Taxpayer Advocate’s Final Report Shows IRS Customer Service Challenges

The nation’s taxpayer advocate sounded an alarm on the state of customer service at the Internal Revenue Service after the record 35-day government shutdown and cuts to the agency’s budget.

In her 37th and final report to Congress before retiring after 18 years as National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson said that despite the challenges posed by the shutdown and tax reform, employees “successfully processed most returns, with most taxpayers receiving a timely refund.”  

For taxpayers who needed more help, however, the experience was challenging. Only 23 percent of callers reached a live IRS employee. The IRS answered fewer calls on its compliance telephone lines, and those who got through waited an average of 41 minutes.

The IRS served fewer taxpayers seeking help at Taxpayer Assistance Centers and the agency’s refund fraud filters continued to operate with high false positive rates, which significantly delayed refunds for hundreds of thousands of taxpayers who filed legitimate returns. NTEU has been critical of the dwindling number of TACs and has encouraged Congress to commit more resources and staff to make sure TACs are available to more taxpayers around the country.

Improving customer service for low-income Americans remains high on Olson’s priority list. “Even as the system works for most taxpayers most of the time, it doesn’t work for millions of others,” she said.

Olson was especially critical of a component of the agency’s 2018-2022 strategic plan that established gauging how well the IRS treats taxpayers by how often they forgo a human interaction in favor of the IRS website or automated calls.

“The taxpayer wants answers and instead gets a runaround,” she wrote, recommending that the IRS establish a “Taxpayer Anxiety Index” for taxpayers  frustrated by the agency’s push to “self-assisted service channels.”

The next two volumes of Olson’s report will be released in mid-July 2019.

Both Olson and NTEU have long called for an increase in funding for IRS customer service so that employees can provide taxpayers with the help they need. Ahead of Olson’s July 31 retirement, President Tony Reardon praised her reports detailing the benefit to taxpayers when IRS employees have adequate tools and resources.

“Olson had high standards for the agency and its workforce, and her plain-spoken conclusions about how to meet those standards will be a roadmap for this and all future administrations,” he said.