Taxpayers and tax practitioners vising the IRS online will find a redesigned IRS.gov website, which is scheduled to go live on Aug. 30; however, the IRS also announced that it is taking down several of its online services during the Labor Day weekend.
Shutdown of web services
Certain services will not be available on the IRS website from approximately 1 a.m. EDT on Thursday until noon on Tuesday. The IRS says this outage is necessary so it can replace and upgrade a computing center electrical plant.
IRS services that will be unavailable include:
- IRS phone personnel will not be able to access or update taxpayer account information during Thursday and Friday; after 4 p.m. EDT on Friday, the IRS toll-free number will be down.
- Users will not be able to apply for an employer identification number online.
- The online payment agreement application will be down.
- Help on notices associated with a balance due, open correspondence exam issues, or notices related to liens and levies will not be available.
- The online Federal Application for Student Aid form will not automatically populate with required tax return information.
The IRS says the following services will remain available during the outage:
- The Electronic Federal Tax Payment System;
- The Interactive Tax Assistant;
- Taxpayer Assistance Centers (open regular hours); and
- The practitioner e-help desk and Practitioner Priority Service.
The IRS is moving its IRS.gov website to a new platform and adding new features and a new navigation structure to the site in an attempt to keep up with the growing demand for online services. The upgrades are part of a planned 10-year, $320 million overhaul of IRS web services.
The front page of the site will not look very different, but it will contain several new items. The IRS last launched a redesigned home page on Sept. 27, 2011, but that redesign affected only the home page; now changes will be implemented throughout the site.
The IRS says it has analyzed IRS.gov usage to determine which pages are most visited and has modified the site navigation to make it easier to get to the information users look for most: information about filing, payments, refunds, credits, and forms. The site will also feature a consistent footer throughout.
Making it easier for taxpayers to find information on the website is critical, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), because it reduces the number of phone calls the IRS must deal with. Handling phone calls has been an IRS weak point, as noted by the National Taxpayer Advocate, who has reported that in FY 2011 the IRS could answer only 70% of the phone calls it received.
Use of the IRS website has grown steadily in recent years. In 2007, according to the GAO, there were 168 million visits, 121 million downloads, and 106 million searches on the site. In 2011, those numbers had grown to 250 million visits, 166 million downloads, and 312 million searches.
One feature that is not being improved at this time is the search function, although the IRS says it expects the search function “to evolve as the site is used more and more” and that it will “better tag and target content to deliver the most relevant and meaningful search results.” In a December 2011 report to Congress, the GAO noted that taxpayers have trouble finding the information they want on the site.
Another feature that is not being added is allowing taxpayers to access their account information online. This was a missing item the GAO noted when it studied the IRS website last year. The GAO also reported that some state revenue departments allow taxpayers to make payments and respond to certain notices online, but these services are not included in the IRS website redesign.
Finally, the GAO criticized the fact that the IRS has committed money to upgrading the website without having a definite strategy in place. According to the report, the IRS “does not have concrete plans that define what additional online services the new website will ultimately provide and how much the services will cost.”
Previous redesigns of IRS.gov were launched in 2002 and 2006. In 2006, tax forms were integrated with the other content, so that they appeared in search results when users searched the site.
—Alistair M. Nevius (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the JofA’s editor-in-chief, tax.