“Your IRS Wait Time is 3 Hours” Is Lean Possible in Government?

April 14, 2017 Emily Price

The story of how the IRS embraced Lean Startup practices and built an app citizens craved.

Every call to the IRS, no matter what the reason, has one distinct thing in common: you’re going to be on hold forever. In 2014, the Internal Revenue Service received a whopping 200,000 calls each month, according to Andrea Schneider, Acting Director of Product Management at the IRS, in a 2015 presentation. Many of these calls that simply went unanswered, were to ask one simple question: what’s my balance?

While you might wonder, “Why don’t they just build an app to check your balance online?,” the answer is considerably more complicated. Many government services are still working the same way they did during their pre-internet days. In fact, the core software the IRS uses to process tax returns was built during the Kennedy administration.

So what’s a government agency to do when it has a pressing problem that software could solve, but a painfully outdated and slow bureaucratic process to get there? Though speeding up the process may be out of their hands, building the right software is very much in their control. And more and more agencies are achieving this through lean principles.

Creating Efficiency in a World of Red Tape

At its core, lean methodology advocates learning from real people before building and deploying software. “Our users don’t care about what features our sites have; they care about what they can accomplish with them,” said Nick Brethauer, a UX researcher at 18F, the General Services Administration (GSA) office tasked with improving how government serves the public through technology. “Lean product design forces us to check, as we build each piece, how it works and what it accomplishes.”

Within the government, lean takes more work — unlike private companies, agencies must design accessible products for all users’ needs and issues from Version 1.0 — but it’s possible. And the stakes are high: building software is expensive, and the U.S. government has many layers to navigate when it comes to budgeting for, designing, testing and implementing new technology — no matter how minor. When agencies learn insights quickly and efficiently build the right software, there’s massive taxpayer value to be created.

IRS Headquarters in Washington, DC. Photo via Wikipedia.

Currently, government agencies have to plan for budget requests about two years in advance. Two years. That means you might be asking for the equivalent of an iPhone 4, but you can’t get the money for it until the iPhone 7 has been released. In many ways, the speed that technology is changing is part of what’s slowing its adoption down at a government level.

Assuming an agency is able to get funding, traditionally, the first step is collecting the requirements of the software. However, there is often little to no collaboration between the IT department and the business unit requesting the app on what is and isn’t actually possible. By the time IT actually starts building out a piece of software, it’s now been four years since the request has been made.

Creating the right software is paramount, because starting over could add years to a project. When you’re the only game in town and working with taxpayer money, you also have literally millions of people to answer to. Millions of people that are going to have everything to say about your final product, but might not be there for its development.

Looking Outside the IRS Walls

Meanwhile, the calls kept coming into the IRS by the thousands. To get the online portal built –correctly — the IRS looked to lean methodology.

“We see a lot of organizations like the IRS turn to agile to help solve their biggest challenges. Unfortunately, agile is not a silver bullet,” says Pivotal Labs’ Lauren Gilchrist. “Agile often means that you can deliver software faster, but Lean is what gives you the confidence that what you are building is actually useful and valuable to your end users.”

One of the big elements of lean methodology is to determine what in your plan might be an assumption rather than a fact and then come up with a way to test those theories before fully building out a product. That way you’re building something you know people want and need, rather then wasting time and energy — and in this case tax dollars. Traditionally, the IRS employees were determining what taxpayers needed internally, and thinking about presenting the product in such a way that made sense to those who worked at the IRS and knew tax laws in and out, not your average American. This was a considerable shift in thinking at the IRS.

For the new portal, the IRS had actual taxpayers use a demo of the app and got feedback before writing the code. It was also able to troubleshoot things that confused customers before actually building the product, with the technical, design and business staff wall working together to solve. That meant that when it finally made it the coding stage, the IRS knew it was building something not only the public wanted, but would be able to understand. The whole idea was to lower the walls between all those lengthy approval steps between departments and work together rather than separately. In the case of the IRS, it worked.

Creating paper prototypes are a lean practice. Photo via 18F’s guide to Lean Product Design.

After its initial soft launch of an online Account in November 2016, the IRS team continued to examine if it was building the right tools for taxpayers. They wanted to ensure that the features they were adding to the online Account provided significant value to taxpayers. They continued down the path of prototyping and testing before building, and have increased the feature offering, following lean principles.

While the product is still new and continues to be considered a soft launch, taxpayers have initiated over 400,000 sessions and made over $100M in payments after viewing their balance.

Lean is Catching On

Lean principles have also been used to help other government agencies, including the EPA and FDA, and advocates for its use are growing in number.

Governments around the world are leaning into lean. The U.K. Government Digital Service just celebrated its fifth year of “building and supporting services that put the user first,” and just launched an aggressive three-year plan to transform government services. In an age where smartphone adoption is at an all-time high, and the internet has become ubiquitous with how we live, good government software is more important than ever. Lean could be just what the government needs to ensure it’s putting its best foot forward, but it doesn’t replace software development best practices.

One may be surprised to learn Healthcare.gov was built utilizing lean principles. The site, plagued with technical issues and oft cited as one of the Obama administration’s biggest missteps, was launched in just 90 days and cost considerably less than other similarly-sized government projects. Regular citizens tested the site during the building process, providing insight into what users wanted to know about healthcare and policies, and designers updated parts of the site to reflect their feedback. Unfortunately, internal communication for the project didn’t run quite as smoothly, and the excellent research gave way to software development mismanagement.

Before its launch, an outside consultant warned the website was not ready for the amount of traffic it would receive. While the then-Health and Human Services Secretary hired another consultant to look into ways to improve the website’s management, that consultant’s findings were never actually shared with the technical staff that was working on the site. It was a classic case of the right hand not talking to the left, and with disastrous results.

We’ve seen that lean is not only possible, but often successful, in government, but it requires a commitment to collaboration and evidence-based decision making that government structures don’t naturally support. “Government culture fosters the subject matter expert mentality, but strong opinions can lead to stalemates, shutdowns and lack of action.” Gilchrist said. “It’s important as a team to combat this mentality — acting as scientists instead of experts — by turning all conversations back to evidence.”

The United States is currently investing millions in new IT solutions*, and while we’ll likely never see software and technology in government agencies move at quite the speed we do in the private sector, the IRS project is living proof that through some innovative solutions it can create a much better solution.

*Note: Since taking office, Trump has suggested he might cut IT spending.

Change is the only constant, so individuals, institutions, and businesses must be Built to Adapt. At Pivotal, we believe change should be expected, embraced and incorporated continuously through development and innovation, because good software is never finished.


“Your IRS Wait Time is 3 Hours” Is Lean Possible in Government? was originally published in Built to Adapt on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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