Who's Answering the Phones at the IRS?
by Gary Therkildsen*, 3/16/2010
Have you recently tried calling the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to ask a question about your taxes? If you have, there's a good chance that the IRS never picked up. If you were lucky enough for your call to go through, you likely spent about 12 minutes on hold before you spoke to an IRS representative. National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson highlighted these and other problems faced by taxpayers when she testified at a hearing this afternoon in front of the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Committee on Ways and Means.
Olson appeared before the subcommittee to discuss her office's 2009 Annual Report. She highlighted several areas where the government needs to improve the tax administration process – including reforming a harmful lien imposing process and improving the service's debt compromise procedures – but the problem Olson made her priority was the inadequacy of the IRS toll-free telephone service.
As Olson pointed out in her testimony, "Each year, tens of millions of taxpayers call the IRS seeking help with a wide variety of issues, including account questions and tax-filing questions." Unfortunately, in 2009 three out of every ten of those taxpayers couldn't ask their question because an IRS representative never picked up the phone. That's actually an improvement over 2008, when almost one out of every two calls did not go through. To be fair, in 2008 the IRS received a deluge of tax questions related to the Economic Stimulus Act passed in February of that year, and the service usually fields about 80 percent of its calls.
Still, the consequences of not answering a taxpayer's phone call are significant. Not only does the missed call feed into the stereotype of an unresponsive, dysfunctional government, but also the taxpayer may simply give up and not file a return. If the taxpayer does file without guidance, they will likely send in a flawed return, requiring further IRS resources down the line to correct the problem. If the taxpayer seeks out a third party for help, they must navigate the vast paid-tax-preparation landscape, which is filled with unscrupulous and untrained tax preparers – at least until next year.
The problem is a simple one of resources: the IRS doesn't have enough money to employ enough people to answer the phones. For her part, Olson recommends that Congress provide the IRS with enough money to raise their call-fielding success rate to 85 percent and lower their average wait time to 5 minutes. Olson doesn't attempt to put a price tag on these improvements, but it seems clear that the current IRS budget is not sufficient. Without these resources, too many taxpayers will continue to be left in the dark when filing their tax returns.
Image by Flickr user HeatedGroundPhotography used under a Creative Commons license.