What the IRS taught me about e-gov

Stephen H. Holden

While working at the IRS, I learned a few things about electronic government that I will share with you in this and subsequent columns. Here are my first four lessons learned:

  • Citizens are ambivalent. New survey data from the Council for Excellence in Government makes it clear that the public is intrigued by e-gov but generally unmoved. The IRS' focus group research found that although most taxpayers are interested in the concept of transacting electronically, most prefer to download and print forms for subsequent filling in and mailing.

    Remember that most readers of GCN are not typical taxpayers. We are technology freaks, or, as marketeers call it, early adopters. Whatever your agency's mission, be sure to survey your customers. Don't be guilty of the hubris that you know them without asking them how they feel and what they want.

  • Your customers need to know the benefits of e-gov, so promote them. Just because you believe e-gov is good for your customers, don't presume that they will. Promote e-government in terms that are consistent with the interests of your customers.

    Be cautious about promoting e-gov as something good for the agency. Your customers probably won't care. Worse, that knowledge could backfire. For instance, the IRS has market research indicating some taxpayers will go out of their way to file on paper if they believe online filing is good for the IRS.

  • Distribution channels can be a hidden asset. Like many career civil servants, I didn't really need to know much about distribution channels. Eventually I learned that organizations'including government agencies'can distribute products and services directly or indirectly through intermediaries. For instance, the IRS can accept returns directly from filers or from professional tax preparers, who file more than half of all individual tax returns and an even greater proportion of business filings.

  • The IRS' situation isn't unique. Lots of cottage industries and big businesses have sprouted over the years to help insulate citizens from the complexity of government rules and regulations. Take, for example, the service organizations that help veterans apply and appeal for benefits before the Veterans Affairs Department.

    The implications are twofold. One, don't assume you are dealing directly with all your customers. In fact your customers may have a much stronger and trusted relationship with your distributor than with you as a public agency.

    Second, don't assume that your distributors or the intermediaries between you and your customers have the same characteristics. The intermediaries are likely more knowledgeable and more stable in their relationship with you, and potentially more techno-savvy, than individual customers or citizens.

  • Partnership cuts both ways. Once you survey your distribution channel landscape and find potential distributors, several interesting options surface. If you adopt a private-sector mind-set about distributors, they become part of your value chain instead of merely cranky intermediaries you must regulate. You may have been overlooking interests you and another set of players have in common.

    Such partnership doesn't change the fact that an agency still must play a regulatory role and ultimately look out for the broader public interest. Still, the good news is that you may have partners who can help you put a more user-friendly face on your program.

    Such partners may be able to add a Web front end to a program, the way the tax preparation software industry did for filing income taxes. Just don't presume they are in the market out of the goodness of their hearts.

    Private-sector organizations, including not-for-profits, typically have different agendas than the agencies they work with. Having a motive of profit or advocacy doesn't make them bad. It just means that, even as partners, you and they may have as many conflicting as shared interests.

  • Stephen H. Holden, a former federal employee, is assistant professor in the Information Systems Department of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. E-mail him at [email protected].


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