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National Taxpayer Advocate’s Introductory Remarks, Including an Update on the National Taxpayer Advocate Public Forums on Taxpayer Needs and Preferences

In my 2015 Annual Report to Congress, I identified the IRS’s Future State plan as the Number 1 Most Serious Problem for taxpayers. In doing so, I articulated several concerns, including the lack of transparency and coordination with stakeholders such as Congress, taxpayers, and tax practitioners. Commendably, in response to my Report, the IRS created a webpage dedicated to the Future State, on which it has placed a large volume of material. The IRS has also announced that it will make a presentation on the Future State at Tax Forums this summer, and the Commissioner has addressed the IRS Future State plans in several appearances before congressional committees and in speeches.

Also in my Report, I announced that over the next year I would be holding Public Forums on Taxpayer Needs and Preferences throughout the country, some co-hosted by some Members of Congress, particularly those serving on committees actively engaged in IRS oversight. It has been my great privilege to host eight of these Public Forums to date, and we have several more planned through the end of the calendar year. I and my small team have been welcomed into communities large and small; our Congressional co-hosts were actively engaged in the planning and promotion of the Forums as well as attending and participating in them. I am deeply grateful to Congressmen Roskam, Serrano, and Meadows, and Senators Casey, Grassley, and Cardin for their generous support and personal commitment to this important endeavor.

We held two Public Forums at IRS headquarters in Washington, DC, at which we heard from representatives from four Federal Advisory Committees to the IRS and four major national organizations of tax practitioners, among other witnesses. I was particularly pleased to have two separate panels with witnesses that reported on various research studies about individuals’ use of the internet and online services, as well as the digital divide in this country. 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 either unable or unwilling to engage with government online services for anything other than the most routine tasks, if those.

At each of the other Public Forums, we heard from a panel of witnesses representative of the community we were visiting. Each panel included a representative from a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site and a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC). We also included at least one attorney, Certified Public Accountant, or Enrolled Agent who is active in representing small businesses and individuals in the community. Finally, several of the Public Forums included witnesses focusing on particular topics: English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) and immigrant taxpayers; the elderly and retirement; farming; international and United States citizens abroad; disabled taxpayers; identity theft victims; and victims of payroll service provider fraud.

Although the National Taxpayer Advocate has been charged by Congress to be the voice of the taxpayer inside the IRS, what we heard at the Public Forums were the voices of real taxpayers and their real representatives. They are compelling, articulate, and clear about what they need in order to comply with the tax laws.

I’ve organized these comments around several of the concerns about the IRS Future State plans that either I identified in the 2015 Annual Report or consistently arose in the Public Forums. They are:

Full transcripts of all of the Public Forums are available online at http://taxpayeradvocate.irs.gov/news/national-taxpayer-advocate-public-forum-transcripts. They are worth reading in their entirety.

“[A] fundamental starting point in thinking about service is that the IRS needs to know whom it is serving and the characteristics and challenges associated with a particular group of taxpayer or parties it is regulating. It sounds easy enough but knowing the taxpayer actually is a very resource intensive endeavor. An agency fixated on efficiency and delivering services at lowest possible short term costs without knowing the impact and burdens of its actions may find itself pushing more serious problems down the road while at the same time jeopardizing taxpayer rights.” [pages 25-26]

Leslie Book, Professor Law, Villanova University School of Law, Villanova, PA