Not many federal administrators would so bluntly acknowledge the failure of their agencies to serve taxpayers.
But when 60 percent of taxpayers can’t reach a customer service agent by telephone, even as the IRS is collecting $3 trillion from them, the situation is obvious.
“We certainly can’t afford to have taxpayer service be any worse than it is,” Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen said in an interview, “although it’s hard to imagine it being much worse than it is.”
That applies to those who stand, even camp, in long lines only to be turned away with no service, those whose calls are answered but only after a half-hour wait, those who finally get to customer service only to have their complicated issues unanswered by employees instructed not to take too long with any question while taxpayer queues grow.
This is aggravating to customers and frustrating to employees who want to do better. Years of punitive budget cuts have led to hiring freezes, understaffing and the poor service many taxpayers are experiencing. Yet at the same time, the tax season for those who file with no questions is going “swimmingly,” Koskinen said.
With tax day on Wednesday, April 15, here is a Q & A with Koskinen in his office at IRS headquarters:
Q: One of the budget cutters, Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., chairman of the House Appropriations financial services and general government subcommittee, said: “Congress is not out to punish the IRS. We are, however, out to make them more efficient and effective. Let’s not forget the IRS’s history of targeting taxpayers based on political belief and wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on lavish conferences and video production when it had a record amount of funding. More money doesn’t guarantee better service, and there are very few restrictions on the nearly $11 billion provided for its operations. Customer service clearly does not appear to be a priority.”
A: We continue to do whatever we can to become more efficient and to maximize the use of our resources. But when you lose 13,000 employees, which we’ve had to do because of the budget cuts, and we expect to lose another 3,000, you run up to physical limits of no matter how efficient you get, you clearly are becoming much less effective. We are already one of the most efficient tax organizations in the world ... spending half as much to collect a dollar of revenue (compared with other developed countries).
The continued references to problems that occurred two, three, five years in the past seem to me relatively feeble justifications for continued cuts. It’s not just the commissioner talking about we’re underfunded. The GAO (Government Accountability Office), the inspector general, the taxpayer advocate, the IRS Oversight Board all independently and separately over the last year have stressed the negative impact of the failure to fund the IRS effectively. No one disagrees that we produce significantly more money than we spend.
People can say they aren’t punishing the IRS. What they are doing is punishing taxpayers. The people who care most about the poor level of customer service are the IRS employees who work in taxpayer service.
Q: You told the National Press Club recently that 25 percent of the IRS workforce will be eligible to retire next year and over 40 percent by 2019, while the agency has few employees under age 30. How will this hurt the agency in the long run?
A: When you have an agency with 650 people under 25 out of a staff of 87,000 and you have 1,900 under the age of 30, you’ve got a dislocation. If that gap gets even larger than it is, that just means that the agency 10 years from now is going to have a problem developing leadership because it won’t have enough people who have been around five or 10 years to develop the expertise and experience to be eligible to move up. We’ve got to start feeding people into the front end, more hiring of young people.
Q: When I asked you after the Press Club speech how you plan to do that, you said you didn’t know.
A: We have to figure out how we’re going to pay for it. I don’t think we can afford not to do it. The number that got me was 650 people under 25. You can’t sustain a system that way. I’m concerned that over time the effectiveness of this agency is at risk. And if it’s at risk, then the funding that supports the federal government is at risk. If we lose compliance rate by 1 percent, it will cost you $30 billion a year, three times the IRS budget.
If there ever was a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish, we’re getting to that stage. The $350 million cut last December we know cost at least $2 billion in lost revenues. If you want to lower the deficit, then you ought to be collecting the revenues that are owed.