Breaking down the customer experience at the IRS
In recent weeks, IRS officials have warned Americans to expect a difficult tax filing season. With millions of backlogged returns, a shrinking workforce and a slew of resources recently diverted to administer pandemic relief payments, the agency is anticipating an uphill climb as it works to meet the needs of all American taxpayers.
In its recent “Government for the People” report, the Partnership for Public Service took a deep dive into the customer experience with IRS services in 2020 and 2021. The analysis reveals a mixed bag of ongoing challenges and progress at the agency.
Customer experience challenges at the IRS
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic presented unprecedented customer experience challenges for the federal government, requiring agencies to deliver urgently needed services to the public efficiently and effectively.
One agency that confronted this challenge was the IRS. In fiscal 2020, as Americans sought information about the status of their economic relief payments and tax refunds, the IRS reported a dramatic spike in calls to their customer service lines—approximately 82.5 million in total—in part because people were unable to find answers to their questions on the IRS website.
While the majority of callers who got through to an IRS representative reported having a helpful experience, only 53% of those who called were able to get through, leaving many taxpayers without answers.
In addition, people struggled to verify their identity when accessing certain online services. In fiscal 2020, only 42% of taxpayers attempting to verify their identity and register for a new online account were able to meet IRS’ authentication standards.
What has the agency done to improve these issues
In 2020, the IRS worked to mitigate these issues by expanding an automated callback feature that enables customers to receive a call back from an agent rather than having to wait on hold. This feature saved taxpayers a total of 486,000 hours of hold time, and in fiscal 2020, those who used the customer callback feature were able to successfully reconnect with an IRS representative approximately 90% of the time.
In 2020, the agency expanded this feature from five to 16 of its phone lines, with the feature now available for 40% of calls. The IRS plans to add the feature to nearly all phone lines by 2024.
Delivering taxpayer services equitably
To ensure everyone can meet their tax obligations and receive the tax benefits for which they are eligible, the IRS also conducts extensive outreach to underserved communities.
For example, in 2020, the agency worked to raise awareness of pandemic relief programs among veterans and those experiencing homelessness. The agency also continues to offer free tax preparation for people with lower incomes, disabilities and limited English proficiency through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, or VITA, and increased the amount of forms and other information available in languages other than English.
These reforms are a step in the right direction, but, as our report underscores, more will be needed to help Americans navigate what is sure to be a busy tax filing season.
To learn more about the customer experience at the IRS and other agencies, check out our full “Government for the People” report.
Henry Katz is an intern on the Partnership’s Communications team.