The Internal Revenue Service took a bold step for a government agency and released a smartphone application. Titled IRS2Go, the app lets users check their tax return status. But IRS2Go’s relatively limited functionality signals a future challenge for federal agencies releasing iPhone/Android applications: how do you give people the functionality they want while still complying with a variety of outdated rules that govern agencies’ interactions with the public.
IRS2Go is a handsome piece of work that lets users check the status of their federal income tax refund, receive daily tax tips and follow the Twitter feed of the IRS, @IRSNews. That is, however, nothing that cannot be accomplished on the IRS’ website — but the application does help give a handy public relations boost to a sometimes beleaguered government agency.
One thing the application does not do is to allow users to enter tax information via their smartphones or to access tax law information on their handsets. While the wisdom of anyone attempting to enter their taxes on an iPhone is debatable, it is important to note that the IRS was constrained in their options by a series of agreements and government regulations. Software developers working on tax preparation software are subject to a byzantine series of regulations that effect everything from credit card processing to file specifications and XML schemas. The best known of these, the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, last had its protocol specifications updated in 2005 — well before the rise of smartphones.
Questions submitted to the national media relations office of the IRS by Talking Points Memo about the development process behind the software and whether coding was done in-house or through an external vendor were not answered by press time. However, the IRS offered a prepared statement touting the functionality of the “first release of the IRS2Go app,” implying future functionality would be added to the application.
While IRS2Go is not a game-changer, its functionality is a step in the right direction. Paul Caron, a prominent tax scholar and D. & L. Straus Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at Pepperdine University, said “I think the IRS is to be commended for being at the forefront of government agencies in employing new social media to communicate with its customers (taxpayers) [and] not just the new iPhone/Android app, but also its use of Twitter, iTunes and YouTube. The IRS was wise not to go the Facebook route - easy fodder for comedians to poke fun of anyone wanting to be the IRS’s ‘friend.’”
Several other government agencies have also developed smartphone applications. The United States government’s portal, USA.gov, features an app store with 18 different iPhone/Android applications available at press time. These include MyTSA and an Alternative Fueling Station Locator provided by the Department of Energy.