For the last two years, the IRS has been developing a “Future State” plan that envisions how the agency will operate in five years and beyond. A central component of the plan is the development of online taxpayer accounts. In the National Taxpayer Advocate’s 2015 Annual Report to Congress, Olson praised aspects of the plan but expressed concern that (i) the IRS’s intent in developing online accounts is largely to save money in light of recent budget cuts by reducing telephone and face-to-face assistance and (ii) many taxpayers will not conduct business with the IRS through online accounts because they lack internet access or skills, cannot complete the authentication process required to set up an account, do not trust the security of the IRS system, or would prefer to speak with an IRS employee. As a result, she expressed concern that critical taxpayer needs may go unmet under the Future State plan.
To provide a vehicle for direct public comment, Olson announced plans to hold public forums around the country, some in conjunction with Members of Congress who serve on committees actively engaged in IRS oversight.
To date, Olson has held eight public forums and has several more planned. Two have been held in Washington, DC. Others have been held in Glen Ellyn, IL, with Cong. Peter Roskam; Bronx, NY, with Cong. José Serrano; Hendersonville, NC, with Cong. Mark Meadows; Red Oak, IA, with Senator Charles Grassley; Baltimore, MD, with Senator Ben Cardin; and Harrisburg, PA, co-organized with Senator Bob Casey.
Among the panelists at the public forums in Washington, DC were representatives of four Federal advisory committees to the IRS and four major national organizations of tax practitioners. Two panels featured experts who reported on research studies that assessed public use of online services as well as the effects of the “digital divide.” Olson writes: “I continue to be concerned that the IRS’s design for the Future State ignores or dismisses the significant body of data that shows large portions of the taxpaying public is either unable or unwilling to engage with government online services for anything other than the most routine tasks, if those.” The report also points out that only about 30 percent of taxpayers seeking to register for the IRS’s “Get Transcript” application over the last month were able to do so because of enhanced authentication measures, which suggests many taxpayers may not even be able to establish online accounts in the current environment.
“At each of the [field] Public Forums, we heard from a panel of witnesses representative of the community we were visiting,” Olson wrote. Most panels included a representative from a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site and a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC); an attorney, Certified Public Accountant, or Enrolled Agent active in representing individuals and small businesses; and witnesses who focused on challenges faced by particular taxpayer groups, including English as a Second Language (ESL) and immigrant taxpayers, elderly taxpayers, farmers, U.S. taxpayers living abroad, disabled taxpayers, victims of identity theft, and small businesses victimized by payroll service provider fraud.
Today’s report contains extended excerpts from the transcripts of the Public Forums, organized around key concerns that Olson identified in her earlier report or that panelists consistently raised.
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