A site for sore eyes

The TV series ".com" looks at IRS e-file

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Forget it. That has been the frustrating experience of many people looking for information on the Internal Revenue Service's Web site, and that's why the entire site is being redesigned.

Although the existing site is one of the busiest in the federal government, even folks inside the IRS say it takes too long to find the simplest items.

"The problem is that you can't find anything on it," said Greg Carson, director of Electronic Tax Administration modernization at the IRS. "All the information you ever want to know is in there — it's just impossible to find."

Carson, who started at the agency last year, has a long resume that includes many Web development jobs. He played the lead technical role in developing the priceline.com Web site, and he helped create the site for the U.S. Mint's successful online sales program, which generated $150 million last year.

Now he is handling what the IRS calls the "largest Internet site rebuild on the World Wide Web to date."

The current IRS site includes several hundred thousand pages of text and graphics that will take nearly a year to reformat. The new site is expected to debut Jan. 1, in time for the next tax season, but not before focus groups are asked to evaluate its usability.

"The secret of a good government Web site is to anticipate what the citizen coming into your Web site is looking for and make it easy for them to get to it," said Renny DiPentima, president of SRA Consulting and Systems Integration, Fairfax, Va.

Although many federal Web sites still have a picture of the department's top official and a message of the day, the best sites are those that are updated every few months to incorporate features that improve the delivery of information, DiPentima said.

Carson agreed, and he's striving to put the IRS at the forefront of innovation with a site that captures the best of Web design and makes access easier. "We've got to figure out how to organize the information based on what the user will want," he said.

And that means the information needs to be organized based on the public's interest, not what bureaucrats think.

IRS officials know they have work to do. The agency faces a 2008 deadline for making 80 percent of its operations paperless.

Geri Spieler, research director for Gartner Inc., a high-tech consulting group based in Connecticut, said a Web site, to be usable, must be designed to present information "in a way that makes sense."

"You don't have the chocolate with the spaghetti sauce," she said. And the challenge is to "design your information in a way that is intuitive for me to find the next piece of information."

That's easier said than done, Carson said. Until recently, the IRS simply added pages and data to the site with no thought about categorizing the information. Now officials are feverishly trying to make the site more consumer-friendly.

The IRS is moving into the electronic world in a number of ways. The TV series ".com," produced by TV Interactive and hosted by Mark Hamill of "Star Wars" fame, featured the IRS in a series of seven special reports. The reports were designed to promote the IRS' e-file program, and online streaming videos of the segments are available on the IRS site.

In addition, the IRS is posting more than 100 forms online this year and encouraging people to file their taxes electronically.

But without a Web site that offers information at a user's fingertips, it is still difficult to meet the goals of e-government, Carson said.

"There are two kinds of people who come to the Web site," he said. "There are tax professionals who don't mind the Web site today, and there is everybody else who can't find the information they need."

Although IRS staff members are handling the redesign, the agency is expected to award a contract soon for a new server. The site is currently hosted by the Commerce Department.

MORE INFO

IRS Web traffic

* Number of page views on the IRS Web site, October through May: 2,029,992,788.

* Number of forms and documents downloaded, January through April: 221,251,640.

Source: Internal Revenue Service

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