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MSP #9: OUTREACH AND EDUCATION

The IRS Is Making Commendable Strides to Develop Digitized Taxpayer Services, But It Must Do More to Maintain and Improve Traditional Outreach and Education Initiatives to Meet the Needs of U.S. Taxpayers

TAS Recommendations and IRS Responses

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1.

TAS RECOMMENDATION #9-1

Conduct research into the outreach and education needs of taxpayers, broken down by various demographics.

IRS RESPONSE TO RECOMMENDATION: ​​​The IRS conducts demographic research through the Taxpayer Experience Survey (TES) that informs outreach and education efforts. This annual survey of taxpayers is provided without regard as to whether they have experience with the IRS and is broken down by various demographics including income, Limited English Proficient Spanish, rural location, and disability. The needs for outreach and education are assessed in the TES through measures of awareness.

CORRECTIVE ACTION: N/A

TAS RESPONSE: We do not believe that the IRS’s Taxpayer Experience Survey (TES) addresses the type of research we have recommended to assess the diverse outreach and education needs of taxpayers across the country, and therefore the IRS has not implemented our recommendation. For the 2016 TES, over 90 percent of the respondents answered an online survey and less than 10 percent answered a phone survey. Moreover, 98 percent of the respondents had internet access at home. Yet TAS research has shown that over 41 million US taxpayers do not have broadband access in their homes, and 14 million US taxpayers do not have any internet access in their homes. With the exception of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Affordable Care Act (ACA) awareness questions, the 2016 TES questions focused primarily on the respondents’ use and awareness of various IRS service channels. It also did not include any questions requesting substantive topics on which the respondents would like to receive more information.

ADOPTED, PARTIALLY ADOPTED or NOT ADOPTED: Not Adopted

OPEN or CLOSED: Closed

DUE DATE FOR ACTION (if left open): N/A

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2.

TAS RECOMMENDATION #9-2

Evaluate and implement two-way digital communication models into the outreach and education strategy (instead of one-way messaging).

IRS RESPONSE TO RECOMMENDATION: ​​​​​

Outreach at the IRS is undergoing a fundamental change in direction. As part of these efforts, we will be discussing a new, evolving outreach model and looking for feedback from a variety of sources, including veteran IRS employees, members of the tax professional community, IRS advisory groups, and other external partners, as well as the Taxpayer Advocate Service. We will consider the TAS research findings as well as information on taxpayer preferences in making decisions regarding the IRS outreach and education strategy.

This change was part of a wider effort to centralize and rejuvenate the IRS’s outreach function to reach more taxpayers and partners across the nation. This new approach is aimed at providing new and expanded ways of reaching community groups even in the face of continuing resource declines in this area.

A key part of this approach will be establishing a new branch focused on reaching out to groups and associations that don’t normally interact with the IRS. In addition, steps will be taken to supplement this work and coordinate it with other areas of the agency to widen the reach of existing efforts. Special emphasis will be placed on working with younger taxpayers and students, Hispanic groups and others with English as a second language, and other underserved communities, such as the sharing or gig economy.

Interim steps to expand outreach into new areas include the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) renewal effort, which included outreach to organizations working with ITIN communities, low-income taxpayer clinics, and others able to reach the affected taxpayers. The IRS developed and delivered outreach materials in seven languages to support the effort.

Update: The Taxpayer First Act Report to Congress which was recently shared, outlines several recommendations for improving outreach and education. These recommendations aim to reach taxpayers at the time, in the language and by the methods they use to communicate. We will employ new technology, improve traditional communication methods, analyze taxpayer behavior and demographics, expand our social media strategy and use our trusted partnerships to make information available to all taxpayer groups.

Over the next two years, IRS will begin simplifying notices and correspondence to improve clarity, translate more publications into more languages, and link outreach efforts to data so IRS can customize communications. Over the next 3-5 years, IRS plans to identify, expand and further implement technology solutions to provide personalized updates to taxpayers.

CORRECTIVE ACTION: We will be discussing a new, evolving outreach model and looking for feedback from a variety of sources, including veteran IRS employees, members of the tax professional community, IRS advisory groups, and other external partners, as well as the Taxpayer Advocate Service. We will consider the TAS research findings as well as information on taxpayer preferences in making decisions regarding the IRS outreach and education strategy.

A key part of this approach will be establishing a new branch focused on reaching out to groups and associations that don’t normally interact with the IRS. In addition, steps will be taken to supplement this work and coordinate it with other areas of the agency to widen the reach of existing efforts.

TAS RESPONSE: We commend the IRS for acknowledging the importance of and exploring potential future avenues of two-way digital communication. We agree that safeguards to protect taxpayer privacy are essential in these types of communications. We firmly believe such efforts will assist the IRS in early issue identification and enable the IRS to hear directly from taxpayers, especially in geographic areas where the IRS does not have outreach and education staff physically present.

ADOPTED, PARTIALLY ADOPTED or NOT ADOPTED: Partially Adopted

OPEN or CLOSED: Closed

DUE DATE FOR ACTION (if left open): N/A

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3.

TAS RECOMMENDATION #9-3

Incorporate into the IRS outreach and education strategy the findings of TAS research on taxpayers’ varying abilities and attitudes toward IRS taxpayer service, as well as the needs and preferences of low income and Hispanic taxpayers, and the recommendations from the National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2016 Public Forums.

IRS RESPONSE TO RECOMMENDATION: ​​​​Outreach at the IRS is undergoing a fundamental change in direction. As part of these efforts, we will be discussing a new, evolving outreach model and looking for feedback from a variety of sources, including veteran IRS employees, members of the tax professional community, IRS advisory groups, and other external partners, as well as the Taxpayer Advocate Service. We will consider the TAS research findings as well as information on taxpayer preferences in making decisions regarding the IRS outreach and education strategy.

This change was part of a wider effort to centralize and rejuvenate the IRS’s outreach function to reach more taxpayers and partners across the nation. This new approach is aimed at providing new and expanded ways of reaching community groups even in the face of continuing resource declines in this area.

A key part of this approach will be establishing a new branch focused on reaching out to groups and associations that don’t normally interact with the IRS. In addition, steps will be taken to supplement this work and coordinate it with other areas of the agency to widen the reach of existing efforts. Special emphasis will be placed on working with younger taxpayers and students, Hispanic groups and others with English as a second language, and other underserved communities, such as the sharing or gig economy.

Interim steps to expand outreach into new areas include the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) renewal effort, which included outreach to organizations working with ITIN communities, low-income taxpayer clinics, and others able to reach the affected taxpayers. The IRS developed and delivered outreach materials in seven languages to support the effort.

Close out response – The Taxpayer First Act Report to Congress which was recently shared, outlines several recommendations for improving outreach and education. These recommendations aim to reach taxpayers at the time, in the language and by the methods they use to communicate. We will employ new technology, improve traditional communication methods, analyze taxpayer behavior and demographics, expand our social media strategy and use our trusted partnerships to make information available to all taxpayer groups.

Over the next two years, IRS will begin simplifying notices and correspondence to improve clarity, translate more publications into more languages, and link outreach efforts to data so IRS can customize communications. Over the next 3-5 years, IRS plans to identify, expand and further implement technology solutions to provide personalized updates to taxpayers.

CORRECTIVE ACTION: We will be discussing a new, evolving outreach model and looking for feedback from a variety of sources, including veteran IRS employees, members of the tax professional community, IRS advisory groups, and other external partners, as well as the Taxpayer Advocate Service. We will consider the TAS research findings as well as information on taxpayer preferences in making decisions regarding the IRS outreach and education strategy.

A key part of this approach will be establishing a new branch focused on reaching out to groups and associations that don’t normally interact with the IRS. In addition, steps will be taken to supplement this work and coordinate it with other areas of the agency to widen the reach of existing efforts.

TAS RESPONSE: The National Taxpayer Advocate appreciates the IRS’s commitment to consider TAS research in developing its new evolving outreach model. We also look forward to receiving a briefing on the IRS’s plans for its new outreach and education strategy. During such briefing, we can assist in identifying key findings of our research that are pertinent to the design of the new strategy.

ADOPTED, PARTIALLY ADOPTED or NOT ADOPTED: Partially Adopted

OPEN or CLOSED: Closed

DUE DATE FOR ACTION (if left open): N/A

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4.

TAS RECOMMENDATION #9-4

Assign at least one employee to conduct outreach activities in each state, territory, and the District of Columbia (and who resides in that state, territory, or district) and provide each employee with sufficient resources to travel and engage in regular face-to-face communications with taxpayers throughout the state.

IRS RESPONSE TO RECOMMENDATION: ​​​Although the IRS does not have outreach and communications employees in every state, we do have a local presence in every state. IRS employees across the agency work closely together to deliver an outreach strategy using leveraged services and shared educational products. The IRS also has public affairs specialists and congressional liaison employees who work with outreach employees across the agency to deliver services at the state level where applicable and needed. Our media relations employees are often at the forefront of our outreach efforts and communication products, attending and representing IRS at outreach events, congressional sessions, security awareness events, and conducting media interviews on hot topics, breaking news, filing season information, and tax law changes.

CORRECTIVE ACTION: N/A

TAS RESPONSE: The IRS’s response focuses mainly on presence through either leveraged partnerships or digital communications. In most cases, relying on these two avenues of communication is not as beneficial as IRS outreach employees actually going out and talking with taxpayers, preparers, and other representatives to really understand where confusion lies, the best channels to deliver messages, how to develop better publications and materials, and what national messages need to be modified or reinforced. We understand that the IRS does have a local presence in some states, but there is no strategy to establish presence in every U.S. state, territory or district.

ADOPTED, PARTIALLY ADOPTED or NOT ADOPTED: Not Adopted

OPEN or CLOSED: Closed

DUE DATE FOR ACTION (if left open): N/A

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5.

TAS RECOMMENDATION #9-5

Establish a program in which the IRS provides various services, including traditional face-to-face outreach and education, through the use of mobile taxpayer assistance stations (vans) in rural and underserved communities.

IRS RESPONSE TO RECOMMENDATION: ​​​​​The IRS has decided to invest its resources in more efficient web-based and live services that will allow it to serve a greater number of taxpayers. During 2008 through 2011 in North Dakota, IRS used Tax Tours, a “mobile” concept where temporary offices were set up at alternative locations, such as community colleges and universities. The IRS used radio, newspaper, and flyers to advertise the dates and times we would be available at these alternative locations. The number of taxpayers served during these tours was 76 in 2008, 12 in 2009, 13 in 2010, and 13 in 2011. The IRS concluded taxpayers do not come to sites that are not established on a regular basis and determined that the use of mobile vans was not the best use of resources. Additionally, we believe the expansion of Virtual Service Delivery will help us provide more face-to- face opportunities for taxpayers.

CORRECTIVE ACTION: N/A

TAS RESPONSE: We are disappointed that the IRS has rejected this recommendation based on one unsuccessful program implemented nearly a decade ago. The IRS has previously provided the same response regarding its test of Tax Tours in North Dakota in response to other National Taxpayer Advocate recommendations to implement a mobile van program. However, as noted in a prior TAS response to this assertion, the IRS has yet to provide the National Taxpayer Advocate with details and results of the program in order to allow TAS to evaluate the program design. Successful pilots of van and co-location programs must contain several key elements. The programs must be consistent; that is, taxpayers must be able to expect that certain services will be available on certain days in certain locations. Haphazardly advertising a mobile van program through print and advertising, holding the program for one day, and then declaring it was unsuccessful because only a few taxpayers availed themselves of the service does not reflect a well-structured pilot program. It will take time for taxpayers to realize and trust that a mobile Taxpayer Assistance Center (TAC) will be in their area every other Thursday offering full-scale IRS services. A one-day trial, even with advertising, will not give the IRS useful information about the extent to which taxpayers use the program. Furthermore, we encourage the IRS to consult with other government agencies that have had successful experiences with mobile van programs to deliver services locally.

ADOPTED, PARTIALLY ADOPTED or NOT ADOPTED: Not Adopted

OPEN or CLOSED: Closed

DUE DATE FOR ACTION (if left open): N/A

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