IRS wins award for Clarity—yes, the real IRS
by Irene Etzkorn
Last night, the Internal Revenue Service won a Grand Prize ClearMark Award from the Center for Plain Language for the best revision of a document by a public sector agency. No small feat since there were dozens of worthy entries and the judges evaluated the submissions on a host of usability criteria.
Looking at the before and after, you can quickly see that the letter is much clearer but what isn't evident is the magnitude of the change and how mammoth the task was for the IRS. This is just one of a thousand categories of letters and notices that are sent to taxpayers each year, requesting money or information—200,000,000 pieces of correspondence in total. Using a writing style that followed the mantra—Inform, Respect and Suggest—the IRS also applied a consistent framework and clear design that allows taxpayers to quickly determine the purpose of the notice and the action required. Once the new notices were validated with taxpayers to ensure that they lived up to their promise of clarity, the hard work really began.
Much like turning around an ocean liner, the IRS had to reprogram over 40 systems and change its writing process—tasks that involved hundreds of people focused on a goal of helping taxpayers understand their responsibilities. However, within one year, new notices started to reach the public and now 80 million of them are in circulation. The key was an attitude that asked IRS employees to find out how the changes could be made rather than focus on why things couldn't be done.
If the IRS can simplify hundreds of millions of letters, banks, insurance companies and electronics manufacturers should be able to do no less.
Siegel+Gale is proud to have worked with the IRS on this initiative. Click on the links below to view the documents before and after the revisions.
Irene Etzkorn is the executive director, simplification for the Siegel+Gale New York office.