TACT: Taking the Confusion Out of Taxpayer CorrespondenceMay 2011
The first goal of the IRS's strategic plan for 2009-2013 is to improve service to make voluntary compliance easier. Among the strategies and objectives are to provide taxpayers with targeted, timely guidance and outreach, to "systematically review written taxpayer communications to ensure effectiveness," and to "continuously improve processes to reduce taxpayer burden and capture opportunities to eliminate waste."
This is no small task.
That's because the IRS is responsible for mailing approximately 200 million letters and notices to taxpayers each year on topics related to processing returns, collection, and compliance. The almost 1,000 different correspondence products issued by the IRS involve more than 40 different systems and over 200 correspondence "owners." Some of the correspondence is confusing, adding an unnecessary burden to taxpayers and tax practitioners and failing to achieve the intended results.
For the last two years, MITRE has worked with the IRS on an ambitious, ongoing effort that began as the Taxpayer Communications Taskgroup, or TACT, focused on increasing the clarity, accuracy, and effectiveness of IRS letters and notices. TACT is revamping the agency's approach to taxpayer correspondence in two main ways. First, the taskgroup is collaborating with the IRS IT organization to modernize and consolidate the systems that issue taxpayer notices. Second, the team is improving processes, simplifying language, and establishing a new centralized organization within the IRS to focus solely on taxpayer correspondence.
A Strategic IRS Partner
"Our role from the beginning has been to be the IRS's partner on everything from strategic planning to project management," says Amy Aukema, a MITRE principal information systems engineer who worked on the TACT project. She describes the challenge facing the IRS as "incredibly complex."
"It's more than just a technical issue or a process issue or a stakeholder issue," she says.
In the first year of the project, the MITRE team worked with the IRS and its contractors to develop a strategic plan for improvements to correspondence processes and systems. The team played an important role in the integration of studies by two contractor teams and seven IRS teams investigating the agency's taxpayer correspondence issues. The resulting report, the Strategic Roadmap for Taxpayer Correspondence, is a four-year plan for transforming taxpayer correspondence through changes in process, organization, and technology. The IRS commissioner approved the roadmap in September 2009.
"This work helped the IRS establish a future-state design for the taxpayer correspondence environment," explains Joel Greenbaum, a MITRE lead information systems engineer who works on the project. "We looked at existing processes and at what could be done better." The MITRE team then helped the IRS begin implementing the roadmap's recommendations, with a focus on making the changes sustainable in the long term, Aukema adds.
Rapid Prototyping Helps Establish a Centralized Repository
MITRE also developed a new prototype, called the Correspondence Management Information System (CMIS), to improve enterprise-wide analysis and decision-making functions for taxpayer correspondence. The number of systems the agency used to produce correspondence and multiple sources of correspondence data had made it very difficult to analyze correspondence effectiveness and trends and support decision-making. MITRE used rapid prototyping to gather the IRS's business requirements and obtain immediate feedback.
"CMIS provides the IRS with a real, working prototype with dynamic data about the taxpayer correspondence being produced on a daily basis," Greenbaum says. With the CMIS prototype and centralized correspondence data, the IRS will be able to perform reliable research and analysis.
CMIS was also a prime example of MITRE transferring knowledge and capabilities to government staff. After delivering the initial prototype, MITRE experts worked with IRS staff to deploy it in their environment and provided guidance on how to enhance the prototype. "The IRS has populated the prototype with data, and they're continuing to evolve the prototype as a foundation for a broader-scale system implementation at some future date," Aukema says.
Standing up a New Organization
Previously, as noted in the roadmap, the IRS lacked a central organization with responsibility for coordinating correspondence. MITRE provided organizational change expertise and guidance as IRS leadership created the Office of Taxpayer Correspondence (OTC), which launched in January 2010 and was expanded in April 2010.
"We helped build the case for a centralized office and engaged the senior TACT leadership in a detailed analysis of the future-state design for the office, and it was successfully implemented in November 2010," Greenbaum says. The new office helps the agency measure the success of its various communications efforts "in a methodical way, so that the IRS can pinpoint what works and what doesn't," Aukema says. "This is all brand new."
Next up are plans for MITRE to continue supporting OTC through the organization transition and design of detailed future-state processes.
"TACT is a great example of MITRE's FFRDC role," Aukema says. "On this project, we've really served as a bridge between the technical community and the business community within the IRS. We understand their issues from a business perspective and from a whole enterprise perspective, and we're using this knowledge to come up with the right solutions."
—by Maria S. Lee