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OMB names 5 priority areas to improve interagency customer experience, as IRS also tackles citizen services

As the Biden administration directs agencies to prioritize customer experience improvements around five cross-cutting areas, agencies like IRS launch initiative...

The Biden administration is telling agencies to prioritize customer experience improvements around five cross-cutting areas.

These include helping members of the public who are approaching retirement, recovering from a disaster or transitioning from active-duty military service.

Agencies are also directed to improve services that support low-income mothers and children, as well as those suffering from a sudden financial loss who may be newly eligible for public assistance programs.

Pam Coleman, associate director for performance and personnel management at the Office of Management and Budget, said in a blog post that the administration is highlighting these areas because they often require service from multiple agencies and programs, and may be difficult for some users to navigate multiple layers of bureaucracy.

“Too often, people have to navigate a tangled web of government websites, offices and phone numbers to access the services they depend on,” Coleman wrote.

OMB, which leads governmentwide customer experience efforts, worked with the President’s Management Council to select these projects.

Interagency team kicks off customer experience projects

Interagency teams will start with a “discovery” phase that includes research and gathering data, as well as outreach to the public.

Coleman said those initial steps are critical to understanding how federal agencies can better design and manage large-scale improvements to customer experience.

Lee Becker, former chief of staff of the Veterans Experience Office at the Veterans Affairs Department, now a senior vice president and general manager of public sector at Medallia, said the Biden administration’s fiscal 2023 budget request gives agencies the resources they need to improve customer experience.

“These are budgets that actually help with improving the fundamentals of operations that allow for these experiences to happen,” Becker said. “How do we make sure that we have the right composition of the workforce, that has the right skill sets, and have the right support and infrastructure and tools to actually implement the needs of the service delivery the government’s trying to do.”

Agencies like IRS push ahead on own customer initiatives

Aside from these interagency life experiences, agencies are working on several individual lines of effort to improve customer experience too.

IRS, for example, has doubled the number of customer calls that are eligible for a callback option.

National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins said the callback option have been a welcome alternative for taxpayers used to long wait times on the phone.

“The callback feature has been a welcome feature by a lot of taxpayers and tax practitioners who call in,” Collins said.

IRS, however, doesn’t yet have the workforce it needs to make the callback option more widely available, she said.

The Treasury Department agency received 282 million phone calls last year and didn’t have enough employees to manage callbacks for about a third of that volume.

IRS, given its role in issuing Economic Impact Payments and child tax credits, has seen a higher than average call volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If we went back to pre-COVID levels and had callback, and you had a reasonable number of customer service representatives, it would be ideal for most taxpayers,” Collins said.

IRS looks at how technology can benefit customers

In a recent Taxpayer Advocate Directive, Collins also directed IRS to work with tax preparers to put a two-dimensional bar code on most paper tax returns. She noted that state tax agencies have been using scanning technology for years to automate the processing of paper tax returns.

IRS, amid its long-term workforce and legacy IT challenges, has repeatedly singled out its paper workload as one of its biggest setbacks this filing season.

Collins called out paper as the agency’s “kryptonite” and directed IRS to quickly implement scanning technology, which would help the agency process paper tax returns and reduce its backlog.

There are some limits to how much 2D bar code use will be able to help the agency with its paper-based workload. Collins said the bar codes could only be applied to the approximately 50% to 60% of paper tax returns that are filed using tax preparation software.

“It’s not a perfect solution, but had IRS had that in place, at least for the last two years, it would have made a tremendous difference on the backlog,” she said.

The Taxpayer Advocate Service has urged IRS and Congress to implement a bar code solution for close to 20 years.

“All of us, we go to a store — a grocery store, or a pharmacy, a retail store — they all have barcoding. It would ease the process,” Collins said.

The challenges of handling paper at the nation’s tax agency

While electronic tax returns require little input from IRS employees to process, paper tax returns put an enormous strain on its workforce.

“Employees have to go out and bring all of those returns into the building. They first have to sort them, then they have to, in essence, do everything from opening the envelope,” Collins said. “If there’s a check in it, they remove the check. They remove the staples. They have to handstamp with the data and all the information on the return.”

Paper returns get batched into bundles, then eventually head to transcription, where employees enter numbers into a computer system line by line. The returns then go to an error resolution group, which looks for inconsistencies or problems.

“All of that is done by different employees. The entire process is like a human supply chain, in order to get it to come out the other end,” Collins said.

In addition to the added workload, the error rate on processing paper returns is at least 20%, she said. “If you’re the recipient of that error, it potentially could change your income. It could change the taxes due. Those are challenges. We need to get that error ratio down to zero.”

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