Skip to Highlights
Highlights

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 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 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.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

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.

 

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Internal Revenue Service 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.
Closed - Implemented
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 September 2015, an IRS Online Services official told us IRS adopted the majority of the performance metrics highlighted in our report. These metrics are now monitored and used in weekly, monthly and yearly reports. 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.
Internal Revenue Service 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Internal Revenue Service 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.
Open
IRS has made progress in improving its online services strategy, as we recommended, but as of March 2021, IRS has not yet completed its efforts. In our report, we found IRS's website satisfaction rates were below that of other federal agencies. As part of its long-term strategy for improving web services provided to taxpayers, we recommended that IRS should establish a numerical or other measurable goal to improve taxpayer satisfaction and a timeframe for achieving it (for IRS's website). We had previously discussed with officials several measures IRS developed related to improving taxpayer satisfaction within IRS's suite of online services. However, we were not provided evidence of any goal/target setting related to those metrics. Further, IRS's Office of Online Services (OLS) reported that it did not believe that a single-specific measurable goal was the correct approach; rather, a suite of metrics would provide a more comprehensive view of taxpayer satisfaction. We followed up on this issue in another GAO report (GAO-20-71), where we recommended that IRS ensure that information is collected on taxpayer's experiences with all online services and the extent to which the services are meeting taxpayers needs. IRS reported that it planned to collect feedback from customers in accordance with section 280 of OMB's Circular A-11, and planned to fully address that recommendation by the end of calendar year 2021. As of April 2021, we have requested additional information from IRS to determine if it has set any goals or targets related to increasing the taxpayer's experience and satisfaction with IRS's website or other online services and a timeline to achieve those goals in relation to the metrics it is developing.
Internal Revenue Service
Priority Rec.
This is a priority 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.
Closed - Implemented
As of December 2019, IRS has made meaningful progress in improving its online services strategy, as recommended in GAO's December 2011 and April 2013 reports. In April 2019, IRS published the IRS Integrated Modernization Business Plan (modernization plan). The modernization plan is intended to be a six-year roadmap to guide IRS's efforts and one of the plan's goals is to modernize the taxpayer experience. In the plan, IRS committed to developing new services, provided that IRS continues to receive the requested resources from Congress. These services include delivering taxpayer notices electronically, modernizing online installment agreements, and establishing multiple communication methods, such as text chat and video chat assistance. A companion document to this plan provides additional detail, including an estimated budget for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 for improving taxpayer services, timeframes for developing these capabilities, and anticipated benefits such as increasing the number of notices available electronically. IRS provided additional documentation of its prioritization process for new online services that considers risks, costs, timelines and the scope of proposed projects, among other things. These materials will help govern IRS's long-term decision-making related to its online services strategy. GAO believes the modernization plan and the prioritization process address the intent of the recommendations made in the 2013 report. However, in December 2019 GAO found that the prioritization process did not consider taxpayer input when making resource decisions, which GAO will continue to follow up on as part of ongoing work. A long-term comprehensive strategy for online services will help IRS ensure that it is maximizing the benefit to taxpayers and its investment in web services provided to taxpayers.
Internal Revenue Service 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Internal Revenue Service 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.

Full Report

GAO Contacts