How can the IRS improve its operations for the next filing season?

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In terms of customer service, the IRS is in a difficult spot of the late. Filing season extra duties piled on by Congress and some enduring technology issues – No wonder taxpayers could hardly get through with a phone call. For how the agency might be improving things for the next filing season, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Collins, good to have you on.

Erin Collins: Thanks, good to be here.

Tom Temin: And you have been on the job, by the way, about a year and a quarter. So your first day was practically the same day that the IRS and every other federal agency cleared out. How’s that been for you?

Erin Collins: You’re correct. When I arrived, we were going across the country shutting our offices and campuses. So it’s been difficult, but we have made it work. Basically, I have been in a position with 100% of my employees working remotely from day one, which coming into a leadership role has been challenging. But I’ve had some great people, great leaders in the practice, and we’ve made it work on behalf of taxpayers.

Tom Temin: Alright, so the National Taxpayer Advocate position, I’ve always looked at it as the loving but stern schoolmarm, or mother hen for the agency. And let’s just review some of these tough statistics on customer service that you’ve compiled here. Because it’s not for lack of trying that this happened at the IRS but tell us what actually happened?

Erin Collins: Yeah, I mean, the service has been faced with some real challenges. I think it’s been highly publicized for the last decade that their budget has decreased, which means the amount of the employees that they have employed has also dropped. So that causes challenges for the IRS to be able to do the mission that they’re entrusted to do and part of that mission is providing the service the taxpayers need to be compliant. So it [has] been a challenge. As a result, the phone lines, especially in light of COVID have been inundated these last two filing seasons, specifically, this past filing season. So it’s been very difficult for taxpayers to get through for practitioners to get the information they need to help taxpayers. It has not been a pretty filing season for tax payers or practitioners.

Tom Temin: Because the questions coming in I imagine we’re about tax issues themselves as normal people that file have questions. But also what about these extra payments to Americans that Congress authorized because of the pandemic and gave IRS the role of dispersing that money. Did that cause questions also in phone calls?

Erin Collins: Yeah, I think that has been the biggest challenge COVID triggered a series of legislation, which has been very taxpayer-favorable. As you indicated, the stimulus payments – there’s been three rounds of those that have caused a tremendous increase, where taxpayers are trying to get information. Do they qualify? If they didn’t receive the payment, when are they going to receive the payment, if there is a problem with the amount of the payment? So those have generated a tremendous amount of calls to the IRS, so the volume of calls are coming in. They’ve also had other issues where people are facing other challenges because of COVID. And so again, the phone lines have been ringing, let alone just the normal day-to-day calls they get on tax advice, tax information, filing information, and with the backlog of returns that are currently sitting with the IRS, people are wondering, “where’s my refund?” And so that, too, is generating a tremendous amount of calls.

Tom Temin: And there’s a pretty close correlation, then I guess, with the funding for being able to do customer service, and the degree and the percentage of good customer service the agency is able to offer. And it looks like Congress only funded sort of to a mediocre level in the first place.

Erin Collins: That’s my opinion that I believe Congress can do better, that if we’re only providing for the telephones a level of services we call it a 60% coverage. So only six every 10 calls are even allocated under a normal circumstance to be paid for employees to answer those phones. And with COVID, we were seeing two, three, four times the volume depending on the time of year. So IRS employees were just unable to answer those phone calls. So yes, I think a big challenge that the IRS has had is twofold: One, not having enough employees, and that goes back to the budget that Congress approved; and two, not having additional technology that they truly need in order to do the job. And telephones is one of those areas. We’re all picking up the phone all day long, and how many times you have the ability, where the company will call you back and put you sort of on a waitlist or they have technology and – the bots as they refer to it – where you can have a conversation with a computer in essence, that could possibly give you answers. So the IRS is exploring all that. But again, it gets down to budget as to what they can provide for taxpayers.

Tom Temin: And just a detailed question on that bot idea because I know, as a consumer myself, at many sites I prefer the robotic-text kind of enabled technology, because it’s quicker and you can get an answer and it just works. But for something as complex as the tax code, very different from checking on the status of an order, or “can I get a part for this particular model?” Is the IRS looking at that complexity and how that could be expressed in getting people accurate answers through the type of system?

Erin Collins: What they’re considering is they’re looking at what are the most common questions coming in throughout the year, both during filing season and non-filing season? And really try and program their IT resources to answer those most common questions. So for example, what’s the status of my refund? That is a question that has plagued the IRS right now because they are so backlogged and processing those returns That could be something that the robotic human, so to speak, could answer those questions. But if you’re calling to ask a very difficult tax question, that’s when you would be sent over to an employee to be able to have that conversation back and forth.

Tom Temin: Yeah, the equivalent of pushing the operator button until you get a human being.

Erin Collins: Try and find that zero so you can get to a human.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Erin Collins, she’s the National Taxpayer Advocate at the IRS and looking ahead to the upcoming season – and where are we in the tax season with all the delays and changes in schedule? What is the year of the next season? When does it start? And what are your recommendations to help the IRS kind of get around this hump that it’s behind?

Erin Collins: Yeah, I think the biggest challenge we had at the beginning of this filing season is we still have the carryover from last filing season. So the end of December, we had approximately 11 million returns from 2019 year [have] not been processed. So that was a challenge because they were ready backlog before they even started the process. And those were the paper returns. So my goal for the IRS would be that we have all the backlog cleaned up long before year end, so that we can start with a fresh slate going forward. IRS also needs additional employees, which is a real challenge. I know Congress has been speaking about increasing the IRS budget. That is imperative to providing taxpayer good service. We need the additional employees, and we need additional it funding because the IRS as it’s been advertised and discussed a long time, some of their systems, the language that they use is back to COBOL. A lot of your listeners may not even be familiar with it because that is something that was around the time I was going to high school in college. So it’s been in a process for a long time. And that needs to be updated, and that needs to be changed.

Tom Temin: Actually, it’s assembler, which is even older than COBOL. And the issues are interrelated, because the ability, say, for a bot to look up something means it has to look at a system capable of being looked up to by a bot. And that may not be the case for some of the ancient database architectures they’ve got.

Erin Collins: Right, and they are embarking on what they call the enterprise case management system, which is really trying to get what I will call a 360-view so that when you go into the system, you can see all the various parts of taxpayer records and IRS information, challenges now that they have an excess of 60 standalone systems that don’t talk to each other. So you got it right on the head – it’s very difficult, even if they started to program some of these robotics so they could answer, they can access various information. So until that gets accomplished, it’s going to be difficult to do what they would envision.

Tom Temin: And what are your goals for your own office, the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate, now that you have been there a year a little bit longer, 15 months, and you can kind of assess the whole thing? What would you like to do with your own operation?

Erin Collins: This will be sort of my commercial for [Taxpayer Advocate Service] with respect to Congress. Part of our goal is dependent on getting increased funding not only for the IRS but also for TAS. We need to increase a number of our case advocates. Those are the folks across the country that handle taxpayer issues. And we need to provide relief. They have very high inventories. It’s been a strain on our folks. They have a difficult job. I mean, when you think about the challenges the taxpayers are experiencing, the economic problems, the hardship, the frustration, by the time they reach out to a Taxpayer Advocate Service or local offices, a lot of these taxpayers, they’re stressed, they’re tired of waiting, tired of being patient, and our folks get to deal with them. They have hundreds of cases day in and day out. And everyone’s case is the most important, everyone’s case needs priority, and everyone’s cases difficult to work with. So, I got to give tremendous kudos out a shout out to my folks for doing what they do, because it’s a difficult job. But we need more people in order to do our job correctly and to handle all the issues, we need additional resources. The other goal that we have involves sort of leveraging the new IRS chief taxpayer experience officer which was created as part of Congress’ Taxpayer First Act. And I do believe that the creation of this position and collaboration with our office, that we’re going to be able to work more effectively in not only identifying issues, but using that office to try and fix and collaborate on particular problems. So I do think those are two positive things. And I’m hoping that Congress will be able to get through a budget in the foreseeable future so that we can provide this relief for taxpayers.

Tom Temin: And in the meantime, if a phone call is closed, everybody just be nice to one another.

Erin Collins: Yeah, I mean, it’s hard to say to someone who’s experiencing difficulties, but at the same time, my folks are there to help but they do part-tax, part-problem solve and part- sometimes it’s a little bit of – the social worker or being a shrink, listening to someone understanding their complexities. And that’s hard to do day in and day out. So, again, kudos to my folks for doing that. And it is a huge benefit for taxpayers is to have that lifeline or, as we refer to the voice of the taxpayer where we can work with them and advocate within the IRS to get their challenges fixed.

Tom Temin: Erin Collins is the National Taxpayer Advocate at the IRS. Thanks so much for joining me.

Erin Collins: Thanks, Tom.

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