigation plans will help ensure IRS is addressing those risks and that its processes are reliable.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2013, we found that IRS investments in upgrading security and developing authentication capabilities were not linked to a long-term plan. IRS officials told us that because of our recommendation Online Services integrated its future plans for the use of e-authentication (which is the process of establishing confidence in the taxpayer's identity electronically over the Internet for the purpose of electronic government and commerce) into its long-term strategy, known as "Service on Demand." The strategy described "eAuthentication" capabilities as foundational efforts that to enable the implementation of other products or services. We reviewed IRS's Services on Demand plan in August 2015 and agree that it links the investments made into security, including for the e-authentication capabilities and other taxpayer communication channels. Linking the security investments to the plan helps to ensure activities, core processes, and resources are aligned to support the mission of providing better service to taxpayers and delivering service more efficiently.

    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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