By: David Sherfinski
The IRS has dramatically improved its customer service from the terrible days at the end of the Obama administration, but advocates of the agency say it still needs more money if it’s to set itself on firmer footing for the long haul.
As of last month, as the annual tax filing deadline neared, the agency was answering about 78 percent of the calls to the agency’s main toll-free assistance line — in line with last year’s levels and a significant improvement from the 38 percent rate in 2015.
The average call is also answered in 6 minutes, according to a Treasury inspector general’s report released this week — down dramatically from a more than 30 minute wait that greeted the average caller over the course of 2015.
Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, pointed directly to a $290 million boost for the agency — including $178 million for taxpayer services — in a December 2015 spending bill as the reason for the better service levels.
He said the additional funding has led to the hiring of more temporary telephone operators, which also cuts down on wait times.
“It is clear that additional funding has a positive effect on helping taxpayers who have questions,” Mr. Reardon said.
The agency has pushed for better service after being blasted for its poor record in the past — though IRS leaders say they do have to make choices between spending on better cybersecurity, combatting identity theft and improving customer relations.
“Taxpayer service is very important,” acting IRS Commissioner David Kautter said earlier this year. “When we put the budget together, in a finite world you have to make some decisions.”
He said the public can expect the higher levels of service to tick back down if the agency doesn’t get enough money going forward.
The recently passed $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill provided about $11.4 billion for the IRS in fiscal year 2018, including $2.5 billion for taxpayer services — a $350 million boost from the previous year.
The spending bill also included $320 million in 2018 to implement the new $1.5 trillion tax cut law.
Mr. Reardon said the agency could be forced to divert resources from other priorities, like upgrading aging IT infrastructure, if Congress doesn’t pony up in 2019 as well.
“NTEU encourages Congress to recognize the need for higher, stable funding levels for the IRS to undo the damage from years of budget cuts,” he said, saying the IRS has reduced the number of its full-time employees by about 22,000 since 2010.
The agency finished fiscal year 2017 with about 9,200 customer service representatives — up from about 8,800 in 2014 but well below the more than 21,000 it had in 2010.
In March 2015, former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen had cited persistent budget cuts in lamenting an “abysmal” level of service at his former agency.
Congressional Republicans have long talked about trying to shift the agency’s mission to focus more on customer service — particularly in the wake of the tea party targeting scandal that prompted lawmakers to trim some of the agency’s other funding.
A Treasury inspector general’s report from last year also found that the IRS didn’t make it easier on itself during the 2015 tax season, saying the agency cut some of its money for customer service and ignored phone calls while shifting money around to try to keep Obamacare and other administration priorities afloat.
The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled Wednesday to consider a package of new, bipartisan proposals that would, among other things, require the IRS to develop a comprehensive customer service strategy.
“A new tax code really deserves a new IRS,” Rep. Kevin Brady, the committee’s chairman, told reporters Tuesday.
The Texas Republican said the legislative package is designed to restructure the agency toward a singular mission of “taxpayer service.”
Nina Olson, the IRS’s National Taxpayer Advocate, warned that the improved customer service numbers might not be telling tell the whole story.
“Operational measures, like the [level of service], can yield a hollow result because they are only indicative of efficiency, not taxpayer satisfaction with the way the IRS handles calls or provides information,” she wrote in her annual report to Congress this year.
Still, about 8 in 10 taxpayers said they were either somewhat or very satisfied with their personal interactions with the IRS last year, according to the agency’s 2017 data book.
The IRS has also tried to ease the workload associated with person-to-person interactions by encouraging the public to use its online services more.
Through March 30, the IRS reported a 24 percent increase in visits to its website for the 2018 tax filing season compared to the same period last year.