Taxpayers rated the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) ability to provide clear and easy-to-use forms and instructions among the lowest of 27 indicators of service in 1993. Due to continuing concerns about unclear forms and instructions, GAO was asked to determine (1) whether and how often IRS tests the clarity of new and revised individual income tax forms and instructions; (2) the benefits, if any, of testing forms and instructions for clarity prior to their use; and (3) whether any factors limit IRS's ability to do more tests and if so, how they can be addressed.
IRS used taxpayers and its employees to test revisions to five individual income tax forms and instructions from July 1997 through June 2002. According to IRS officials, they revised about 450 tax forms and instructions in 2001, many of which were for individual income tax returns. Testing forms and instructions can help ensure their clarity and thereby benefit taxpayers and IRS by, for instance, reducing taxpayers' time to understand and complete tax forms, reducing calls to IRS for assistance, and reducing taxpayer errors. Due to similar benefits, federal agencies we contacted that routinely collect information from the public test their questionnaires. Quantifying benefits due to testing is difficult, but IRS's experience in revising and testing Earned Income Credit and Child Tax Credit forms and instructions suggests that benefits of testing in some cases can considerably exceed the cost of testing. If taxpayers who did their own tax returns needed 1 less minute to understand these two credits due to testing, their time saved, valued at the minimum wage, would be worth $1.2 million; IRS's contracting cost for the two tests was $56,000. Although IRS officials recognized that testing could be beneficial, they cited tight time frames and constrained resources as limiting their ability to do more tests. While IRS faces time constraints when making some changes to forms and instructions due to the passage of new laws, not all changes are time constrained. IRS does not have procedures specifying which versions of draft forms and instructions should be tested with taxpayers or when in its annual forms development process testing should occur. Resources currently available for testing are limited but the office responsible for testing has not developed data on missed testing opportunities and has limited data on the benefits that have been realized when testing occurred. IRS's planning and budgeting process uses such data to support resource allocation decisions.
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