Information Is Needed to Determine the Effect the Wage and Investment Division Research Program Has on Improving Customer Service and Voluntary Compliance

 

April 2004

 

Reference Number:  2004-40-088

 

 

This report has cleared the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration disclosure review process and information determined to be restricted from public release has been redacted from this document.

 

April 14, 2004

 

 

MEMORANDUM FOR COMMISSIONER, WAGE AND INVESTMENT DIVISION

 

FROM:     Gordon C. Milbourn III /s/ Gordon C. Milbourn III

                 Acting Deputy Inspector General for Audit

 

SUBJECT:     Final Audit Report - Information Is Needed to Determine the Effect the Wage and Investment Division Research Program Has on Improving Customer Service and Voluntary Compliance (Audit # 200340006)

 

This report presents the results of our review of the Wage and Investment (W&I) Division Research Program.  The overall objective of this review was to determine whether the W&I Division Research Program’s purpose, strategies, plans, and management policies are designed to ensure that the Research Program selects the most productive research projects in an effort to assist the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in furthering its goals of improving customer service and voluntary compliance.  We conducted this review as a part of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2003 discretionary audit coverage concerning reliability of information.

The W&I Division began operation in October 2000 and serves approximately 122 million taxpayers, who file over 94 million tax returns.  W&I Division taxpayers are highly compliant with tax filing requirements and typically file simple tax returns.  The W&I Division Research Program’s mission is to provide timely, top-quality research and analysis in support of the W&I Division’s mission and goals.  Having its own research function creates a more customer-driven operation that involves and communicates with the various W&I Division functions throughout the research process, thereby improving business results, employee satisfaction, and customer service.  In FY 2003, the W&I Division Research Program completed 344 projects. 

The Research Program has a comprehensive annual strategic planning process that is customer-driven and includes annual goals for producing timely, relevant, accurate, and useful products.  While the annual planning and related goals will help ensure and gauge the quality of the Research Program, more can be done to ensure the Research Program selects the most productive research projects.  Specifically,

·        Improvements are needed to ensure annual goals are being met.  Current guidelines neither require assurance that accuracy reviews of project results have been performed nor include an effective process to obtain feedback from the customers to determine the usefulness or value of the final research projects. 

·        Long-term performance goals and measures are needed.  The IRS has not developed results-oriented, long-term goals and measures for the Research Program because it does not have a process to monitor and measure progress on improving customer service and voluntary compliance for W&I Division taxpayers.  However, Research Program management is working toward developing these goals and measures.

·        A centralized management information system is needed.  The Research Program has not fully implemented a centralized management information system to track and monitor its projects.  It is working toward implementing a new centralized system; however, the new system does not allow management to easily monitor and track project costs to assess the cost-effectiveness of the Research Program. 

We recommended the W&I Division Commissioner ensure the Research Program guidelines are revised to require documentation supporting the performance of an accuracy review or explaining why a review was not warranted, and develop an effective process to measure the usefulness of the research products.  We also recommended the W&I Division Commissioner ensure long-term goals and a measurement process are developed to monitor the effect the Research Program has on improving tax administration, and implement a centralized management information system to enable the efficient tracking and monitoring of all aspects of a research project.

Management’s Response:  IRS management agreed with all of our recommendations and is taking corrective action.  Specifically, the W&I Division Research Program will revise guidance to require maintaining documentation supporting the performance of accuracy reviews, establish a system to assess the usefulness of its research products, establish long-term goals and measures, and implement the Microsoft Project 2002® system to centrally manage resources and projects.  Management’s complete response to the draft report is included as Appendix IV.

Copies of this report are also being sent to the IRS managers affected by the report recommendations.  Please contact me at (202) 622-6510 if you have questions or Michael R. Phillips, Assistant Inspector General for Audit (Wage and Investment Income Programs), at (202) 927-0597.

 

Table of Contents

Background

The Annual Strategic Planning Process Has Established Balanced Measures and Performance Levels

Improvements Are Needed to Ensure Annual Goals Are Being Met

Recommendations 1 and 2:

Long-Term Performance Goals and Measures Are Needed

Recommendation 3:

A Centralized Management Information System Is Needed

Recommendation 4:

Appendix I – Detailed Objective, Scope, and Methodology

Appendix II – Major Contributors to This Report

Appendix III – Report Distribution List

Appendix IV – Management’s Response to the Draft Report

 

Background

In 1998, the Congress passed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, which included a directive for the IRS to reorganize its operations.  In response, the IRS reorganized into four operating divisions based on taxpayer needs.  The Wage and Investment (W&I) Division began operation in October 2000 and serves approximately 122 million taxpayers, who file over 94 million tax returns.  W&I Division taxpayers are highly compliant with tax filing requirements and typically file simple tax returns.  Many of the tax problems faced by W&I Division taxpayers have to do with a misunderstanding of their tax obligations due to education and communication issues.

As part of the IRS’ reorganization, a separate research function was placed in each operating division to create a more customer-driven research operation that would involve and communicate with the customer throughout the research process.  The goal of placing a separate research function in each operating division was to improve business results, employee satisfaction, and customer service. 

The W&I Division Research Program is headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, and has research field groups located in Atlanta, Georgia; Boston, Massachusetts; Indianapolis, Indiana; Jacksonville, Florida; Los Angeles, California; and St. Louis, Missouri, with a total of 77 field personnel.  The personnel in the field groups include mostly technical analysts, statisticians, and support staff.  The operating budget in Fiscal Year (FY) 2003 was approximately $9 million, and the budget for FY 2004 is approximately $10 million.

Research Program customers include the Customer Assistance, Relationships, and Education; Compliance; and Customer Account Services functions.  The Customer Assistance, Relationships, and Education function is responsible for educating W&I Division taxpayers and assisting them in filing their tax returns.  The Compliance function is responsible for ensuring taxpayers fulfill their tax obligations through accurate and consistent application of the tax law.  The Customer Account Services function is responsible for assisting taxpayers with filing their tax returns, receiving their refunds, and resolving their tax-related issues.

The planned research projects are distributed among the various Research Program field groups, with each field group assigned to support specific W&I Division customers.  The projects are categorized by the estimated time to complete and the significance of the project.  The time to complete a project is usually linked with the significance and potential effect of the project.  The primary categories are those estimated for completion within 30 days and those estimated for completion in over 30 days.  Research Program management stated that of the 344 projects closed in FY 2003, 103 (30 percent) took over 30 days to complete with the remaining 241 (70 percent) being completed within 30 days.

This review was performed at the W&I Division Research Program Headquarters and field office in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Boston, Massachusetts, field office.  The remaining field offices participated in the audit through teleconferencing.  Audit work was performed during the period June through December 2003.  The audit was conducted in accordance with Government Auditing Standards.  Detailed information on our audit objective, scope, and methodology is presented in Appendix I.  Major contributors to the report are listed in Appendix II.

The Annual Strategic Planning Process Has Established Balanced Measures and Performance Levels

The Research Program has a comprehensive annual strategic planning process that is customer-driven and includes annual goals for producing timely, relevant, accurate, and useful products.  In addition, the mission of the Research Program—to provide timely, top-quality research and analysis—supports the W&I Division’s mission and goals to provide customers top-quality service by helping them understand and comply with applicable tax laws and to protect the public interest by applying the tax laws with integrity and fairness to all. 

The Research Program’s strategic planning process is customer-driven, and the projects selected for inclusion in the annual plan are the result of extensive coordination with those customers.  The chief of each field group serves as a liaison between the Research Program and the W&I Division-assigned customer.  As liaison, the chief meets throughout the year with the customers’ contacts to discuss their needs.  This supports the development of the annual strategic plan and allows the Research Program to shift resources if unexpected priorities arise for the customer during the year. 

To ensure the projects selected support W&I Division goals and initiatives, the Research Program links each of its planned research projects with a specific W&I Division strategy.  Ultimately, the projects selected are intended to provide meaningful information to W&I Division decision makers as they develop their near‑ and long-term strategies, plans, and programs to perform their functional responsibilities in tax administration.

Once the annual plan is developed and work on the projects begins, the Research Program compiles data on a monthly basis to measure its performance toward meeting established balanced measures.  These balanced measures are the same measures required for all IRS operations and include customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and business results (e.g., the number of projects closed, resources used, or quality of reports and plans).

Improvements Are Needed to Ensure Annual Goals Are Being Met

The Research Program has established short-term annual goals that include producing timely, relevant, accurate, and useful products.  These annual goals will help gauge the quality of the Research Program.  In addition, management has a method for ensuring the goals of producing timely and relevant products are being met.  For example, the Research Program established targets for the number of days to complete the various projects and monitors these completion time periods on a monthly basis.  To ensure projects are relevant, the Research Program works extensively with the customer to select projects.  However, current guidelines do not require assurance that accuracy reviews of project results have been performed or include an effective process to obtain feedback from the customers to determine the usefulness or value of the final research projects. 

Documentation is not required supporting the accuracy reviews of research results

Program guidelines state that the Research Program chiefs have the primary responsibility for ensuring the quality of work completed in their groups.  These guidelines require each chief to ensure the accuracy of research results at the field group level.  For those projects that include a quantitative analysis, the chief is to ensure the accuracy of the quantitative analysis has been corroborated by independent replication or other appropriate method.

Although guidelines establish responsibility for the accuracy of research results, the guidelines do not require documentation to be maintained to support the performance of these accuracy reviews.  However, Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government require the appropriate documentation of transactions and internal controls.  Specific documentation should be maintained in the research project file supporting the validation of the results of the accuracy reviews.  

We did not identify any instances in which customers of the Research Program raised concerns about the accuracy of the research results provided to them.  However, without documentation to support that an accuracy review was performed, Research Program management cannot provide assurance that the information the IRS is relying on is accurate. 

Current guidelines do not include an effective process to obtain customer feedback on the usefulness of research results

Research Program guidelines do not require the Research Program chiefs to regularly follow up with customers to determine whether research results were useful.  During the planning phase of a project, the Research Program chiefs hold discussions with the customers to determine how the customers plan to use the research information.  However, management has not developed a process to determine if the research results provided the intended benefit(s). 

Research Program management recognizes the importance of determining the effect of the research results on their customers’ programs and has attempted to obtain this information.  In April and July of 2003, management surveyed their customers to identify the effect, if any, of research results.  However, Research Program management stated that the responses received from their customers were often “soft and vague” and did not enable management to clearly identify the effect of the results.  In the future, the Research Program Director will follow up with customers about 6 months after the research work is completed to discuss the usefulness of the information that was provided. 

We reported a similar issue in May 2000.  The reported issue related to the IRS’ centralized Research Program.  That Program could not quantify its value to tax administration and could not accurately measure its cost‑effectiveness or the effect of the information it provided.  We recommended the IRS develop a process to identify and measure actual research outcomes and their related costs.  IRS management agreed with the recommendation and stated that they would rely on the new strategic planning and budget process in each operating division to link research results with strategic measures.

Federal Government agencies are expected to identify high-quality outcome measures and accurately monitor performance of programs.  The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA) and related Office of Management and Budget circulars require each Federal Government agency, as part of the strategic planning process, to develop outcome-related goals and objectives for the major functions and operations of the agency. 

Without an effective process to identify and measure the outcome of its research, the Research Program will be unable to measure its progress toward meeting its annual goal of providing useful research results.

Recommendations

The Commissioner, W&I Division, should:

1.      Revise Research Program guidelines to require that documentation be maintained supporting the performance of an accuracy review for all research projects or explaining why a review was not warranted.

Management’s Response:  Research Program guidelines will be revised to include guidance to maintain documentation supporting the performance of accuracy reviews.

2.      Develop an effective process to determine the usefulness of research products and include the process in the Research Program guidelines.

Management’s Response:  The W&I Division Research Program will establish a system to assess the usefulness of its research products. 

Long-Term Performance Goals and Measures Are Needed

The IRS has not developed results-oriented, long-term goals and measures to determine the effectiveness of the Research Program because it does not have a process to monitor and measure progress toward improving customer service and voluntary compliance for W&I Division taxpayers.  However, Research Program management is working toward developing these goals and measures. 

For example, Research Program management has established the Strategic Forecasting and Analysis (SFA) research field group.  The SFA group’s mission is to analyze trends and forecasts to assist W&I Division leaders in addressing long-term challenges expected to affect their ability to provide products and services to W&I Division taxpayers of the future.  The SFA group’s mission differs from the mission of the other Research Program field groups in that its mission focuses on future challenges while the other field groups focus on current challenges.  

Since its inception, the SFA group has produced over 75 reports that reflect a wide range of demographic, economic, and technological issues.  Management stated that they require the various Research Program chiefs to discuss these reports with their assigned customers, if applicable.  However, a process has not been developed confirming which customers have received specific SFA group reports or how the customers might have used the information.  After we raised this issue to Research Program management, they emailed their customers outlining the various SFA group projects and stating which operational priority each project addresses.  This information was provided to assist W&I Division management in their strategic planning efforts.

We recognize the difficulty in measuring the long-term effects of the Research Program, especially in quantifiable terms.  However, management could use the SFA group project results to identify trends to be considered in the development of long-term goals and measures. 

Without established long-term goals and measures that monitor the effect the Research Program has on improving tax administration, the ability of IRS management and the Congress to make informed business decisions related to the Research Program is hampered.  Knowing the effect the Research Program has on improving customer service and voluntary compliance will help assure the Congress of the value the Research Program provides for the resources it uses.

In addition, without adequate long-term goals and measures, the Research Program will be unable to comply with the The President’s Management Agenda relating to improving budget and performance integration, which requires Federal Government agencies to identify high-quality outcome measures and accurately monitor program performance.

Recommendation

The Commissioner, W&I Division, should:

3.      Develop long-term goals and a measurement process to enable management to monitor the effect the Research Program has on improving tax administration.

Management’s Response:  Long-term goals and measures will be established at the start of the FY 2007 Strategic Planning process for the W&I Division Research Program. 

A Centralized Management Information System Is Needed

The Research Program has not fully implemented a centralized management information system (MIS) to track and monitor its projects.  Instead, it has been using a modified version of an existing system that, in February 2002, the W&I Division Performance Improvement Team determined provided incomplete and inaccurate information. 

The W&I Division Performance Improvement Team determined that the Research Program’s MIS tracked only projects that typically took over 30 days to complete.  In FY 2003, this would have excluded 94 percent of the Program’s projects.  In addition, project status definitions varied among groups, project numbers were not descriptive, and each research group manually tracked its own time spent on projects.

In response to the W&I Division Performance Improvement Team findings, Research Program management decided to implement a new centralized MIS by October 2002.  In the interim, they made changes to the current MIS, which is still being used.  However, the current process is inefficient, repetitive, and labor-intensive.  It is not centralized and requires each of the seven Research Program chiefs to maintain separate systems of management controls for each group.

In addition, both the current system and the new system do not allow management to easily monitor and track project costs to assess the cost‑effectiveness of the Research Program.  The cost of a project is estimated during early discussions with the customer, but the Research Program does not regularly or easily collect actual project cost information.  As a result, the Research Program cannot easily analyze the costs of research projects over time to identify the cost-effectiveness of the Research Program and determine where to make improvements.

The new MIS, planned to have been implemented by October 2002, would consist of Microsoft Project 2000® and its companion product, Project Central®.  These Microsoft products are standard tools for project planning, monitoring, and reporting.  The Microsoft Project 2000® software is designed to determine completion dates of projects based on the start date, major milestones, and staff availability.  Project Central® is a web‑based application that allows project managers and project team members to communicate about the assignment and status of project tasks.  Project Central® also provides for division-wide reporting of project information. 

A centralized MIS will provide the Research Program a uniform way to track information.  Research Program guidelines state that a uniform approach to project management and the use of a standard project management tool will also enable the Program to quantify progress on the balanced measures and manage the priorities of the Research Program.  In addition, standard project management methods will support the Research Program’s future development of organizational resources and enable the Program to:

·        Better align researchers’ skills to projects.

·        Identify organizational needs for resources and skill enhancements.

As of December 2003, the centralized MIS had not been fully implemented.  The National Treasury Employees Union raised concerns about the Research Program tracking employee direct time.  In addition, Research Program management had raised concerns about having to use two different systems to meet their needs. 

We learned from the Small Business/Self‑Employed Division Research Program employees, who have been using Microsoft Project 2000® and its companion Project Central® since October 2002, that the software is not designed to track employee time for payroll purposes and that the software does not have the ability to capture narratives, functions the Research Program desires.  However, Research Program management has recently accepted the limitations of the software and plans to move forward with its implementation. 

Neither the current system nor the new system will provide all the tools necessary to manage the Research Program.  Until management has implemented a new MIS to track the projects and their related costs, the Research Program will be unable to easily monitor and track its progress toward managing its priorities and meeting its goals. 

Recommendation

The Commissioner, W&I Division, should:

4.      Ensure a centralized MIS is implemented to enable the efficient tracking and monitoring of all aspects of a research project.

Management’s Response:  The W&I Division Research Program will implement the Microsoft Project 2002® system.  This system will provide tools to centrally manage resources and projects, to provide a central repository for project documentation, and to consistently report project information across research groups.  Completion of this action is contingent on the completion of a systems modification by Microsoft Corporation.

 

Appendix I

 

Detailed Objective, Scope, and Methodology

 

The overall objective of this audit was to determine whether the Wage and Investment (W&I) Division Research Program’s purpose, strategies, plans, and management policies are designed to ensure the Research Program selects the most productive research projects in an effort to assist the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in furthering its goals of improving customer service and voluntary compliance.  To accomplish the objective, we: 

I.                    Determined whether the mission of the Research Program is aligned with the missions of the W&I Division and the IRS. 

A.     Researched the W&I Division and Research Program web sites to determine whether the mission, goals, and objectives of the Research Program promote improving customer service and increasing voluntary compliance.

B.     Interviewed the Research Program Director to determine whether the mission and purpose of the Research Program support improving customer service and increasing voluntary compliance.

II.                 Determined whether the Research Program has an adequate strategic planning process, including the establishment of valid annual and long-term goals, and ensures the goals are incorporated in the project selection process.  We determined whether:

A.     The Research Program has specific long-term performance goals that focus on outcomes and reflect its purpose.

B.     The Research Program has a number of annual performance goals that demonstrate progress toward achieving the long-term goals.

C.     The Research Program chiefs support program planning efforts by committing to the annual and long-term goals of the Research Program.

D.     The Research Program collaborates and coordinates effectively with related programs (e.g., the Small Business/Self-Employed Division) that share similar goals and objectives.

E.      The Research Program has independent and quality evaluations to support Research Program improvements and evaluate effectiveness.

III.               Determined whether the Research Program has sufficient data to monitor and control the Research Program to ensure it meets its goals and strategies. 

A.     Interviewed Research Program management to determine how the Research Program is monitored.

B.     Identified which reports are available for management oversight and monitoring of the Research Program.

C.     Interviewed Research Program management to determine what criteria are used when formulating project selection.

D.     Determined how often the Research Program collects timely and credible performance information and uses it to manage the Research Program and improve performance.

E.      Reviewed Research Program guidelines and interviewed employees to understand the project selection process and determine if it agrees with the strategies and goals of the Program.

IV.              Determined whether the Research Program has sufficient cost information and data to determine if the Research Program is cost-effective. 

A.     Determined the projected expenditures for the W&I Division to administer the Research Program in Fiscal Year 2004.

B.     Determined whether the costs to perform each project are collected and compared to the yield.

C.     Determined whether cost data are compared over time to identify the effectiveness of the Research Program and where to make improvements.

 

Appendix II

 

Major Contributors to This Report

 

Michael R. Phillips, Assistant Inspector General for Audit (Wage and Investment Income Programs)

Augusta R. Cook, Director

Russell Martin, Audit Manager

Pamela DeSimone, Senior Auditor

Robert Howes, Senior Auditor

Vacenessia Daniels Brown, Auditor

 

Appendix III

 

Report Distribution List

 

Commissioner  C

Office of the Commissioner – Attn:  Chief of Staff  C

Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement  SE

Deputy Commissioner, Wage and Investment Division  SE:W

Director, Strategy and Finance  SE:W:S

Chief Counsel  CC

National Taxpayer Advocate  TA

Director, Office of Legislative Affairs  CL:LA

Director, Office of Program Evaluation and Risk Analysis  RAS:O

Office of Management Controls  OS:CFO:AR:M

Audit Liaison:  GAO/TIGTA Liaison, Wage and Investment Division  SE:W:S:PA

 

Appendix IV

 

Management’s Response to the Draft Report

 

The response was removed due to its size.  To see the response, please go to the Adobe PDF version of the report on the TIGTA Public Web Page.