Tax Administration:

Electronic Filing's Past and Future Impact on Processing Costs Dependent on Several Factors

GAO-02-205: Published: Jan 10, 2002. Publicly Released: Feb 11, 2002.

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Michael Brostek
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From fiscal years 1997 through 2000, the number of individual and business tax returns filed electronically increased from 23 million to 41 million. During the same period, the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) expenditures for submission processing grew from $795 million to $924 million, an increase of 16 percent. Because it costs less to process an electronic return than a paper return, a growth in processing costs seemed improbable. Interviews with IRS officials and an analysis of relevant documentation identified several factors that limited the impact of electronic filing. Specifically, (1) the overall number of individual and business tax returns filed increased, and the resources needed to process that increase partially offset the resources saved by processing more electronic returns; (2) the number of the most costly to process individual income tax returns filed on paper essentially stayed the same; and (3) the number of individual income tax returns filed on paper and received during the peak filing period stayed relatively the same, and peak processing needs drive the resources needed to process individual paper returns. Although electronic filing increased, so did the demands placed on paper processing staff. In particular, (1) processing changes increased the workload for units responsible for reviewing returns for completeness and coding them for entry data, and correcting errors; (2) because most electronic filers still sent a paper signature document to IRS, the work done by paper processing staff was not entirely eliminated when taxpayers filed electronically; and (3) front-line paper processing staff spent increasing amounts of time on activities, including training, not specifically related to processing returns. Future reductions in processing costs as a result of electronic filing are possible.

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