Taxpayer Advocate Says IRS Needs to Shift Focus Away from Collections

National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, recently submitted her mid-year report to Congress.  It is nothing incredibly new, I suppose, except that IRS’ 2015 tax season numbers are completely off the charts (and not in a good way).  Here are some key points:

  • 8.8 million dropped calls due to switchboard overload
  • only 37% of customer service calls were actually answered
  • average hold time was 23 minutes
  • less than 10% of customer service calls answered during peak of tax season

Olson’s preface is a pleasure to read.  Its brilliant, and yet so simple.  She acknowledges the lack of funding that the IRS has had to deal with over the past few years, and she astutely points out that, while difficult, periods of famine (so to speak) can be healthy if they cause you (or an organization such as the IRS) to rethink its priorities and to rethink the way funds are allocated.  The operative phrase here is that it can be healthy.  In her own words:

But from a taxpayer perspective, I am concerned its long-term approach is headed in the wrong direction. First, the IRS continues to view itself as an enforcement agency first and a service agency second. Enforcement is important, of course, but it is a question of emphasis and self-definition. Second, the IRS’s vision of the future rests on a mistaken assumption that it can save dollars and maintain voluntary compliance by automating taxpayer service and issue resolution and getting out of the business of dealing with taxpayers directly in person or by phone.

What the IRS should do during this period of congressional distrust and resulting inadequate funding is examine every one of its underlying principles. In my view, it should transform itself as a tax agency from one that is designed around nabbing the small percentage of the population that actively evades tax to one that aims first and foremost to meet the needs of the overwhelming majority of taxpayers who are trying to comply with the tax laws.

The truth is, most people pay their taxes voluntarily, but the IRS has always been laser focused on collection and enforcement.  Olson is right.  As the IRS continues to put taxpayer service on the back burner, the whole idea of voluntary compliance becomes more tenuous.  And I don’t think Olson is saying that enforcement has no place in our tax system.  There will always be a need for enforcement.  But the focus needs to shift so that it is not the top priority.

One of my mentors taught me how to operate a well-balanced law practice.  He taught me to see it as both a service and a business, and to never lose sight of both.  If you focus too much on the business, then you do your clients a disservice.  And if you fail to give attention to the business aspects, then you won’t earn a decent living.

The IRS is really no different.  As Nina Olson said, they are too focused on the “business” of enforcement and the service side is suffering.  But the great thing about both a law practice and the IRS is, when you give enough attention to the service aspect so that the clients/taxpayers are satisfied, the revenue will come.

2014 National Taxpayer Advocate Report

It’s a little bit (ok, a lot bit) frustrating reading the National Taxpayer Advocate’s annual report to congress that was released today.  Of course my frustration is with the IRS, not the Taxpayer Advocate.  It’s pretty much the same report year after year.  The IRS is severely understaffed and underfunded, and its employees are less than qualified.  The level of service is reaching abysmal levels and still dropping.

This year the Taxpayer Advocate applauded the IRS for adopting a Taxpayer Bill or Rights administratively, but is still pushing for it to be enacted legislatively so that it really has some “teeth” and so that it becomes a permanent fixture that encourages voluntary compliance.

One point that evokes an abundance of frustration for me is the “absence of studies to determine whether existing penalties promote voluntary compliance.”  What this means in plain English is that the IRS has been punishing Americans with penalties as long as anyone now alive can remember, but the IRS has done relatively little to determine if these penalties actually work.  This is the functional equivalent of building a castle on sand or on an active volcano.  And if you think this is a minor problem, you’ve probably never had a tax debt that has tripled in size due to penalties and interest.  Furthermore, you’re probably unaware of this little factoid:

The number of provisions in the Internal Revenue Code that either authorize or require the IRS to impose penalties has ballooned from 14 in 1955 to over 170 today.

A penalty is considered effective if it promotes voluntary compliance.  In other words, a penalty (or all the tax penalties combined) should cause taxpayers who are on the fence about paying to decide that they will pay voluntarily rather than expose themselves to IRS enforced collections.  And the IRS needs to strike the right balance: not too severe and not too light.  That’s not an easy task, but the IRS does not appear to be taking it very seriously, according to the Taxpayer Advocate.  Ever heard of the IRS Office of Service-wide Penalties?  Of course you haven’t because it’s a 6-man operation tucked neatly out of sight that hasn’t answered to Congress in over 20 years.

On a positive note, I am very happy with my own direct experiences with the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) recently.  I had previously been told that the TAS would not provide assistance to taxpayers without the presence of an IRS levy or threat of levy (or other adverse action).  And even then, I was under the impression that TAS may not take a case without the presence of some sort of delay.  However, I have noticed that the TAS intake department has become quite a bit more liberal.  In fact, I have a couple cases that the TAS gladly accepted where there was no financial hardship whatsoever, only delay.

IRS Hopes to Answer 63% of Calls in 2013

image via

The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) released its annual report to Congress today which focuses on a few main themes: tax code simplification/reform, increased funding for the IRS, greater safeguards against identity theft, and improved taxpayer service.

For anyone working in the field of tax relief, and for taxpayers who contact the IRS seeking to address their back tax debt, some of the most interesting statistics are related to taxpayer service.  The IRS has a notoriously poor customer service record, especially with regard to the phones:

  • IRS received over 100 million calls in fiscal year 2012 and 30% went unanswered
  • Average wait time was almost 17 minutes in FY 2012
  • IRS goal is to answer 63% of incoming calls in FY 2013, down seven percent from 2012

And these numbers tend to get worse year after year.  Obviously the decline in customer service is closely related to the reduction in funding to the IRS.  However, I don’t know how they can seriously set a goal of answering only 63% of calls.  What an embarassment!

The Taxpayer Advocate Has Spoken – Is Anybody Listening?

Today the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) released its annual report to Congress and, once again, the tone of the report is one of alarm.

Nina Olson, head of TAS, is particularly concerned about the lack of funding at the IRS. Fewer employees are being asked to do more and more work, and services that should be handled by live bodies are often done by IRS automated systems. The result is that individuals can’t get their tax problems resolved. It’s a tax administration that may be on the brink of failure.

“We’ve had a number of years where the trending of taxpayer service funding has gone down and down in contrast to the increase of enforcement funding.  And then when you layer on the budget constraints, what you see is that taxpayer service is going to decline even more . . . I’m trying to give a warning to everybody, if we continue down this road, bad things are going to happen to taxpayers and it will be very difficult to reverse.

~ Nina Olson, National Taxpayer Advocate

The relationship between the TAS and the IRS is a strange one. The IRS posts the annual report on its website consistently every year and notifies interested parties by way of the IRS Newswire. But it seems obvious from the official IRS statements that the IRS is not happy with the strong comments from the TAS.

“While today’s report includes a number of helpful suggestions, the link described in the report between a challenging budget environment and alleged erosions in taxpayer rights is inaccurate and without basis in fact.

~ Michelle Eldridge, IRS spokesperson

The adversarial/independent nature of the IRS and the TAS perhaps should not be questioned these days. These certainly do not sound like unified voices.

Nina Olson: "Capable and Dogged"

I feel like my opinion of the Taxpayer Advocate Service is . . . evolving. Not that I ever had anything against Nina Olson personally, I have just always questioned the independence and effectiveness of the organization that sometimes seems like little more than a mini IRS within the IRS. If TIGTA is IRS’ big brother, then TAS is their only child — a chip off the ol’ block. However, the more I see Olson stating an opposing view (opposing the IRS), the more I grow to trust her and recognize the value of TAS in assisting with real tax relief.

In an interview with Bernie Becker of The Hill Nina Olson recently made the following statements describing the natural tension between her agency and the IRS:

You have to get used to the idea that you’re going to walk into a room, no one is going to want to see you there, they are not going to want you to open your mouth. And when you do open your mouth, they’re all going to will you to shut it as soon as possible. Because what you are going to be saying is, basically, pointing out that they didn’t think of something.

Speaking about the IRS’ failure to recognize when their policies are overly burdensome on the average taxpayer, she added:

When they get their mind on something, they just get hell-bent on something — and you could be talking to a tree and it might be more conversational.

I love that quote!  Very spunky. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), someone who knows her better than I do, said she is “capable and dogged” and the driving force behind the IRS’ actions. Read full storyhere.

So am I going to stop taking jabs when I see an opportunity? Probably not. Besides, I still think TAS has a long way to go as far as the ideals and advocacy of Olson herself trickling down to the rank and file.