For most of us, filing taxes is just a pain in the neck, but for many it involves barriers that they can’t surmount on their own. However, for qualifying individuals, the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has been collaborating with community organizations on the Community Volunteer Income Tax Program.
The community organization hosts free tax clinics, provides, vets, and manages volunteers to complete tax returns, and keeps the data secure. The CRA provides guidance and support, arranges for training of the volunteers, provides free tax preparation software, provides promotional materials, and donates used laptops to eligible organizations.
Last tax season, the program helped file more than 835,000 tax returns for over 741,000 individuals, including those who were homeless, Indigenous, newcomers, seniors or disabled. And in 2017, that resulted in the distribution of an estimated $1.7 billion in benefits and refunds.
But that’s not enough. In collaboration with the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), the CRA is working to increase the benefit and reach of the program.
“Often, individuals with modest income have simple tax situations but complex lives, which makes it more difficult to file and access their benefits. This project is focused on removing barriers for individuals with modest income so they can file their income tax returns and access benefits designed to support them,” said CRA media relations spokesperson Dany Morin in an email. “CDS has partnered with CRA as one multidisciplinary delivery team to better understand the needs of Canadians by regularly talking to the public and conducting user research on the best ways for Canadians to access the credits and benefits to which they are entitled.”
CDS product manager Clémentine Hahn said that the team has interviewed people at tax clinics and food banks to discover what value they find in those places and how they can expand the number of people who can access the service.
“We’re using a rigorous methodology called design research,” she said. “We have a step-by-step semi-structured interview that flows like a conversation to make it comfortable for people.” The interview explores why the individual came to the clinic, what their goals were, and what barriers they faced.
“Sometimes we just learned what we have to be careful to continue to give, and sometimes we learned how it can be difficult to access those places for people with limited mobility, and low income people who can’t afford to take time off work to visit the clinic,” added Hahn. “Because Canada is a big country and tax season happens during the winter, there are basic difficulties accessing those places. We learned about the good and the bad.”
She said that clinic attendees found the assistance they received reassuring, and that reassurance is something CDS is trying to build into a prototype application that can help people who are unable to visit a tax clinic. Developers, designers, and policy people were part of the research team so they could see the issues taxpayers faced. Some interviews even took place during home visits, where the team learned about basic accessibility barriers such as difficulty opening letters, or going online, or reading screens with low contrast, or differentiating colours for the colourblind.
“Now,” she said. “When they are thinking about accessibility or running their tests, they know why.”
The team also learned that it’s critical to have a phone-friendly site, since many peoples’ only Internet access is through their phones.
“Our team has translated existing research insights into design principles, which guide the way our team designs the service,” Morin noted. “We’ve shared a few of them on Twitter, including principles like, ‘I need to be able to complete my return without travelling to get help’, and ‘I need to use the channel that is most accessible to me.’ Our principles are evolving, and we expect them to grow and change as we continue into an Alpha phase, where our focus is on doing more research and testing prototypes in order to determine how to best meet the needs of tax filers.”
Whether or not a new product will be available for next tax season is an open question, Hahn said. The team has built some good prototypes, but iterative testing with taxpayers may still reveal new barriers that must be addressed.
“It’s about the product. It’s about trying to improve services for the people,” she said. “But it’s also about building capacity, and explaining (to the team) why research is involved, and why meeting the people and hearing from them is important. That is also an outcome of the project.”
The story has been updated to reflect a CRA revision to the number of returns filed and individuals assisted by the program.