The IRS Video Portal Experiment May Make Life Easier for Small Businesses

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The IRS video portal lets you speak face-to-face about tax problems

I don’t know quite how you’re going to feel about this, but the Internal Revenue Service is now making house calls.

The least likable department of the U.S. Government–as determined by a Pew Research Center survey, no less–is trying to make itself more available to the 100,000 Americans who get into a tax dispute with it each year.

To do this, it’s embracing video conferencing and offering its agents up to a trial program of resolution talks with taxpayers and their representatives on their home turf, be it at the office, in a café somewhere, or at home.  

While it has been argued that the IRS video portal trial is just a cost-saving scheme to limit the number of face-to-face interviews the IRS grants each year–ironic given video conferencing is all about face-to-face–it does have the potential to make life a little easier for small businesses. The new program could make it even easier by staging the video conferences using seamless browser-based calling. For now, though, let’s just see what it’s like to have the taxman over for coffee and a chat.

The IRS Video Portal in Action

You’ll have to be quick if you want to host an IRS agent at your place. The trial video conferencing program was launched on August 1 and will be on offer for just 90 days, with the government maintaining its usual right to extend things if it proves popular.

So why would video chat with the IRS prove popular? For a start, it should make it much easier for a small business, or the average citizen, to find time to meet with the IRS. There are 68 IRS public offices across the country, and when you divide that by 50 states it means there’s not a big chance you’ll find one within a quick drive of your home. With an online video link, however, you can arrange for an hour of downtime and meet an agent from home, work, or Starbucks.

Secondly, the video portal service is built around WebEx video calling software that includes secure screen and file sharing. That means you can keep your documentation, receipts, and evidence in digital form and not spends hours organizing and photocopying cumbersome papers.

Finally, there’s the stress-relieving prospect of meeting online in the comfort of your home or office, rather than having to trek into IRS territory and line up for a dismal interview in a fluorescent-lit office.

The process could be even smoother if the government continues its post-trial journey down the WebRTC video calling route.

WebEx and WebRTC

As I mentioned, the IRS pilot is being staged on Cisco’s WebEx video conferencing platform. That’s encouraging because WebEx is among the more aggressive supporters of browser-based–or WebRTC–video calling. Essentially, WebRTC is video calling without the need for downloads, personal accounts, or matching providers. It turns any compatible browser, such as Google Chrome, into all the tech you need to make and receive a video conference call–no signing in, giving out your email address, or setting up anything.

It’s already in use in the IRS pilot program. Once you’ve got a date and time for your video chat, the IRS agent will email you a link that’ll take you directly into the video chat. There’s no having to stop along the way to download a whole new program, like you would with Skype, for instance.

There are a bunch of these new, no-fuss WebRTC video platforms currently available that any small business can use to set up their own customer service video calling portals. The inclusion in the IRS trial is a positive sign that the government is making a genuine effort to make itself more accessible.

Government Agencies and Public Video Calling

VC Daily has previously argued that this kind of instant, browser-based video calling would be a great way for people with mobility issues to better access government agencies. The banking sector has already embraced it, and has gone so far in some instances as to replace its in-branch tellers with video portals.

While a tax dispute is always going to require case review and preparation on the government side, the IRS could open instant video calling portals as a first point of contact for taxpayers before they get as far as lodging a meeting request–something like the real-time online support TurboTax provides its customers. Like a digital triage service, it could limit the number of cases that get to formal mediation by providing quick face-to-face answers to people with common problems that need only clarification or additional paperwork. That would decongest demands on the IRS, and save small business an unnecessarily prolonged process. Tax problems are often much too complicated for a layperson to untangle, but a brief, face-to-face (via video chat) meeting with someone knowledgeable could solve many of these problems much more quickly than other methods.

You may not be entirely comfortable with the idea of having an IRS agent drop in on your private space at the moment. However, once you consider the potential savings in time and repeated back and forth paperwork, serving up some digital hospitality to the government’s most unlikeable agents might seem a little less irksome.   

Image Source: Flickr CC User 401(K) 2012

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