The 71.2 Percent Solution
IRS Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson’s annual critique of the nation’s tax system opens this year with her list of the five “Most Serious Problems Encountered by Taxpayers.” Topping that list is the increasing difficulty taxpayers have getting telephone information from the IRS.
In 2007, four out of five people calling the IRS 800 number reached a representative after an average wait of about 4½ minutes. Call volume more than doubled the next year as taxpayers wanted to find out about their 2008 stimulus checks. Not surprisingly, that onslaught caused problems—barely half of calls went through after a delay averaging more than ten minutes. Many fewer people called in 2009 and 70 percent reached an agent after waiting nearly nine minutes.
The 2009 stimulus bill delivered a passel of tax changes that will surely send befuddled taxpayers to the IRS helpline. The agency says it’s gearing up to answer the phones. But Olson says its goal is to answer 71.2 percent of the calls (where did that number come from?) after an average wait of 698 seconds (gotta stay under 700, I guess). That’s better than 2008, worse than last year, and much worse than 2007. When my kids were in school, 70 percent yielded a D-, not the grade you’d want to take home.
An IRS survey found that 93 percent of last year’s callers were satisfied with the service they (eventually) received. Olson counters that the survey covered only the 70 percent of callers who reached an agent.
Worse, the answers you do get are only advisory. The service doesn’t stand behind what its agents say, even though they usually give the right answer. A 2008 GAO study found that “the accuracy of the telephone assistors’ responses to tax law and account questions continued to be above 90 percent.”
A couple of years ago I fell into the unlucky 10 percent of callers getting wrong answers when I posed a difficult but straightforward question. Not sure that the first answer was right, I called again and got a different response. A third call didn’t break that tie—I got yet a third reply. I chose one of the three and the IRS hasn’t complained. But if it had, I’d have had difficulty claiming I’d only followed its advice.
It’s not a pretty picture. These days, the IRS likes to call us taxpayers “customers.” If we are, we deserve better treatment. But look on the bright side: 90 percent of the 70 percent of the time your call gets through, you’ll get the right answer.
And there is a fix to all of this—simplify our tax system. There would be fewer calls, fewer wrong answers, and less taxpayer uncertainty and frustration. Only Turbotax would suffer when its sales drop off.