Editorial: No service on the sly

With another tax season under way, Internal Revenue Service officials are providing agencies with their annual reminder of the value of good marketing.

Late last month, IRS officials reported that electronic tax filing was up 8 percent compared to the same date in 2003, setting the pace for yet another record year for electronic filing. And the number of taxpayers e-filing on their own, rather than using a professional service, was up 23 percent, totaling 6.6 million returns.

These trends reflect the planning that went into the e-filing program. Had the IRS not put such a strong focus on the usability and visibility of its systems, tax filing likely would have leveled off several years ago.

Any e-government system will naturally attract early adopters who are drawn to anything new and different and are willing to deal with a few bugs. Put up a Web site, and those users will find it.

But to broaden that audience it takes old-fashioned marketing — letting the intended audience know what services are available, where to find them and what benefits to expect.

IRS officials have steadily increased the number of e-filers by promoting the option aggressively in every available way. Agency officials clearly view every taxpayer as a potential e-filer and are willing to spend the money needed to keep the e-filing message in front of them.

Marketing is not something that comes naturally to most agencies

nor should every agency open a marketing department and increase their budget. But agencies that can make a business case for electronic services — either by reducing the costs of those services or supporting them through user fees — should figure marketing into that equation.

This is not only true for services offered to the general public. Too often we hear from state and local agencies that they were not aware of information and services offered by the federal government.

It's true that most e-government systems do not have the same market potential as e-filing and therefore do not justify similar investments. But the broader the potential benefits, the more agencies should invest. An agency that gets into the business of providing services online needs to think of it more like a business.

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