That’s the biggest concern flagged Wednesday by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson in her annual report to Congress. The job of the national taxpayer advocate is to represent the interests of taxpayers.
If ever you have a complicated tax question or receive notice that something is wrong with your tax return, you soon may be hard-pressed to find a human at the IRS who can help.
The IRS has invested a lot of money to create a plan outlining how the agency will operate in five years. That plan hasn’t been made public, and Olson is urging the agency to do so and to solicit public comments.
There are a lot of great goals set out in the plan, Olson noted. One of them is the creation of online taxpayer accounts to make it easier for taxpayers to get information and interact with the IRS.
But there’s a potentially huge downside, she warns.
“Implicit in the plan — and explicit in internal discussion — is an intention on the part of the IRS to substantially reduce telephone and face-to-face interactions with taxpayers,” Olson’s report said. “It is incumbent upon the IRS to be much more specific about how much personal taxpayer assistance it expects to provide.”
She worries that while online taxpayer accounts will reduce some of the need for human interaction — either by phone or on site — they rarely reduce the need as much as expected.
“Millions of taxpayers do not have Internet access, millions of taxpayers with Internet access do not feel comfortable trying to resolve important financial matters over the Internet, and many taxpayer problems are not ‘cookie cutter,'” the report noted.
Olson also worries that the reduction in personal service combined with IRS plans to encourage taxpayers to take their questions to paid tax preparers will create a “pay to play” system. Translation: “Only taxpayers who can afford to pay for tax advice will receive personal service, while others will be left struggling for themselves.”
The IRS said Wednesday that Olson’s report “does not paint a full picture” of the agency’s efforts to plan for the future, which include improving taxpayer service.
Those efforts are “fueled by taxpayer demand for new and different options for getting services, including expanding secure online options.”
The agency will continue to seek feedback from outside parties, the IRS said, and “[it] remains fully committed to personal service to taxpayers.”
“The IRS believes increasing the availability of self-service interaction frees up in-person resources for taxpayers who truly need them, including those who are not comfortable online or don’t have personal access to a computer.”