Telephone Assistance:

Adopting Practices Used by Others Would Help IRS Serve More Taxpayers

GGD-95-86: Published: Apr 12, 1995. Publicly Released: Apr 12, 1995.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement and a congressional request, GAO examined the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) telephone assistance program, focusing on: (1) the nature and extent of taxpayers' accessibility problems; (2) a comparison of IRS practices with those of other organizations providing telephone assistance; and (3) the reasons IRS has been unable to answer more calls.

GAO found that IRS: (1) has not kept pace with the increasing number of calls received over fiscal years (FY) 1989 to 1994; (2) answered about the same number of calls each year, about 36 million, even though the telephone answering staff declined; (3) answered about one out of two calls in FY 1989, but only one out of four calls in FY 1994; (4) has improved its ability to route calls among call sites and provide assistors with taxpayers' account information; (5) telephone management practices have not kept pace with those of other organizations; (6) could apply additional telephone management practices to answer more calls with existing resources; (7) provides taxpayer telephone assistance to a much lesser extent than other organizations; (8) and the National Treasury Employment Union have reached an agreement to work together to implement the IRS Customer Service Vision, which is designed to optimize the number of taxpayer calls IRS answers; and (9) could take aggressive actions to better manage its existing resources to answer more calls.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: IRS agreed with GAO that more progress can be made in implementing best practices. IRS efforts to answer the telephone increased substantially during this past filing season. The increase is due, in part, to an increase in the number of staff assigned to answer the telephone, which was partially achieved by detailing staff from other IRS functions and revising IRS procedures for handling calls. For example, callers who indicated through the automated menu that they had a question in a complex tax area were to be connected to a voice messaging system. Those callers were called back by IRS within 2 working days. IRS made this change based on a study that showed that complicated tax law questions involved 20 to 30 minutes of an assistor's time. IRS also eliminated certain notices which, in turn, reduced the need for persons to call IRS with questions. Finally, IRS has a web site which was accessed by taxpayers over 117 million times during the past filing season.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should direct the Chief, Taxpayer Services, in coordination with other appropriate IRS officials, to lead an aggressive effort to identify and define the appropriate telephone assistance program operating practices for IRS that would allow it to optimize the number of calls it can answer within current budget constraints.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: IRS has continued to increase the number of calls answered over the last 2 filing seasons. The standard for assistors available was 16 hours per day this past filing season. As stated, IRS offered 16-hour service this past filing season (1998) 6 days a week and will go to 24-hour service, 7 days a week in 1999. Uniform reporting definitions for calls answered were issued to field offices. Reporting instructions for other performance measures are regularly developed, modified and clarified as the needs arise.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should direct the Chief, Taxpayer Services, in coordination with other appropriate IRS officials, to lead an aggressive effort to work with the leadership of the National Treasury Employees Union to reach an agreement on implementing those practices on a nationwide basis. Those practices should include, although not be limited to: (1) challenging program goals for increasing the number of calls answered that are based, at least in part, on taxpayers' needs; (2) standards for the amount of time assistors should be available to answer taxpayers' calls; (3) hours of operation that offer taxpayers greater opportunity to reach IRS assistors; and (4) uniform reporting definitions for the number of calls answered and other performance measures.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Management implemented during the 1995 filing season a more aggressive approach to routing traffic to equalize access, which resulted in over 500 traffic shifts. In October 1998, IRS will be implementing a nationwide call router center in Atlanta, which will receive calls and route the taxpayer to a representative on a real-time basis. Additionally, management has sought the assistance of its telecommunications vendor to delineate the full range of call routing technologies that IRS can implement for the upcoming filing season.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should direct the Chief, Taxpayer Services, to quickly take the steps necessary to effectively route taxpayers' calls nationwide using real-time information. These steps may include a combination of: (1) acquiring technology for real-time traffic monitoring and management; (2) utilizing the routing capability of the IRS telecommunications vendor; and (3) fully implementing the features of IRS existing call routing technology.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

 

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