A nonprofit organization has some new ideas for improving its free tax preparation services for low-income individuals and families thanks to an analysis from the La Follette School of Public Affairs.
Students in the spring Workshop in Public Affairs made suggestions to Chicago’s Center for Economic Progress on improving site efficiency, increasing volunteer satisfaction and retention, and systematically evaluating expansion.
The center’s strategic plan calls for 10 percent annual growth through 2017, based on Chicago’s population and the overall need for tax preparation services in the metropolitan area, and so the agency expects to open new sites throughout the Chicago area. “The potential market for tax preparation services varies by neighborhood and is changing over time,” says professor J. Michael Collins, who taught the Workshop in Public Affairs.
The authors, Don Eggert, Ben Emmel, Bennett Javenkoski, Princess Ojiaku and Mallory Palmer, analyzed demographic and economic data, as well as administrative records, to develop a systematic approach to locating new tax preparation services. They conducted a market analysis and analyzed client demographics, site trends and volunteer data to evaluate the center’s operational baseline. “Next, we identified the strategic planning factors that have the greatest impact on site efficiency and location, and interviewed stakeholders with expertise regarding the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program or specialized knowledge of low-income neighborhood demographics,” note the authors, who focused on site operations, the volunteer life cycle and evaluation of expansion options.
For the objective of improving site efficiency, recommendations include fully embracing data-driven analysis, improved collection of data, and an evaluation of the quality review process. To increase volunteer satisfaction and retention, the students recommend the Center for Economic Progress improve volunteer survey, rewards and learning opportunities, and acquire information on volunteers who provide tax preparation services through their employers. As for evaluation of the expansion, the students suggest use of a quantitative framework to analyze neighborhoods and adoption of criteria to evaluate sites.
“Income tax policies are a significant mechanism for distributing income supports to working families,” Collins says. “Yet, the process of accessing these supports requires people to accurately complete federal and state tax forms, a process that can be confusing and time confusing even for a trained professional. “This report provides a valuable framework to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of income tax filing services targeted to economically vulnerable taxpayers.”