The IRS Gets an Electronic Image Overhaul
isitors to the new IRS Web site may be forgiven for thinking they may have typed in the wrong address when its home page pops up on their screen. The hip, slick, breezy site is hardly what you'd expect from one of the stodgiest agencies.
"It's no secret that next to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the IRS is probably the least liked federal agency," says Steven Shaffer, whose firm, Websys Inc., was hired by the IRS to develop and manage the site. "It's not like they're the Department of Puppy Dogs. We set out to change that."
And how. A quick click on the home page (http://www.irs.ustreas.gov) leads the user to an electronic publication, The Digital Daily, crammed with graphics and breezily written text. The agency bills it as "the fastest, easiest tax publication on the planet." Even the little icons directing users to various areas of the site are cute and clever: a pair of eyeglasses for the search function, a Band-Aid for the help section and a comfy easy chair to send users home to the front page.
Previously, the IRS did have a rather stodgy little page that resided within the Treasury Department's site. But last year agency officials decided they wanted to update their image and provide a broader range of services online. The new site went up in early January.
So far, reaction has been intense, but mixed. By early February, the IRS was getting upwards of 600,000 hits a day on the site and it had garnered awards from several organizations that rate Web pages. But some users were a little overwhelmed by its intense graphics, which can take awhile for those with modems at 14,400 bps and slower to download (a text-only version of the site is also available). "People either really, really like it or really, really hate it," says Shaffer. There's little question, though, that a lot of users are finding useful information at the site. In early February, before this year's tax season had heated up, users were downloading about 40,000 forms a day.
In addition to making its forms and publications available on the site, the IRS provides taxpayer information for businesses and individuals, a forum for taxpayer help and a section called "Tax Regs in English." The front page of The Digital Daily also contains regularly rotating feature stories on agency initiatives. In late January and early February for example, the agency was promoting TeleFile, its pilot project allowing some taxpayers to file their returns over the phone.
Shaffer says IRS and Websys got the site up in about 90 days last year at a cost he characterizes as "under half a million dollars." Now Websys is managing the site under an ongoing contract with the agency. A team of about 15 people-split almost evenly between contractor personnel and IRS employees-works to keep it up-to-date.