TREASURY INSPECTOR GENERAL
FOR TAX ADMINISTRATION
MANAGEMENT ADVISORY REPORT: ENHANCING THE ELECTRONIC TAX LAW ASSISTANCE PROGRAM
Reference No. 2000-30-164
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) uses the Electronic Tax Law Assistance (ETLA) program to answer tax law and procedural questions submitted by taxpayers on the IRSí Internet web site known as the Digital Daily. The ETLA program offers an alternative to the telephone for taxpayers needing tax law assistance, while at the same time increasing accessibility and convenience. This program supports the IRSí initiative to increase electronic correspondence with taxpayers. In Fiscal Year (FY) 1999, the IRS answered over 262,000 tax law questions, with nearly 350,000 projected for FY 2000.
Customer satisfaction surveys show that over 90 percent of the taxpayers who used the ETLA program were satisfied with the timeliness of responses and would use the ETLA service in the future. This audit was conducted to identify enhancements applicable to the current ETLA program and complements two recently issued Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration reports. The first of those two reports recommended that the IRS better integrate the ETLA program into its long-term strategy for expanding electronic communications with taxpayers.
Our analysis of the ETLA program identified several opportunities to further improve service to taxpayers. The areas focus on modifications to the current process. These enhancements could assist the IRS in meeting taxpayer demand during its implementation of long-term technological strategies.
Placing an Introductory Message on the Internal Revenue Service Web Site
The ETLA program does not instruct taxpayers to provide sufficient information to assure that their questions can be fully understood. Rather, there are only general instructions on the IRSí Internet web site, the Digital Daily. This increases the risk that the IRS will provide incorrect or incomplete answers.
Providing an introductory message would help ensure that taxpayers include sufficient information when formulating their questions. For example, we observed that a sample of the IRSí responses varied from being extremely brief to very lengthy and from very basic to somewhat technical. Further, our testing identified instances where the taxpayersí questions did not contain sufficient information for Customer Service Representatives to provide reliable answers.
Including a Disclaimer on the Internal Revenue Service Web Site and Taxpayer Responses
The ETLA program does not provide a disclaimer concerning the reliability of the information provided in the IRSí response to a taxpayer question. The only warning given to the taxpayer is that the answer to the question is based on the IRSí understanding of the facts presented and that the omission of facts may affect the answer.
In contrast, some IRS publications contain a detailed warning concerning the reliability of the information. The publications warn that the information provided does not cover every situation and is not intended to replace the law or change its meaning. Taxpayers also are warned that a particular IRS publication might cover some subjects on which a court may have made a decision more favorable to them than the IRS interpretation.
Providing a disclaimer on the IRS web site and on the responses to taxpayers could reinforce the significance of providing sufficient information and the potential limitations of using the response provided.
Providing Taxpayers with an Automated Acknowledgement of Receipt and the Expected Time Frame for a Response
Currently, the IRS does not advise taxpayers that their questions have been received or when to expect an answer. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Revenue e-mail system automatically transmits a message to the taxpayer acknowledging receipt of the e-mail question. The acknowledgement advises the taxpayer that a response should be received within a specific number of days. Depending on the anticipated volume of questions, Pennsylvania tax officials will revise the acknowledgement message to reflect a 2-day, 4-day, or 6-day response time. The flexibility to change the response time goal allows Pennsylvania to more efficiently use its limited customer service resources to answer tax law questions via e-mail throughout the year.
Besides giving taxpayers the courtesy of a notice of receipt, this practice could make taxpayers less inclined to resubmit their questions prior to the time frame outlined in the message. Pennsylvania tax officials believe that this technique has resulted in more efficient use of customer service resources by spreading the workload over a longer period of time. In addition, they believe that this technique has helped to minimize the use of the compliance resources assigned to the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue when the volume of e-mail questions increases during the tax filing season.
Improving the Quality Measurement System
The ETLA program does not have statistically valid data to determine which call sites are performing satisfactorily or to identify which call sites are under-achieving and in need of supplemental training. The importance of this specific information is evident in the first Sampling Plan that was developed for FY 1999. Instead of changing the Centralized Quality Review Site (CQRS) system to generate monthly accuracy estimates that would be valid at the call site level, the IRS opted to amend the Sampling Plan to generate only national statistics.
The results of the weekly CQRS reviews are made available to the 10 call sites. Although these statistically valid results reflect national rates, the individual call site statistics are being presented in the CQRS database as site level quality rates. However, since the call sites specialize in the types of questions they answer, the complexity levels of the questions differ among these sites, which affects the average response times and accuracy rates. For example, some call sites will answer basic questions concerning filing status or exemptions, while other sites will answer complex questions concerning capital gains and depreciation.
Customer Service function managers use this information at both the national and local levels to help manage the ETLA program. However, this information is not a reliable measurement of quality, and its use as such may result in local managers either believing that the quality of answers is at an acceptable level when there are actually quality problems, or taking unnecessary corrective actions when there are no quality problems.
Summary of Recommendations
Our analysis identified several opportunities for the IRS to enhance the current ETLA program. These include: placing an introductory message and a disclaimer on the IRS web site, including a disclaimer on taxpayer responses, providing taxpayers with an automated acknowledgement of receipt, providing an expected time frame for a response, and improving the quality measurement system.
Managementís Response: Managementís response was due on September 27, 2000. As of September 28, 2000, management had not responded to the draft report.