Making Paperwork Less Taxing

Runaway complexity

Almost three decades after we created the 1040EZ tax form, the IRS approached us with another major challenge: letter proliferation.

The IRS sends out more than 200,000,000 notices a year. A taxpayer can receive any one of over 1,000 different notices created by 120 different authors generated by more than 40 different systems. No wonder the public is often confused—and frustrated.

Auditing the auditors

Siegel+Gale started by doing a thorough audit of all letters sent by the IRS. From this, we realized that the differences among many letters reflected internal IRS structure, as opposed to taxpayer needs. Yet, despite the systems-driven structure, letter production did not take advantage of existing technological capabilities. And from a communications perspective, many letters lacked a logical framework and a consistent voice.

Determining that just 37 letters could serve as models for 70% of all correspondence, we simplified these 37 as our starting point to combat the complexity. Testing our models against the original documents in our proprietary SimplicityLab™, we found significant increases in both comprehension and perception of simplicity. The positive research results were our green light to proceed with developing a modular document-generation system that standardizes layout, navigation, content and tone of voice—ensuring the consistency and comprehensibility of all letters.

Millions of letters requesting billions of dollars

The effects of the simplified letters don’t stop at improved clarity and perceptions; they go on to advance the cash flow of tax revenue as well. SimplicityLab testing revealed significant increases in the number of taxpayers who said they would either pay the IRS in full or pay more quickly. As the simplified versions continue to roll out after the initial release in January 2010, we expect to see that clearer, simpler communications can truly change behavior.

In the end, the real beneficiary is the U.S. taxpayer, who now receives IRS communications that are easier to understand and simpler to use.

This simplification project was honored with both the 2011 Grand Prize ClearMark Award and the Revised Document: Public Sector Award from the Center for Plain Language.

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