Acting Taxpayer Advocate Issues First Report to Congress, Describes IRS in Dire Need of Support

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jan 9, 2020
Untitled design - 2020-01-09T134743.513

Bridget T. Roberts, who has been acting national taxpayer advocate since the retirement of Nina E. Olson last year, issued her first report to Congress, wherein she described an IRS struggling to perform its job due to resource constraints. But she also expressed hope that the reforms introduced in the recent Taxpayers First Act would be a major step forward. 

Roberts noted in her report that the IRS has the lowest performance of all federal agencies when it comes to providing a positive customer experience, saying that the IRS received approximately 100 million telephone calls, and customer service representatives answered only 29 percent. She added that, in recent years, the agency has scaled back in-person assistance, closing more than 10 percent of its Taxpayer Assistance Centers, generally requiring taxpayers to schedule appointments in advance, and reducing the number of taxpayers served by nearly half from FY 2015 to FY 2018.

The report also pointed out the struggles the IRS is having with collecting legitimate tax revenue. Taking just the 2011 to 2013 tax years, the IRS was unable to collect an annual average of $381 billion in taxes owed, which the advocate said amounted to a $3,000 "surtax" on compliant households. At the other end, the advocate's report noted that while those in economic hardship are legally entitled to have their levies released, because the IRS is so difficult to reach, taxpayers cannot make them aware of the qualifying hardships. Meanwhile, the IRS Automated Collection System more than doubled the number of levies it served, from 200,000 to 428,000 while, at the same time, the percentage of calls on the ACS lines dropped from 49 percent to 31 percent, with average wait times expanding from 24 to 38 minutes. 

Roberts said in her report that this can be attributed to the IRS simply not having the resources to fulfill its mission, noting that its budget has been reduced by about 20 percent since 2010, and the number of employees has shrunk by about 22 percent. She urged Congress to increase funding for the IRS, especially in the areas of taxpayer service and IT modernization. 

However, she sees hope in last year's passage of the Taxpayers First Act, intended to be a comprehensive reform of IRS structure. The report noted that the act required that the IRS develop plans to revamp its taxpayer service strategy, organizational structure, employee training strategy and technology priorities. This, said Roberts, can serve as "a roadmap for a once-in-a-generation reassessment of its objectives and operations." 

But she also said that these plans need to be accompanied by a wider cultural change in the IRS, which was characterized as often developing strategies in a vacuum without soliciting taxpayer feedback. 

“If the culture of the organization is one where employees look to minimize interactions with taxpayers in an effort to move work, or where taxpayers who owe money are automatically viewed negatively, then expanding digital services [alone] will not improve customer service,” she said. “The IRS needs to take a holistic view of how it operates and understand what is and is not working.

The report also warned about unnecessary refund delays, saying the anti-fraud filters produce 71 percent false positives. In addition, it said that the free-file program must be made more accessible to the public. 

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