The IRS recently announced that they’re establishing a Taxpayer Experience Office to focus on improving the digital services the agency provides. As more of our interactions move online, the IRS recognizes the need to create an experience for taxpayers and businesses that is on par with what they’ve come to expect in their everyday lives. This is an excellent step towards improving the customer experience of the IRS, but the key to success will be whether the IRS treats the applications and websites they create as digital services rather than enterprise or data services.
So, what are digital services, and how are they different?
Digital services are the technology-backed interactions an organization provides to people outside that organization. Since digital services are public-facing, they have unique characteristics as compared to internal-facing enterprise services that agency staff use to do their work and complete the mission of the agency.
As a result of this public nature, digital services must be built from the perspective of the people that use them. It’s very common for government agencies to build digital services that reflect the agency’s internal organizational structure. That’s why in some situations, people must understand how the government is structured to accomplish a task.
Designing digital services from the perspective of the people who use them means the services will be intuitively organized and easy to navigate for people who aren’t familiar with the nitty gritty of the laws, regulations or structure of government. To do digital services effectively, agencies must research how the people who use their services see the world. This means developing digital capacity in things like human-centered design, user research and creating services that look and feel consistent.
Another result of the public-facing nature of digital services is that they may have to scale to handle hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people accessing them at once. For example, the Postal Service’s covidtests.gov saw hundreds of thousands of people on the site simultaneously, but because they took a digital services approach to building the site, users were able to easily complete their test order.
It’s also very common that demand for government programs comes in bursts, such as open enrollments for programs like the Affordable Care Act and Medicare or tax season for the IRS. This means digital services have to be able to handle sudden increases in traffic and scale to handle them without interruption.
The best platform for these kinds of services is a programmable cloud infrastructure that has tools that allow for auto-scaling. To be able to detect and fix problems as traffic spikes, agencies must also be instrumented for monitoring and have continuous integration and deployment and automated testing set up so they can make changes quickly with reduced risk.
Enterprise applications often have overly complicated architectures that can be brittle and collapse under spikes in demand. A simple, streamlined architecture will serve agencies and the public better than one designed for maximum flexibility. Using tools such as structured, indexed databases, rather than unstructured data stores, will also lead to better outcomes.
Another impact of the public-facing nature of digital services is the fact that they need to be used by a broad audience. People that speak different languages, people with disabilities, as well as people from different socioeconomic backgrounds will all need to successfully access the services. Building in accessibility as part of the development process is of paramount importance, as well as ensuring there is support for internationalization. User research across a broad range of demographics will help pinpoint areas where services can be improved to increase accessibility to broader groups of people.
All this points to a unique approach that organizations need to take to ensure that digital services are successful. To do this at scale, rather than a one-off approach, the IRS should focus on building a platform for their digital services that includes the tools and services common to the kinds of interactions typical for online services. Things like a consumer-facing identity management service, a cohesive design system, an integrated search utility, and a platform for easily scaling services in a cloud environment. These will help standardize and streamline development of digital services and promote consistency and clarity for the people that use them.
The IRS has an important task ahead to improve the taxpayer experience. With the right kind of digital services platform, they can create a government-leading set of digital services that transform how taxpayers and businesses interact with the government.