IRS told to set goals for improving phone service

The IRS must recruit and retain a talented workforce and develop strategic goals for its telephone service if it hopes to meet the demands of taxpayers, according to a new General Accounting Office report. The report criticized IRS for failing to establish long-term goals based on taxpayers' needs for its toll-free telephone service. Instead, the agency sets a funding level for its customer service workforce and then adjusts the level of service accordingly, said GAO. "Without a long-term, desired level-of-service goal, and plans to reach that goal over time, IRS lacks meaningful targets for managing call center performance and measuring improvement," said the report, "IRS Telephone Assistance: Opportunities to Improve Human Capital Management" (GAO-01-144). Since 1999, the agency's toll-free telephone service has provided tax assistance to people 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through 25 call centers across the country. Approximately 10,000 customer service representatives field questions from taxpayers on everything from tax law to refunds. But problems with training, recruiting and retaining customer service representatives plagued the six IRS call centers that GAO studied. The six evaluated call centers had a tough time hiring customer service representatives, due in part to the seasonal nature of the job. Typically, representatives get the most calls from January to June, the height of the tax season. Training employees and maintaining their proficiency at successfully answering customers' questions also proved difficult for the agency, as customer service representatives must be well-versed in a variety of tax topics. This is the second in a series of three reports on IRS' toll-free phone service. The first report (GAO/GGD-00-161), released in August 2000, looked at human capital practices in selected public and private call centers, and the third, expected later this year, will focus on the telephone service provided during the 2000 tax filing season. Although GAO praised the IRS for reducing the number of tax topics assigned to each customer service representative, and for providing "just-in-time" training for employees during fiscal 2000, the report said the agency has not adequately addressed skills gaps in representatives, or the alarming rate of attrition in its call center workforce. Four of the six sites studied had attrition rates in the double digits--with a high of 19 percent at one site. GAO recommended that the IRS establish long-term strategic goals for customer service based on taxpayers' needs, using the framework of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act. Other recommendations included periodic assessments of competency gaps in employees, relevant refresher training and a system for monitoring attrition at call centers. IRS Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti agreed with GAO's findings, providing a detailed list of how the agency plans to incorporate suggestions on recruiting and retaining employees and providing customer service based on taxpayer needs. In a letter to Michael Brostek, director of tax administration at GAO, Rossotti said his agency's strategic plan for fiscal 2002 will include a 74 percent level-of-service goal, with a long-term goal of 85 to 90 percent by fiscal 2003. The agency has also drafted an employee competency model that identifies the skills of a successful customer service representative. On the retention front, IRS has upgraded the customer service representative position from GS-7 to GS-8, and has created new jobs that provide career paths for those interested in advancing to upper-level positions within the agency. Rossotti also said the agency is pursuing more innovative recruitment strategies, including allowing people to apply for jobs as customer service representatives over the phone and reaching out to applicants through interactive kiosks.
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