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February 25 2016

“Hello, IRS Are You There?”

Patrice J. Lee

The IRS expects to answer just 47 to 50 percent of taxpayer calls, which is still pretty terrible service. That is despite a $290 million budget increase that allowed them to make customer service improvements.

Forty-seven percent of calls answered is up from 37 percent last year, but we’ll hold our applause. Their goal is 80 percent, so it’s going to take a lot more to get them anywhere close. (And did you ever hear of a private enterprise whose goal of customer satisfaction was only eighty percent?)

The IRS is quick to blame everyone else for poor performance and poor management. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen blamed Congress for his agency’s poor performance. His argument is that Congress created the situation the IRS is in by intentionally underfunding the agency as punishment for spending on conferences and scrutinizing conservative groups. Koskinen also claimed that because of budget cuts, the IRS is losing $4 - $5 billion a year in uncollected revenue. Koskinen sounds like he’s just looking for a scapegoat.

The Washington Post reports:

“The customer service challenge we’ve had over the last couple of years has been a direct relationship to the cut in the budget,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in a telephone interview. “We can’t answer phone calls unless we have people and we can’t have people unless we can pay them.”

“We deliberately lowered the IRS funding to a level to make them think twice about what they were doing and why,” Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, said last year.

While this year’s tax service should be notably better, it will be far from Koskinen’s goal of 80 percent of the calls being answered in less than five minutes.

And among tax workers, the level of service they provide is way below what they would like.

Once again, the IRS is trying to get ahead of what will likely be poor service during this tax season. So far this tax season, the IRS had technology failures that caused processing systems to crash – halting e-filing for about a day. Then last week, we learned the IRS systems have been hacked putting more than 100,000 Americans at risk.

The biggest concern is that the IRS plans to shift all customer service functions online and away from phones. Koskinen is staying mum on news leaked recently that the IRS plans to create accounts for 150 million individual taxpayers and 11 million business. As we have maintained, if the IRS can’t protect their online systems why should we trust that this shift to digital customer service delivery will be any better for us as taxpayers?

Furthermore, going digital may just be their way of avoiding their abysmal answered call record.

Adding online customer services functions can be helpful in instances when customers have simple needs, but I’m guessing that most taxpayers contacting the IRS with questions or concerns actually need to speak to a live agent. As the Nation Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson notes, it’s the taxpayers who suffer:

“What happens to these taxpayers when the IRS doesn’t pick up the phone?”

The answer she provided is not good.

After a period of time, the taxpayer’s account is moved to an automated collection system (ACS), which could place a lien against the taxpayer’s property, bank account or wages.

“The IRS doesn’t know the taxpayer has been trying to call it,” she said. “Nor does the IRS make any effort to call the taxpayer before it automatically takes enforcement action against the taxpayer. By the time the taxpayer gets assigned to ACS (Automated Collection System), the IRS assumes the taxpayer has been unresponsive and is not trying to comply — despite the lousy levels of service on the pre-ACS phone lines.”

In the end, the IRS seems unable to get its act together.

 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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