Enhancing Systems and Processes to Better Serve Taxpayers

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The Enterprise Digitalization & Case Management Office teams have quickly risen to the challenge of implementing digitalization and case management initiatives to improve the experience of IRS employees and taxpayers.

Get to know the IRS, its people and the issues that affect taxpayers


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By Harrison Smith and Justin Abold-LaBreche
CL-21-23, July 22, 2021

A challenge across the federal government is bringing what everyone expects in terms of easy access to services outside of the government into the way those services are provided through technology happen inside the government. We’re Harrison Smith and Justin Abold-LaBreche, the Co-Directors of the IRS Enterprise Digitalization & Case Management Office, and we’re going to give you a closer look into how we’re trying make the easy things easy, as we like to say, here at the IRS.

Our office’s unique leadership construct works well for us and our diverse employees. We both feel strongly that when IRS employees can rapidly resolve taxpayer issues in a simplified digital environment, we can dramatically improve the taxpayer experience.  We each bring unique skills to the office, and we support one another and model that to our employees to create a positive working environment. We’re serious about using a team approach, being inclusive, and employing speedy innovation techniques, but we both use our sense of humor to keep the office atmosphere light when we’re working hard on projects.

The Enterprise Digitalization & Case Management Office was created in July 2020 to address the long-standing need for the IRS to modernize and consolidate many aged case management systems business processes and policies to improve the taxpayer experience. While “vintage” and “antique” are great adjectives for cars, furniture and clothing, they aren’t good descriptions for vital business systems.

To be sure, this is no small task. The technology infrastructure includes 60 legacy case management systems – yes, 60! Each system provides our employees with various pieces of information about a taxpayer’s history with the IRS, but none of them can provide the whole picture or work together to combine information. This isn’t good for our workforce and it’s not good for taxpayers and IRS partners.

Our success depends on collaboration with offices across the IRS. Working closely with our amazing partners in the Information Technology (IT) organization and Business Units, we have begun implementing digitalization and case management initiatives to improve the experience of our employees and taxpayers. We’ll take turns telling you about our recent successes and future plans.

It’s important to note that we’re fortunate that Congress is helping us in this regard by providing a budget for FY 2021 that represents a 3.6 percent increase over FY 2020. This increase will help us make progress on our modernization initiatives as we support the implementation of the IRS multi-year Integrated Modernization Business Plan. Some of the Digitalization and Case Management improvements in the works include:

  • Improved ease of IRS interactions for taxpayers.
  • Simplified and improved digital communications with the taxpayer.
  • Ability for taxpayers to engage the IRS about their cases through a single point of contact.
  • Improved taxpayer knowledge and compliance on applicable tax rules.
  • Improved IRS customer service.

Enterprise Case Management

Justin here to talk about Enterprise Case Management, or ECM. I’m excited to share that we’ve started moving business processes from legacy systems onto a cloud-based ECM platform to provide IRS employees with a 360-degree view of a taxpayer’s account by enabling appropriate levels of access. This may not sound like a big deal, but it is. Just this one feature will lead to faster and better service for taxpayers and cost savings for us.

Working with our IT partners, we use agile best practices to modernize, configure and migrate business processes and features and deploy them to the end user as they become ready. This was important to us because we didn’t want to wait until we had everything modernized and migrated into ECM to push them live. With over 300 legacy case management processes residing on those 60+ systems, an all-or-nothing approach would take way too long to start delivering value to taxpayers and employees. Instead we started small testing our approach to see what works each step of the way – this will get us better results in the long run as well as let us routinely release modernized functionality to users. Another thing (the most important thing? Only those who have sampled my baking can be the judge…) that got us better results was my baking delicious treats for the ECM staff and steering committees, but that was curtailed by COVID, unfortunately. All kidding aside, we know that everyone in ED&CMO is a person who is more than just the professional side that shows up in the office, and we try to find ways to draw on this rich diversity of talent and experience as well as support everyone inside and outside the office.

One of the ways ECM helped improve operations this year was in the Tax Exempt/Government Entities (TE/GE) Exempt Organization’s Correspondence Unit. Each year, about 30,000 pieces of mail make their way to the TE/GE Correspondence Unit, typically asking for copies of applications or determination letters.  

Previously, the mail traveled through a paper-heavy, manual process. Employees had to use multiple IRS systems to find the information needed to respond, printing required documents along the way. Stacks of paper accumulated and then grew taller as the Unit employees printed a copy of each response letter packet.

Creating even more paper, the Unit converted electronic emails or e-faxes to paper to get them through this same process. Yes, you read that right: converting digital to paper! It’s easy to see why the Correspondence Unit was eager for a more efficient process.

We’re fortunate that Congress is helping us by providing a budget for FY 2021 that represents a 3.6 percent increase over FY 2020. This increase will help us make progress on our modernization initiatives as we support the implementation of the IRS multi-year Integrated Modernization Business Plan.

After migrating to a new case management platform in December 2020, the correspondence process was modernized. Taxpayer requests and letters are now scanned into the EMC platform, and the TE/GE case workers can conduct almost all their research right from the same platform instead of using multiple systems, speeding up our response time to taxpayers.

Another project we’re working on is migrating our Grants Management program onto the ECM platform this grant season. The SPEC Grants Program Office administers two programs: Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE). These grants are awarded annually to eligible organizations that provide free tax return preparation services for low- to moderate-income individuals and families, persons with disabilities, limited English-speaking individuals, the elderly, Native Americans, and rural communities.

Transitioning to the ECM platform will give employees consolidated and streamlined access to handle the grant management process with one tool, enabling them to respond to applicants and recipients more efficiently. We launched initial functionality in late April in time for the launch of the FY21 grant season. IRS employees are now able to import data from the grant application directly into ECM, which makes the process more efficient. Throughout the summer and fall, we hope to build and release new features with the goal of expanding the functionality to additional grant programs including Taxpayer Advocate Service grants.

We’re very proud of the success so far and look forward to more in the years to come. We are adding more business processes to the ECM platform this year, and by 2022 most operating divisions will have at least one business process in ECM. We plan to modernize and migrate several important taxpayer facing journeys into ECM over the next 12 – 18 months including Information Referrals (Form 3949-A), Circular 230 oversight, Offer in Compromise, and Correspondence Exam, with more in the early planning stages including Criminal Investigation, Determinations, and Appeals.

As a result, here are some of the enhancements our employees and taxpayers will see in specific areas, as we migrate legacy systems into ECM:

  • Individual taxpayers will receive updates in their online account about the status of their audit, beginning with correspondence exams.
  • Application materials, document requests, etc. will be able to be submitted online and taxpayers will receive updates about their receipt electronically.
  • Letters will be simplified with plain language and streamlined text so taxpayers can understand their case and what they need to do.
  • Employees will have user friendly account and return displays available within ECM to make it more efficient to process cases and resolve issues for taxpayers.

For example, starting this summer, taxpayers who want to submit an Information Referral (Form 3949-A) alerting the IRS to potential tax wrong-doing by others will be able to do so entirely online using the IRS’s new Document Upload Tool, an innovation conceived and already deployed by our Information Technology organization. The referral will then be automatically uploaded into ECM, where a case will be systemically created for further review and assignment to our compliance organizations. Today, all the Forms 3949-A come into the IRS Submission Processing organization in paper, where they are opened and reviewed and then packaged back up for transshipment by mail to the compliance organizations. Can you imagine what a difference in efficiency it will be when all of this is electronic and there is no transshipment because the 3949-A will simply be assigned electronically? This means the IRS can spend more time investigating potential tax wrong-doing and less time receiving, opening and sending mail.

We will continue modernizing and migrating business processes into ECM for the next few years – as well as retiring the legacy case management systems along the way.

Our Digitalization Strategy

Harrison here – now it’s my turn to talk about digitalization. First, I want to note the difference between “digitize” and “digitalize” in what we’re doing at the IRS. My mother is a great – and funny – example of the difference between the two. My mother will take a picture of an e-mail and then text it to me. Seriously. This is digitization - it’s harder to use the information and isn’t searchable or really useful from an information standpoint. But it is faster than printing out the e-mail and sending it to me – which she has done before.  Digitalization is sending the e-mail in a way that I can add to it, make edits, search the text, etc.  If you’re reading this, Mom, I love you and all the letters I get from you – keep them coming! 

I share this anecdote because it shows two things – one, just because something comes across in an electronic format, it doesn’t mean it’s super useful, and two, there are tools that aren’t always available or well known that we should be exploring for taxpayers.

Aside from modernizing our processes, we’re also committed to creating an environment where IRS data is available, accessible and usable in a format that enables our employees to make data-driven decisions. We’re currently working on a project that has the potential to provide access to data contained within more than 10 years of digital images of forms – a wealth of information that we can use to focus our efforts within the Service.

One way we have improved service is by engaging users throughout the process. The users are the experts. Getting input from users and having them define what needs to be done is critical to our digitalization strategy, and it also reinforces the need to have an early conversation with offices about “what are you trying to do” as opposed to “what do you think you want.” When the conversation is focused on what a customer wants, it hampers our ability to figure out what they might really need. And then we risk purchasing and launching new tools/approaches that may not work in the long run.

We’ve also focused on projects where we can move quickly to improve the taxpayer experience in small pieces, testing an approach that, if successful, can be used elsewhere.  Last year, we shifted a process that was completely paper-driven to digital – providing an option for a form to be submitted via e-fax. From the taxpayer’s perspective, this accelerated the processing time from 3 weeks or more to almost instantaneous, reducing the time needed to fulfill their request.  We are now looking at ways to further reduce the time needed to fulfill a taxpayer’s request by utilizing technology that will help us extract machine-readable data from those forms, automating a process that is primarily manual today.  If we’re successful, we will look at using this approach for other forms used by taxpayers and IRS partners.

As Justin mentioned earlier, we generate a tremendous volume of paper in all our lines of business. It could fill rooms, and sometimes it does. Our Digitalization Strategy was designed to address this issue and aligns with legislative mandates for records storage. The three goals of the strategy are:

  • Reducing paper volume.
  • Increasing access to digital data.
  • Preparing the IRS to manage digital data and drive efficiencies.

Employing our inclusive approach, we will continue to hire a diverse workforce and engage subject matter experts throughout the IRS to evaluate and identify the best combination of policy, business process and technology solutions to reach our digitalization goals. In these efforts, the agency will also engage employees and their representation to fulfill any bargaining obligations. Earlier this year, we launched an internal Digitalization Request Form and collected over 200 ideas from employees throughout the agency that helped to kickstart our digitalization pilots and efforts!  I’m also excited about our partnering with other agencies to use new technology to electronically file documents that currently take a lot of time and manual processes. Not only will this improve our customer service for taxpayers, it has the potential to save millions of dollars in labor costs each year!

When we look at the work ahead for us in modernizing our business processes, Justin and I often joke that our organization is “Team Plinko.” Just like the popular game show involving disks bouncing their way down a peg-lined board, there are challenges which we view as opportunities to learn and improve. We’re excited to see what the future holds as we continue to innovate the taxpayer experience.

Harrison Smith and Justin Abold-LaBreche
Co-Directors of the IRS Enterprise Digitalization & Case Management Office

Photo of Justin Abold-LaBreche and Harrison Smith

About the Authors

Harrison Smith and Justin Abold-LaBreche are Co-Directors of the Internal Revenue Service Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management Office. As senior leaders with leadership experience across multiple IRS offices, they are tasked with spearheading IRS’s efforts to modernize systems, simplify business processes, and empower taxpayers and IRS employees to rapidly resolve issues in simplified digital environments.

 

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