IRS launching competition to redesign taxpayer experience

By Sally P. Schreiber, J.D.

The IRS announced that it will be launching a competition aimed at “civic-minded technologists, designers, and innovative thinkers” to improve taxpayers’ experience using the IRS website, which it said is one of the most visited government websites in the United States (Notice, 81 Fed. Reg. 15413 (March 22, 2016)).

The IRS notes that it makes a large amount of information available to taxpayers, but many do not know how to find it or use it; the agency acknowledges that much of the available information “can be incomprehensible to those who are not financial professionals.”

In recent years, the IRS has pursued a strategy of encouraging taxpayers to rely more on its online services. In 2013, the IRS.gov website received more than 456 million page views, according to the most recent IRS Oversight Board annual report. However, this strategy has been criticized by Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, who has warned that by expanding its online services, the IRS is putting taxpayer data at risk. (See previous coverage here.)

The IRS Oversight Board also reports that IRS.gov receives lower satisfaction scores than other federal government websites, and those scores have been trending downward. The IRS.gov satisfaction scores are also much lower than the satisfaction scores for internet retail sites and brokerage companies.

The competition—which the IRS is describing as a “crowdsourcing competition”—therefore asks participants to consider “How might we design, organize, and present tax information in a way that makes it easier for taxpayers to manage their taxpayer responsibilities, and to use their own taxpayer data to make informed and effective decisions about their personal finances?”

The competition begins with a kick-off event April 17 in Washington and ends May 10 at noon. (Participants are not required to attend the Washington event.)

Cash prizes, which range from $1,000 to $10,000, will be awarded for “Overall Design,” “Best Taxpayer Usefulness,” and “Best Financial Capability.” The prizes are funded by the Mortgage Bankers Association, which is co-sponsoring the competition, and will be paid by the IRS.

Participants are asked to submit designs that improve the “visual layout and style” of the information, make it easier for taxpayers to manage their responsibilities, and give taxpayers the ability to make informed and effective decisions about their personal finances.

Entries will be judged on the following criteria:

  • Overall appeal.
  • Taxpayer usefulness: Does it address the taxpayer’s responsibilities?
  • Financial capability: Does it make it easier for the taxpayer to make informed and effective decisions about his or her personal finances?
  • Visual hierarchy: Can the most important information be easily found?
  • Information density: Is it easy to digest the information that is presented?
  • Accessibility: Can a varied population make use of this document?

Although participants are not expected to write their own code, submissions should be able to be implemented using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The design must be built off the data fields found in the Tax Data Document (TDD), which will be posted on taxdesignchallenge.com by April 17. All submissions should be sent to that website as well.

The IRS Notice contains all the rules for who may participate, including a requirement that individuals be citizens or permanent residents of the United States and cannot be IRS or Mortgage Bankers Association employees, as well as other prohibited participants.

Sally P. Schreiber (sschreiber@aicpa.org) is a JofA senior editor. 

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