The IRS’s “Where’s My Refund?” Tool Reflects Larger Issues with Public-Facing U.S. Government Websites

Eric Egan April 15, 2022
April 15, 2022

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Many government websites aren’t mobile-friendly, easily navigable, or effectively utilizing data. The IRS’ “Where’s My Refund?” tool has all of these problems. These issues are emblematic of federal government websites in general, namely offering a poor customer experience that lacks easy access to information and services that users expect from modern websites. Websites are the new face of government, and federal agencies should take immediate steps to improve public-facing sites by overhauling the procurement process, sticking to designated federal website guidelines and standards, leveraging tech-savvy resources from within government, and ultimately holding themselves accountable to “make the damn websites work.” 

Underwhelming, if not just plain bad, user experience has plagued federal websites for years. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) shared a report pointing out issues with the IRS’ “Where’s My Refund?” tool—the website where taxpayers can track the refund status for their latest return. According to GAO’s findings, the 20-year-old tool “provides limited information on refund status and delays.” The tool is not mobile-friendly, so the IRS encourages users to download the IRS2Go app, which likely results in many users simply giving up. In response to the GAO report, the IRS has since agreed to modernize the tool, and there’s evidence the agency is trying to become more tech-forward overall, but the fact that the IRS didn’t prioritize the modernization of this heavily used, citizen-facing tool reflects the general plodding pace of IT modernization in government. 

The quality of the average government website reflects a disconnect between frequent statements in recent years by leaders in the federal government that website modernization is a top priority. The Biden-Harris President’s Management Agenda Vision emphasizes digital customer experience, as does a December 2021 executive order. The American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration’s effort to provide relief to citizens and businesses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, injected $1 billion into the Technology Modernization Fund, a revolving fund created by Congress to help modernize federal government information technology (IT) systems, in part to fund projects focused on “public-facing digital services.” Not to mention legislation in prior years like the “Connected Government Act of 2018” and the “21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act of 2018” that focus, respectively, on designing mobile-friendly federal websites and improving government customers’ digital experience. Why, then, are federal agencies failing to efficiently modernize their public-facing websites? 

For one, the federal government’s IT procurement process is slow and complex. Agencies continue to accrue technical debt—the hidden cost of maintaining existing software—dealing with outdated websites while an inefficient procurement process prevents them from operating in a quickly evolving IT environment. For living assets like websites, agencies need to adopt continuous development practices that keep websites up-to-date and user-friendly. 

The federal procurement process also favors established contractors over newer, cutting-edge technology companies. When procurement boxes out certain private sector partners, agencies are left with inflexible contracts and outdated products, missing the latest best-in-class technology. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should revisit the federal IT procurement process to offer agencies access to the best products and to support faster development for website modernization. 

Furthermore, agencies should take a “whole of government” approach to modernizing federal websites by adhering to designated federal policies and standards from digital.gov that specify guidelines around accessibility, design, and customer experience. Continued investment in initiatives like login.gov—a single sign-on service across multiple federal websites—and government-wide data sharing also promote an integrated customer experience when interfacing with the federal government. 

Agencies should also leverage resources from the General Services Administration (GSA) and OMB to successfully deliver website modernization efforts. This includes 18F within GSA’s Technology Transformation Services, a team of technologists that help other agencies with software development, and the U.S. Digital Service, OMB’s rotating tactical tech team that supports IT modernization efforts. These teams have hands-on expertise with the landscape of federal websites and can ensure an agency’s website follows federal standards and guidelines. Utilizing these resources resulted in the surprisingly successful covidtests.gov and covid.gov rollouts.  

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, agency CIOs and IT leaders need to fully embrace developing customer web experiences that deliver value to individuals and businesses relying on agencies for public services. At the moment, customer experience is competing with many different priorities, including cybersecurity, cloud migration, IT workforce, and more. As customer satisfaction with federal government services hits all-time lows, federal leaders should give website modernization a much higher priority. 

Verint, an analytics and market research company, performs biannual customer satisfaction rankings for government digital experiences—the IRS ranks near-bottom and bottom for desktop and mobile CX, respectively. The Federal CIO Council, OMB, or GAO should leverage this type of research and formalize improvement plans for the worst federal agencies in terms of customer web experience. Additionally, Congress should hold oversight hearings on poorly performing agencies. Maybe that will finally give the issue the attention it deserves.

For some time, websites have been the most common method for individuals and businesses to interact with the federal government. Much like investing in physical assets so the public doesn’t walk into a decrepit office building to renew their driver’s license, agencies should continuously and efficiently prioritize investment in public-facing websites to offer the best customer experience possible. If that’s too much, how about just being average?

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The IRS’s “Where’s My Refund?” Tool Reflects Larger Issues with Public-Facing U.S. Government Websites