To improve online customer experience, IRS is thinking more like a startup

For all its concerns about aging IT infrastructure, the Internal Revenue Service, in one of its newer office spaces, is thinking more like a startup.

As part of its ongoing effort to make more of its taxpayer services available online, the IRS’ Web Apps Collaboration Center has launched at least one web application every nine weeks.

Since November 2016, when the web apps team moved into their new collaborative workspace, the close-knit corps of more than 100 IRS employees and contractors has become a one-stop shop for improving IRS’ customer experience online.

Since moving into their new office space, the IRS web apps team has helped generate more than $1 billion in online payments and more than 4 million unique hits on IRS.gov.

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The tech-driven tiger team stands in contrast to some of the IRS’ recent headlines about its aging IT infrastructure. Former IRS commissioner John Koskinen once quipped that the agency continues to run applications that have been running since the John F. Kennedy administration.

Like many of the new tech startups in government — such as the General Service’s Administration’s 18F and the White House’s U.S. Digital Service — the IRS web apps team prefers an agile workflow.

Rather than developing, testing and launching all of the aspects of a new online tool in one shot, Ramona Henby, the director of web applications program management, says the team focuses on getting new applications online, one piece at a time.

“In agile model, we get together, they come up with an idea. We start doing it together. We start building it, testing it, and they get to see it on a quite frequent basis, like every two weeks,” Henby said.

That agile process, she said, has allowed more room for feedback before an entire project is completed.

“Every nine weeks, instead of building the whole account, we can provide small pieces of capability. It’s called agile because we can pivot, and that pivoting means business decides that’s not what I want, and we adjust,” Henby said.

Under the traditional “waterfall” model, IRS management would come up with a number of requirements of what they want to see in an application before turning it over to the IT team.

Approximately 18 months later, the IT staff would come back with a product that meets the agreed-upon specifications.

“That product could be what the business requested, and all the requirements, or they could get it and go, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s really not what I was thinking I was going to get,'” Henby said.

Under an agile model, Henby said the web apps team can make changes to projects much more easily after each two-week sprint.

When generating new ideas for online tools to develop, Henby said the team tries to frame the benefit from the taxpayer’s perspective.

“We’re trying to shift the paradigm to take every view that we have from a taxpayer’s perspective,” she said. “What does a taxpayer want to see? What information do they want to have?”

Linda Terlecki, a senior IT manager, says the web apps team pitches each idea for a new tool as a “story” from the taxpayer’s perspective.

“A story might be, I’m a taxpayer and I want to see my balance due for last year,” Terlecki said.

Those stories are then prioritized against other stories with input from leadership. Once a project is in the team’s queue, the team then slices each project into two-week sprints.

Simple web tools win over taxpayers

In many cases, some of the simplest online tools prove to be the most popular. That’s long been the case for the IRS’ “Where’s My Refund” application, which tracks the status of a taxpayer’s income tax refund.

Linda Gilpin, the associate CIO of the IRS’ Enterprise Program Management Office, described a more recent development — a tool that displays what balance, if any, taxpayers owe the IRS.

Despite the simplicity of the idea, she said the tool has gotten plenty of attention.

“All that was there was, ‘This is your balance due.’ Now initially, the business was like, what value would that add? And guess what? All we did was put out balance due and we had thousands of taxpayers going ‘I just want to know what I owe. I just want to pay it,” Gilpin said.

Following the launch of the balance-due application, the IRS saw an uptick in online payments.

“This is a great example of doing it in small chunks. Each chunk has value, but of course the more you add, the more the value, but you don’t wait to get any value until you have everything,” Gilpin said.

Gina Garza, the IRS’ chief information officer, said the balance-tracking tool has proven effective against a surge in over-the-phone tax scams.

“This was a way to let taxpayers go and check to see, did they really owe money, or was it a fraud call that they were getting? And so we saw a lot of value to putting this out with just that information,” she said.

Not in ‘cubicle land’ anymore

The 5,000-square foot open office plan that houses the web apps team offers many of the amenities of tech-focused collaborative workspaces like WeWork — except for the ping-pong table. And the beer cooler.

“From day one, when you walk in here, from a psychological perspective, you get a wide-open, 5,000-square foot space, and you’re not in cubicle land,” Paul Woodall, a supervisory IT project manager, said. “You’re not closed in. So if you’ve got the freedom to be able to go over and have discussions, it lends to and enhances the actual creativity.”

Before the web apps teams moved in, the IRS used the space as an IT lab, where technicians would provide help desk functions or test equipment.

“Our challenge was to be able to fit as many developers and testers and FTEs in this space, but still be able to function and hold meetings,” Woodall said.

In order to hold breakout sessions, the workspace contains a number of glass-enclosed conference rooms, nicknamed “fishbowls.”

“From a program management perspective, this is a one-stop shop if you have questions, if you have issues, if you have tasking that needs to be done for the product, you just go from pod to pod,” Woodall said.

For extra privacy, groups can flip a switch and have the windows turn opaque.

“We had to set up different areas to where people could still have privacy and they weren’t bothered by noise and other conversations that are going on,” Woodall said.