IRS on the front lines

The Internal Revenue Service has been given its marching orders— become more taxpayer-friendly or else— and do so while treating all taxpayers fairly, zealously guarding taxpayers' privacy and, of course, collecting what is due the government.

It is a pretty tall order, but the IRS, boosted by recent reform legislation, is taking the challenge to heart. Part of becoming more taxpayer-friendly, the agency has deduced, is becoming more technologically astute. To fulfill that part of the plan, the IRS last month awarded a contract aimed at increasing the percentage of tax returns submitted electronically. The pilot program, which is limited to a select group of IRS employees, is specifically designed to test the technology that permits taxpayers filing electronically to sign their returns digitally, thereby safeguarding the information.

The drive to increase electronic filing is not new to the IRS, an agency still smarting from an earlier unsuccessful effort to encourage taxpayers to file returns over the Internet— a project beset by claims of technical weaknesses and mismanagement.

While IRS employees are hardly an adequate gauge of how electronic filing on a mass scale would work, the pilot is nonetheless an important step for the agency. Perhaps what is needed is a second, less-controlled pilot to gather real-world data on secure electronic filing. With the new program, the IRS is crawling before it walks.

It has been said that the government's inability to ensure the security and privacy of information exchanged between individuals and the government is perhaps the biggest impediment to delivering on the promises of electronic government. The IRS finds itself squarely on the front lines of the battle to deliver that promise. As such, its efforts— successes and failures— will no doubt be placed under the public magnifying glass.

Once the IRS and the government master the fine art of safeguarding the citizen/government information exchange, they will confront the next big challenge: convincing the American public of the benefits of filing electronically. Only then will we begin to see the bureaucracy-laden government of the '90s transform into the seamless, interactive government of the next century.

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