IRS Web Site Gets High Marks Just in Time for Tax Season

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Even though it is (groan and moan) tax-filing season, a round of applause is in order for the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS has pushed up its customer satisfaction score for its Web site by five points, as measured by a University of Michigan index. IRS.gov received a score of 73 out of a possible 100 for the first quarter of this year, up from 68 at the end of last year.

That may not appear to be much of a gain, but the IRS Web site got a higher mark this quarter than the overall scores for the cellular telephone industry (69), the cable and satellite TV industry (61) and the airline industry (66), said Larry Freed , president of ForeSee Results, which sponsors the e-gov index ratings.

"The IRS has made changes to its Web site that seem to be moving things in the right direction," Freed said. "They have really focused on what the citizens have to say."

Creating effective Web sites is a priority at many federal agencies, in part because the Internet can be used to provide forms, publications and answers to frequently asked questions. Putting information on a Web site also helps agencies lower their mailing costs and eases some of the pressure on call centers.

The Internet provides agencies with more opportunities to sell their agendas or the policies of the administration in charge. The Bush White House, for example, features an "Ask the White House" chat room where senior administration officials, including Cabinet officers, offer their perspectives.

This year, 91 federal agencies are participating in the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, which measures satisfaction with goods and services available in the United States. The university's quarterly e-gov index measures online satisfaction and behavior, such as the likelihood of returning to a Web site, recommending it to others and using it as a preferred source.

The IRS redesigned its Web site in November after sifting through customer satisfaction data. The new ratings show that the Web site is easier to navigate, Freed said, and offers users two popular services -- a "most requested forms" link and a "I need to" guide that helps taxpayers find information on basic issues.

On the IRS Web site, taxpayers earning $50,000 or less, which is about 70 percent of taxpayers, can go to Free File and obtain access to free tax-preparation software and free electronic filing. Taxpayers also can use tools on the Web site to find out if they qualify for the earned income tax credit or will pay more because of the alternative minimum tax.

The improved score by the IRS Web site is particularly impressive, Freed said, because "when we think about the IRS, we don't get warm, fuzzy feelings."

Along that line, the data appear to suggest that Americans may be happier filing their tax returns electronically. The IRS, when measured by the responses of "all individual taxpayers" who interact with the agency off line, scored 64 on the satisfaction index -- 14 percent lower than the Web site's score.

Agency officials point out that the IRS has tried for 20 years to promote electronic filing of taxes. Last year, for the first time, more than half of the nation's taxpayers filed their returns electronically -- 68.4 million out of 133.9 million, IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis said.

For the current tax season, nearly 48.5 million returns had come in electronically as of Monday, she said.

Electronic filers get their refunds in half the time it takes for paper filers, she said.

This filing season could be dubbed the year of the "Electronic IRS," Mathis suggested. So far, the IRS has counted 77 million individuals who have visited irs.gov.

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