The Internal Revenue Service has begun offering self-assistance options at some of its offices that give taxpayers limited access to computers and phones so they can reach the IRS’s Web site and toll-free phone lines without waiting in a long line, but those efforts can still be frustrating.

In a new report, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration conducted tests of the self-service option at 15 Taxpayer Assistance Centers in eight states during the 2008 filing season after the IRS introduced it in October 2007. The IRS increased the service by 35 sites for the current filing season. While posing as taxpayers during visits to centers providing self-assistance, TIGTA auditors found that taxpayers seeking to use the IRS’s computers and phones had to answer a series of questions regarding the type of service requested and provide demographic information (such as age, income level, gender and zip code).

Taxpayers were also required to see an IRS employee to obtain printed copies of any forms or documents they printed from the computers. The self-assistance services were available only when IRS employees were allowed to screen taxpayers.

“While providing taxpayers the option to reduce waiting times by using IRS computers and phones appears to be a viable option for improving customer service, expanding self-assistance services without sufficient research and evaluation could result in taxpayer frustration instead of customer satisfaction,” said TIGTA Inspector General J. Russell George in a statement.

TIGTA recommended that the IRS delay expanding the research project until additional research is done; reduce the number of questions taxpayers are asked as a precondition to using the self-service option; consider making printers available for taxpayers to print copies of forms and return information; and explore the feasibility and benefit of providing the terminals for taxpayers’ use at all times.

The IRS agreed to improve its research process, reduce the number of questions it asks taxpayers prior to letting them access computers and telephones, and use IRS employees to quickly provide printed materials to taxpayers. The IRS did not concur with TIGTA’s recommendations to expand the number of activities taxpayers could perform on the computers or to let taxpayers use the computers at all times.

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