This project is a finalist for the 2021 Golden GOVIT Awards in the Innovation category. This project was completed by The Minnesota Department of Revenue and nominated by Anbar Ahmed. 

The Minnesota Department of Revenue’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) helps taxpayers file their income tax returns. Along with Revenue, non-profits in Minnesota run free tax preparation sites. We partner with them to share best practices and ensure a high-quality experience.

Taxpayers who normally use VITA are people who:
• Speak English as a second language
• Have low to moderate income
• Have disabilities
• Are 60 and older

On average, over 1,085 taxpayers annually used VITA sites to prepare tax returns from 2016 through 2019.

When the tax season started in 2020, Minnesota had over 200 VITA sites open with thousands of volunteers. We vaguely knew about COVID-19 but did not understand the full impact. As COVID-19 spread, services around the state shut down. VITA sites were closed, and appointments cancelled.

In response to the pandemic, the IRS announced a filing extension. We started getting questions from taxpayers and tax professionals. We contacted the volunteers who prepare returns to gather feedback on how we could proceed. We knew taxpayers still needed help filing their returns and decided to turn VITA into a virtual program.

This had never been done before. We checked with our community partners, but many did not have the resources or plans to open for the extended tax season. With limited time and experience, we pulled together a program as best we could to help taxpayers.

Forty-five days after the extension announcement, virtual VITA opened. Within two weeks, all appointment slots were taken.

In 2020, we helped over 820 taxpayers, 97 through virtual VITA, file their returns.

When the tax season ended, we began planning for 2021. We developed processes and identified technology we could use.

We built a website form to gather information from taxpayers. We used existing software to schedule meetings. A bespoke document submission software allowed sharing of private tax information. Videoconferencing software allowed us to meet with taxpayers, and we captured meeting notes with a spreadsheet programmed for our purposes.

We created procedures for different scenarios, trained volunteers, and spread the word. By sharing our program with partners across the state, other tax preparation sites utilized our experience to create their own virtual programs.

In 2021, we helped over 1,100 taxpayers file their taxes virtually.

Taxpayers were grateful for our flexibility. As one stated, “Thank you so much for continuing to help out during the pandemic and for trying to keep us safe as well.”

Along with keeping everyone safe, we expanded the population we helped. Before COVID-19, in-person appointments were limited to specific locations. With virtual appointments, we could reach Minnesotans everywhere in the state.

Virtual appointments help us serve Minnesotans more equitably. Taxpayers who previously scheduled a day trip with the entire family to get tax help could now do so from their own home or city.

Building on our experiences, we will continue to hold virtual appointments into the future. We will also continue to explore additional ways to make the VITA program more accessible to Minnesotans.