Tax Administration:

IRS' Telephone Routing Interactive System May Not Meet Expectations

GGD-98-152: Published: Jul 13, 1998. Publicly Released: Aug 12, 1998.

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GAO reviewed the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) efforts to develop and implement its Telephone Routing Interactive System (TRIS), focusing on: (1) taxpayers' use of TRIS applications; and (2) TRIS' expected benefits as presented in IRS' business case.

GAO noted that: (1) TRIS is a key component of IRS' plans to improve its telephone accessibility; (2) as of May 1998, IRS had implemented 9 different applications at all of its 25 customer service centers; (3) relatively few taxpayers have used TRIS applications, and although IRS has spent about $53 million on TRIS through February 1998, the system's benefits remain uncertain; (4) in fiscal year (FY) 1997, IRS records showed that about 30 million calls were routed through TRIS; (5) about 300,000 callers used TRIS' applications to obtain information that was not already available from another system; (6) IRS has not done a comprehensive assessment of why TRIS applications are not serving more taxpayers; (7) however, GAO's review of pilot test reports, TRIS documents, and IRS officials' comments indicate that IRS may have automated services that relatively few taxpayers need; (8) IRS officials told GAO that at the time they made their decision about applications to include with TRIS, they did not have comprehensive data on the reasons why taxpayers call IRS; (9) the officials said that applications were easy to automate; (10) taxpayers may find the interactive applications difficult to use due to the number of options and the length of system instructions; (11) also, IRS' restrictions prevent taxpayers with certain types of cases from using some of the interactive applications, and IRS has not publicized the services that are available or provided information on how to use the interactive applications; (12) IRS does not have a reliable estimate of the benefits that TRIS should provide; (13) IRS' 1996 benefit estimate is based on several key assumptions that may no longer be valid; (14) in FY 1997, 3 million callers routed through TRIS were served by TRIS applications; (15) IRS now plans to develop only 10 applications itself and contract for the development of other needed applications; (16) the results of the pilot tests and subsequent investment evaluation review indicated that the projected benefits may not be achieved; (17) the evaluation team could not project a return on investment due to the lack of reliable cost and benefit data and specifically recommended that TRIS undergo a second evaluation in 1998; and (18) because relatively few taxpayers are using TRIS applications and many of the system's projected benefits are uncertain, IRS' expected role of interactive applications in its efforts to improve customer service may also be uncertain.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Consistent with the recommendations, IRS contracted for an independent assessment of TRIS that will address such issues as: (1) appropriateness of services/options provided customers; (2) user friendliness of services offered; (3) ability of applications to serve expanding audiences; (4) abandoned calls; and (5) whether current and planned applications are those that can serve the greatest number of customers willing to use automated telephone services.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should devise a plan to reassess TRIS and its role in improving taxpayer service. The plan should include: (1) an analysis of the services taxpayers need, want, and will use; (2) an assessment of why taxpayers are not using the existing TRIS applications; and (3) a reevaluation of the costs and benefits of TRIS.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As GAO recommended, IRS delayed its development and implementation of new applications. In providing oral comments on this report, IRS told GAO that no additional development of interactive applications would take place until IRS hired a modernization contractor.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should delay development and implementation of any additional interactive applications until the reassessment is completed.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Treasury: Internal Revenue Service

 

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