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“Courteously” Connecting with IRS Service Needs

Phone cut offWords have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.

                        —Edgar Allan Poe

Courtesy disconnect. You may have heard about it. The telephone hold times during this past filing season were so long that the IRS hung up on callers when the hold time reached two hours. Callers were warned they were about to be dropped — hence the courtesy disconnect. 

We heard from so many members about IRS service issues that we conducted a survey of all AICPA members to find out what exactly was going on  correctly — and to give everyone an opportunity to be heard. The survey, conducted right after busy season, included a question about courtesy disconnects. Ten percent of respondents were courteously disconnected once; 12 percent twice; and 17 percent disconnected three or more times. Give our members credit, though. Thirty-nine percent indicated they were too busy to hold on for two hours so they courteously disconnected themselves. 

Even more disturbing is the statistic from the National Taxpayer Advocate’s new report to Congress: less than one caller in 10 to the IRS’s Taxpayer Protection Program (for identity theft) was able to reach IRS staff.

Talk about the “exquisite horror of their reality.” That’s why the AICPA’s Governing Council passed a resolution in May calling for the creation of an objective forum to address this crisis. Much like the survey, the resolution is a concrete expression of our members’ concerns regarding the state of IRS services. But the resolution goes one step further. It also clearly expresses our organization's interest in finding an objective and transparent solution.

The IRS says it has insufficient funds to assist taxpayers and practitioners and IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says that its service levels are “abysmal.” But, the news is not getting any better for the IRS, as the House Appropriations Committee recently approved a FY 2016 IRS budget that would fund the agency at 7.7 percent below its FY15 level. The AICPA has not weighed in on specific levels of funding; however, we are open to approaches that result in the service levels that the taxpaying public and our members would expect. Indeed, levels that Congress and the IRS would expect.

IRS service levels continue to play a prominent role in our mindset and advocacy efforts. On July 22, the AICPA testified at two congressional hearings focused on issues facing small businesses and expressed our concerns about the impact this reduction of service has on those taxpayers.

But talk about déjà vu all over again! The current situation reminds me of the state of affairs prevalent in the mid-1990s, when Congress created the National Commission on Restructuring the IRS. As a guiding principle described in its final report, the Commission believed that taxpayer satisfaction should be paramount at the IRS and that the IRS should only initiate contact with a taxpayer if the agency was prepared to devote the resources necessary to properly and timely resolve the matter.

The Commission’s mission was to challenge Congress and the administration to create an agency that fulfills this vision. The Commission measured the success of this challenge in a simple manner: when surveyed, the American people would overwhelmingly answer “yes” to the following questions:

  • Was filing your tax return easier than the previous year?
  • Did IRS personnel treat you respectfully and professionally?
  • Were all of your questions and problems handled as smoothly as account inquiries with your bank, credit card company or utility?

Favorable responses to all three questions, coupled with fair and professional law enforcement, would signal success in providing the country with an IRS capable of world-class service and citizen satisfaction.

Do those questions resonate with you? How about the six principles enumerated in the Council resolution?

  1. Balanced Service and Enforcement
  2. Sound Tax Administration
  3. Stakeholder Engagement
  4. Technological Advancement
  5. Empowered Oversight
  6. Protection of Taxpayer Rights

The efficacy of the National Commission is open to debate, however, the status quo is just not acceptable. And as Edgar Allan Poe also said:  “Never to suffer would never to have been blessed.” Here’s to hoping we’re headed for a big blessing and one that will restore the public trust in tax administration!  

Edward Karl, Vice President-Taxation, American Institute of CPAs. 

Phone courtesy of Shutterstock

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