Few taxpayers opt to videoconference with the IRS

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The Internal Revenue Service has pilot-tested several high-definition videoconferencing options for taxpayers to talk with IRS employees face-to-face about their tax questions and problems, but the number of taxpayers who use the so-called Virtual Service Delivery technology has been declining for several years, according to a new report.

The report, from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, noted that the IRS has piloted “virtual” service options at three business units: Field Assistance, the Office of Appeals and the Taxpayer Advocate Service. The Virtual Service Delivery, or VSD, technology, gives taxpayers the chance to interact with IRS employees by computer at 47 different locations. Taxpayers can go to certain IRS offices or community partners, like a public library, and get assistance from a remote IRS employee through a virtual workstation. The IRS is also piloting technology that enables its employees to interact virtually face to face with taxpayers from their own homes or personal devices.

The IRS has struggled to define the goal of the VSD program and quantify how effective the program really is, though the service shows promise, according to the report. TIGTA used the equipment in nine locations and found it to be high quality and user friendly. The videoconferencing technology simulates the experience of an in-person, face-to-face interaction with an IRS customer service rep.

However, fewer than 2,700 taxpayers actually used the service in fiscal year 2017. There are several reasons why, TIGTA found. First, some VSD sites are actually located close by the Taxpayer Assistance Centers where taxpayers can physically meet with IRS employees. IRS research indicates that taxpayers prefer to visit a Taxpayer Assistance Center instead of using videoconferencing when one of the offices is nearby. Second, none of the IRS business units routinely advertise or promote VSD, so it’s likely that most taxpayers don’t even know it’s an option. Finally, the VSD program is limited in the kinds of services it offers. For example, taxpayers can’t use videoconferencing to apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number or resolve potential identity theft issues because the IRS doesn’t allow the virtual authentication of identification documents (even though federal government guidelines permit virtual authentication).

The technology comes at a cost, whether it’s being used or not. According to the IRS, it has spent approximately $5.3 million since fiscal year 2011 on the VSD program and will spend another $1.7 million through fiscal year 2020 on maintenance and customer support contracts.

“Absent significant changes in oversight and management, the VSD program will likely continue to reach a very limited audience,” said the report.

Nevertheless, the IRS is undeterred on continuing to develop the technology. Both the IRS Field Assistance group and the Office of Appeals are piloting web-based videoconferencing software that could enable taxpayers to interact with IRS employees from their own homes. However, neither business unit has developed criteria to determine whether the pilot tests have been successful, and participation in the testing has been limited.

TIGTA made several recommendations to improve the VSD program, suggesting the IRS develop goals and performance measures and a process to identify VSD locations that align with the goals of the program. TIGTA also recommended that the IRS raise public awareness to increase taxpayers’ knowledge of that the program even exists. Finally, TIGTA suggested the IRS determine the feasibility of developing procedures that would enable taxpayers to verify their identities through the VSD program. The IRS agreed with four of the recommendations and generally agreed with the other recommendation.

“As technology within the marketplace advances, we are embarking on piloting the next level of virtual service to customers,” wrote Kenneth C. Corbin, commissioner of the IRS’s Wage and Investment Division, in response to the report. “Where the current VSD equipment is stationary and requires a taxpayer to come to it, web-based video conference software will permit face-to-face interactions between the IRS and taxpayers through secure videoconferencing connections. As systemic dependencies are resolved, such as implementing encrypted secure messaging between the IRS and taxpayer email accounts to deliver hyperlinks to the scheduled service appointments, the VSD program will permit taxpayers to obtain assistance from us using their own computers or mobile devices without needing to leave their home, office or other location. It is anticipated this will appreciably advance the service the IRS is able to provide to those taxpayers whose situations do not lend themselves to existing online or toll-free self-service options.”

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