Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Susan Smoter and George Coffin of the IRS talk about Portals and Content Management at NCC AIIM

George Coffin, Chief of the Public Portal Branch, opened his remarks by saying the IRS had only been in the web business a few years, having recently migrated from a dial-in bulletin board. The IRS public website needs to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Information must be available whenever the taxpayer requests it. There is a tremendous emphasis on security for obvious reasons.

There are three different portals. There is the public site where information can be anonymously requested. The IRS does not track visitors to its public site. There is a registered secure portal which is password protected, where taxpayers can request specific information on their return, such as the status of their refund. There is also an internal portal for IRS employees.

The IRS has introduced new services at its registered portal, including the ability to apply for an Employer Identification Number, free-file, e-file and a suite of e-services for tax preparers.

The key features of IRS web portal design are: role based design (based on user needs, not internal structure), search enhancements (Because users need to retrieve what they want when they want it, the IRS continuously improves its search engine.), key words on the home page (such as “the 1040” and “file an extension on April 14”), usability testing, and an advanced content management system to be sure that displayed information is current.

Coffin offered a glimpse of the site traffic on the IRS public site. There are 80,000 items, 39,000 static files, 24,000 HTML files, and 12,000 JSP files. The IRS is currently using Vignette (Congratulations Vignette!).

He listed the their key successes. The IRS implemented a decentralized content management application and created an organization to manage it. Two hundred and fifty users were trained, including authors, reviewers and publishers. Business rules and standards were established. They were able to improve content quality and establish a consistent look and feel for their web documents.

Coffin concluded his presentation with lessons learned. Pay attention to organizational readiness. Be careful of the URL format. Be sure to create forms for feedback. Address the taxonomy and metadata issues early. Implementation is a continuing effort.

Richard Barry asked if the IRS had a records management system to archive the website as changes are made and if its system is 5015 compliant. Coffin responded that there is a manual system for tracking the public site but not for the employee web portal.

Coffin concluded with a slide illustrating the day’s site traffic. The IRS was receiving 2,148 hits per second as of 4:15 PM, April 14.

Susan Smoter began her part of the presentation by saying she would not answer tax questions, “I do IT.” She asked if anyone had not heard of e-file; no one raised their hand. She was surprised, but given the number of IRS contractors in the audience, this was to be expected.

She showed a slide quoting from The Washington Post:

Taxpayers filed nearly 56 million returns electronically as of April 8, an 8 percent increase over 2004 figures. That translates to nearly two-thirds of all tax returns, the IRS said. Not only that, Uncle Sam's bean counters expect that this year will mark the first time that more than half of individual tax returns will be filed online. A lot of that is due to the Free File software, which the IRS said accepted more than 4 million tax returns as of April 6, an almost 45 percent increase over the number filed last year.

Referring to the Washington Post story, Smoter said, “I’ve only been in this town all my life, and I still believe what they tell me”. Here, there was general laughter, not a good sign for The Post.

Smoter showed a series of slides illustrating how paper returns are handled and offering a glimpse of the massive volume the IRS must deal with. Boxes of returns are sorted, and each return must be keypunched into the IRS system. Paper returns for individuals have a 21% error rate, business returns 13% and e-filing 1%. Processing paper returns requires 40 days, e-filing 21 days. Obviously the IRS is eager to encourage e-filing.

Free-filing is available to taxpayers who meet certain criteria. The IRS worked with a consortium of partners to develop this service.

Smoter said of the IRS, “We are all civil servants; we’re here to serve the people.” She went on to joke, “I’m from the IRS and I’m here to help”, to general laughter.

Smoter began to talk about future developments for IRS web portals. The IRS plans in terms of enterprise portal business strategy, “because it is not about technology.” Their strategy includes better channel management and the use of existing structures to capitalize on investments. Here, she pointed out that tightly coupled structures are desirable for good data management. Smoter talked about the importance of chunking, “so you can throw away old chunks and insert new ones.”

Smoter talked about the importance the IRS places on its partners, the software providers who, as Smoter put it, “are our front end.”

She listed the benefits of an enterprise strategy: the ability to develop once and reuse, composite applications, the ability to store once and use many, and transparency. Here, Smoter threw the floor open for questions.

The first question was about personalization. Smoter was emphatic that the IRS would never use personalization. “We know our customers don’t want us to know who they are.” (general laughter) She went on to say that multilingual web pages are at the top of IRS priorities.

The second questioner wanted to know what was being done to make sure that the IRS did not turn into another ChoicePoint. Smoter said the IRS is very concerned with protecting taxpayer security and privacy. The IRS is in the process of examining what Smoter described as the entire “tax ecosystem.” They are reviewing requirements for how IRS partners handle the information they receive from taxpayers.

Smoter said that, according to Gartner, XBRL will be the business reporting language. The European Union is adopting XBRL. The IRS is looking at it.

The last questioner wanted to know if Smoter could “tell us about procurement terms and planning.” “No!” responded Smoter, but she went on to say that they had a Request for Information out, and “I hope you’re all reading it.”

A record e-filing season, David Perera, Federal Computer Week

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