FAST: Introduction to Free Assisted Self-service Tax Preparation

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HARDY: Hello. I'm Mel Hardy, with IRS SPEC.  And we're here in beautiful downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Today we're going to be talking about FAST, which stands for Free Assisted Self-Service Tax Prep. We're going to be talking with Mike Beebe, director of SPEC, and Mike McBride, the director of headquarters SPEC. So let's walk over here and talk to the gentlemen.

Mike, talk to me a little bit about FAST,  Free Assisted Self-Service Tax Prep. I've also heard it called FSA.

BEEBE: Well, FSA, our Facilitated Self-Assistance, is where we basically have Free File, which is online.

HARDY: Mm-hmm.

BEEBE: We brought that into the VITA and TCE sites. And the really cool thing is that we have trained volunteers that are there to help facilitate the process and educate an individual how to do their return.

HARDY: Wow.

BEEBE: So they're there to answer any question they have. Someone is working through the process, runs into any sort of a difficulty using the program or maybe has a question in regards to tax law, the volunteer is there to assist them through the process.

HARDY: That's great. Now, we've always had VITA and TCE. Why go to FAST?

BEEBE: Well, currently, through the great work of our partners, we serve about 3 million individuals. Research has shown another 16 million individuals would like to use the VITA and TCE sites.

-HARDY: That many?

-BEEBE: That many.  And by having this other model that actually is able to facilitate more people through the program, and basically we're able to serve more people. So, again, it's bringing more people and providing expanding access into those VITA and TCE sites through the FSA model.

HARDY: What is the vision of FAST?

BEEBE: Well, you know, it's interesting. If you think about it -- Think of your local grocery store.

HARDY: Okay.

BEEBE: You walk into the grocery store. And you have a checkout person there that checks you out, who provides your groceries. They check you out. But if you look now at grocery stores, many of them have the model where you can walk over there and you check yourself out.

HARDY: Right. Right.

BEEBE: But there's one person there to help facilitate the process. They're either helping four, six, eight people actually do the checkout. Very similar way that we'll do it in regards to taxes.

HARDY: Taxes are like groceries?

-BEEBE: No, no

-HARDY: Okay.

BEEBE: But the process is, in regards to having someone help do the return for them, as opposed to someone doing the return themselves and then helping answer one or two questions to facilitate the process.

HARDY: Okay.

BEEBE: And I go back to what SPEC is designed for. One of the key components of SPEC is education.

HARDY: Right.

BEEBE: We do education on outreach to help familiarize people with what credits are available to them when they file their tax return.

HARDY: Right, right.

BEEBE: And when someone does their return, we need to also be there about educating them and empowering an individual to do their own return. This is something that is a life skill that they can learn and they can use for the rest of their lives.

HARDY: So, Mike, it's a lot of technology. Are people going to be apprehensive about this?

BEEBE: Sure. I mean, you know, at first, they will be. But I look at it similarly to the way e-file was embraced.

HARDY: Okay, yeah.

BEEBE: There was apprehension there, as well. We're currently at over 92%.

-HARDY: Wow.

BEEBE: You know, so more people than ever before get their refunds quickly and securely.

HARDY: How much is it going to cost?

BEEBE: Well, the neat thing with the agreement is that both the federal and the state, if they meet the product offerings, the requirements of the product offerings, are free.

HARDY: So, operationally, how is all this going to work?

BEEBE: Well, you know, that's a great opportunity for me to bring in Mike McBride. So come on in, Mike.

-McBRIDE: Oh, thank you, Mike.

-BEEBE: Good to see you

-McBRIDE: Good to see you.

-HARDY: Mike.

-McBRIDE: Mel, how's it going?

-HARDY: It's going well.

-McBRIDE: Good.

-HARDY: How are you doing?

-McBRIDE: Real good. Real good.

HARDY: A little bit about how FAST and Free File are going to work together.

McBRIDE: Well, Mel, actually, the software that we use at FAST sites is provided by the Free File Alliance. Free File is an alliance that's partnered with the IRS for about 10 years.

HARDY: 10, okay.

McBRIDE: It's composed of about 20 software providers, and they have helped millions of taxpayers obtain reduced tax-return preparation fees. Software is really easy to use because it's an interview-based format. And taxpayers can readily use the software to prepare tax returns.

-HARDY: All right. Uh-huh. What's the benefit to our partners with using Free File?

McBRIDE: There's numerous benefits to the partners. Number one, they can prepare more tax returns.

HARDY: Wow. Okay.

McBRIDE: And then secondly, it reduces the wait time during peaks. And then all the returns prepared under this agreement can count toward the site totals. And in that regard, they can use those tax returns prepared when they file for your VITA grant.

HARDY: Talk to me, Mike, a little bit about how a partner has to set this up.

McBRIDE: Well, there's numerous logistical items to consider, Mel. Number one is, of course, the site.

-HARDY: Right.

McBRIDE: And then second is the volunteer base.

HARDY: Okay. Okay.

McBRIDE: Computers are also a need. But our partners don't have to worry about the software.

-HARDY: Why?

McBRIDE: We are committed to providing an actual link where they can access the software, and we're dedicated to providing computers also. Mel, we're dedicated to making this a successful initiative. So SPEC will provide all of the equipment our partners need, with the exception of printers.

HARDY: With this new technology, are we going to need new types of volunteers?

McBRIDE: The volunteers that work at the FAST sites are those that feel really comfortable with facilitating the preparation of tax returns with more than one person at one time. All of our volunteers that work at a FAST site must at least be certified to the basic level. And then we ask that our partners only prepare tax returns within that certification. The majority of returns will be basic tax returns. These returns are not quality-reviewed because the taxpayers are preparing the returns themselves. Now, some partners will establish procedures to do validity checks on the tax returns, But a key point is the taxpayer actually prepares their tax return with facilitation from the volunteer at the FAST site.

HARDY: Mike, tell me a little bit about the market. How is that piece going to work?

McBRIDE: We prepared a brochure that explains in detail how the market and how the FAST model should be used at VITA/TCE sites. And that brochure is available to all of our partners.

BEEBE: And this is a good opportunity to mention that this video is the first of a series where we'll be covering the other models that are within the FAST umbrella, which is, you have the stand-alone FAST site, which, when we'll go in there, there's the VITA volunteer. You also have the other model, where it's a VITA site, but it's co-located with the FAST site. And either people can use the FAST or it can be used as an overflow to migrate people over there. Again, those individuals that are comfortable, they may walk into a site, they may see that the line is long during some of those peak periods and say, "You know what? I think I can do this." And then, again, we'll have a VITA or TCE volunteer to help facilitate the process.

HARDY: That's great. So, gentlemen, what are the next steps?

McBRIDE: Well, Mel, all our partners have to do is contact their local SPEC relationship manager. And the local relationship manager will then put them in contact with all the individuals they need to set up a FAST site.

HARDY: Well, that was great. I want to thank Mike Beebe and Mike McBride for sharing all that great information with us. And just like Mike Beebe said, be sure to check out the FAST videos online. Until next time, this is Mel Hardy. Take care.