Unlike some of you, I actually looked forward to poring over those IRS forms last week. It wasn’t the 1040 that excited me this year. It was Form 941, the Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return.
That’s right, an employer’s form. While all of us get to wrestle with those 1040s, Schedules C and D, and the like, employers also get to fill out forms reconciling all the money they withhold from employees and the amount they turned over to the IRS. We are the government’s collection agency, and the government likes to know we are doing our job.
So in the dead of this past winter, the IRS newsletter for employers arrived, and offered some heartwarming news:
“IRS Set to Debut Redesigned Form 941 in 2005.”
By IRS standards, the newsletter exuded a breathless tone as it traced the history and the process of the redesign:
“A team of subject matter experts from across the IRS worked closely together since 2002 to redesign Form 941. Each line of the form was critically reviewed. In addition, IRS brought in ‘plain language’ contractors to help ensure the form and accompanying instructions are clear and easy to understand.
“In November, 2003, an early draft of the form was shared with key stakeholders in the payroll community to solicit their comments and feedback. These comments were reviewed and incorporated to the extent possible by the team. The form was placed on IRS.gov for public comment as well. IRS conducted focus group testing. Many focus group participants liked the new format and felt the redesigned form would be easier for new users to learn.”
Wow. What a prodigious undertaking this must have been. I wondered how big the “team of subject matter experts” was that assembled back in 2002 to attack this redesign. Given that the form as it previously existed consisted of 17 lines plus 6 boxes to check, the process of “critically reviewing” the form line by line must have been arduous. I doubt that the words in a presidential press conference have been parsed so closely.
I figured the “key stakeholders in the payroll community” would be the guys at places like ADP who make their money hoping that people like you and me can’t bother to understand forms like this. That’s why, I further assumed, the IRS called for the “focus group testing.” The focus group would temper the changes advocated by the stakeholders with some real world considerations.
But what about these “plain language contractors?” Contractors, in IRS argot, is no casual term. It implies freelancer. Back in the 1970s and ’80s I put in hard time as a freelancer and I would have jumped at the chance to become a part of this project.
And plain language? I’ve been an advocate and a fan of plain language since I was a kid first learning to read. Fifty years later I still recall the understated slogan of Hazzard’s Dairy, which served my tiny hometown of Apalachin, New York: “Good as any, better than some.” As a freelance writer I used to liven up the daily drudgery in my solitary office by thinking up alternative greetings for answering the phone. One of my best, meant to be delivered in a cheerful, upbeat voice was simply: “Who is this, and what do you want?” That one turned out to be off-putting, which proves that you have to be careful with plain language and which also suggests why the IRS might have needed some “plain language contractors” to help in the redesign of Form 941.
I visited the IRS website to see if any similar opportunities existed for plain language contractors and to see if I could reach a person to discuss the revamping of Form 941 in greater detail. The website listed several opportunities for outside contractors to bid on projects, but they had to do with physical property planning — no writers need apply. And given that this was the height of tax season, I didn’t expect anyone to rush to answer my query.
Finally Form 941 arrived. Hmmmm. It was different. It had more space for the numbers. And it recognized a plain fact of arithmetic that when you withhold 7.65 percent of someone’s wages for Social Security and Medicare, some fractional cents will result, and that those fractions will total up differently when you calculate 7.65 percent of everyone’s salaries over three months. So the new Form 941 gives you a line in which you cancel out, say, a 32-cent discrepancy. It turned out that the old form had the same line, but I had never noticed it — proof right there of a better design. Wow.
Then I turned the page, expecting to see the payment voucher with its usual boiler plate about where to send the form, the amount of time it takes to fill out the form, and so on, and I was startled. Now maybe the IRS can explain this, or maybe one of the subject matter experts, or plain language contractors, or key stakeholders in the payroll community, or focus group participants can explain this. But all I know is that — plainly speaking — the damn payment voucher was attached upside down.