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By Steve Kelman

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Taxes and software, take two

tax form and keyboard

Those with good memories may remember my blog post from a year ago about my terrible experiences as a first-time user of H&R Block tax software. Due to a software glitch, I spent hours in live chat with a company representative, finally unable to get the problem solved and being forced to paper file because of overrides I had to do on their forms to make my return correct.

Guess what?

The same thing has happened to me again this year.

This year involved different glitches from last year, but otherwise the story was the same -- although I fortunately was able to e-file my federal return, I ended up having to file paper state returns for both Massachusetts and New York.

On the New York state return, the problem did not appear until the "verification" function at the end of the return, which is the last step before the return is ready to file. (H&R Block software includes both "errors," which must be corrected before the return can be filed, and "verifications," which they ask you to check to make sure your entry is correct, but which ostensibly do not have to be changed in order to file your return.) My return, however, would not continue without addressing the "verification" issue, even though the form being verified was in fact there and completed.

After nearly three hours of chatting with (and waiting for) technical support, I was told that the support personnel had no idea of why my problem was occurring, and that I would need to paper file.

My problem on my Massachusetts return was more straightforward, and took "only" 25 minutes to resolve. However, the resolution was that I discovered an uncommon but required form for my return was not available on the H&R Block software -- which again precluded me from e-filing an accurate state return.

These problems are eerily reminiscent -- actually worse -- than those I experienced last year. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. So I will switch to TurboTax next year, which a number of Facebook friends recommended when I did a brief post about my problem.

And there is a larger public management point in this tale of consumer woe. The virtue of H&R Block being a private company with competitors is that when I have this terrible experience, I can switch suppliers. A citizen who has a bad experience with a government agency does not normally have that option.

This suggests that, where possible -- and occasionally it is! -- citizens should have a choice of government providers, just like agency procurement customers can choose to use the General Services Administration, competing governmentwide contracts, their own agency's existing contracts, or do a new procurement themselves. And it also reminds us of the crucial importance of government's alternative to marketplace choices, which is communications from disgruntled citizens to members of Congress, for whom such "casework" is an important job for them and for better public management.

Posted on Apr 11, 2014 at 3:20 PM


Reader comments

Mon, Apr 14, 2014

You need to switch to Turbo Tax:-)

Mon, Apr 14, 2014 Harvey

I can relate. I have torn my hair out with Turbo Tax so don't get too excited. All it takes is to be one off with something like using a different depreciation mechanism because the common ones people use now like ACRS weren't available 20 years ago when you started filing. This causes the software to go crazy. This year with a simpler return (no depreciation) I was very happy with TaxAct. It even handled my self employment income without a glitch. Good luck in finding the right software for you.

Sat, Apr 12, 2014 John Kost Ashburn, VA

Steve: I use HRB software too and the same problem has occurred for me. But, there is a very simple override built into the script and I'm surprised the chat room you were dealing with didn't know it. It was quite obvious where it was. You are correct about the strengths of the private competitive market here versus being captive to government agencies for many services. But, bear in mind that as complex as tax software is, it is that way not because of private competitive forces but because of extraordinarly complex business rules and processes imposed on us by Congress and the IRS. Most failed software projects fail (as I recently wrote on Gartner.com) because of crappy governance (e.g. HealthCare.Gov) and unnecessarily complex business rules -- usually resulting from crappy governance. I am utterly amazed that HRB and TurboTax can produce anything sensible given the quagmire of the the embarassment of the US Tax Code imposed on us by our corrupt political leadership of both parties.

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