GAO Calls Out IRS’ Taxpayer Experience Issues

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The 2019 tax filing season was more problematic than usual for IRS.

The 2019 tax filing season was a tough one for IRS employees and taxpayers alike, according to an audit by the Government Accountability Office released this week.

The audit determined the IRS “successfully implemented” significant changes to tax policies mandated by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, but called out several areas where the tax-collecting agency’s customer experience fell flat. The most egregious customer issues identified in the audit pertained to how the agency dealt with taxpayers with limited English-language skills—abbreviated with LEP for “limited English proficiency.”

According to GAO, while the nation is home to some 26 million Americans with LEP, “its services to taxpayers with [LEP] are very limited, inaccurate in some cases, and difficult to access.” GAO identified weaknesses in IRS procedures for translating content to other languages for its IRS.gov website, which had more than 421 million visits in 2019. The IRS also “has not amassed and documented its decisions” regarding whether to translate vital tax products, including Form 1040, or “what oral interpretive services to potentially provide to taxpayers with LEP.”

“Improving services for taxpayers with LEP will help them better understand their tax obligations and could help enhance compliance,” GAO states in the audit.

The audit is a broad critique of the entire IRS’ taxpayer experience, which more than 100 million Americans take part in each year. While tax season is a busy and challenging time each new year for the IRS, the audit makes clear the 35-day government shutdown had a devastating effect on IRS employees. During the lapse in appropriations, tens of thousands of IRS employees were furloughed and required to “cease most operations,” including answering taxpayer questions over the phone, according to the audit. In part to offset the furloughs, IRS used approximately 730,000 overtime hours by July—“nearly twice” the total overtime hours it used in 2018, the audit states.

The IRS received slightly fewer calls in 2019 than 2018—or about 39 million—but customer service representatives answered 2 million fewer. Further, taxpayers abandoned, received busy signals or were disconnected from 2 million more calls in 2019 than in 2018. According to GAO, the average wait time for taxpayers calling the IRS rose from approximately 5 minutes to 9 minutes. Beyond metrics, GAO officials also indicate their review included test calls GAO officials made to IRS customer service lines “to understand the experience of taxpayers seeking assistance in their language.”

GAO also said the agency “does not regularly use employee input” to evaluate the impact of customer service training to identify improvements.

GAO made eight recommendations to IRS to improve its customer experience; the IRS agreed with six and neither agreed nor disagreed with 2 of them.  

Stephanie Thum, founding principal at Practical CX and former vice president of customer experience at EXIM Bank, highlighted the audit’s “bomb” approach to promoting better customer experience. The audit “cites every single customer service and CX-related [executive order] and initiative since the Clinton years, like evidence,” and references the word “customer” 63 times, Thum said.

Thum added the audit links the government shutdown to customer experience performance and lauded the auditors’ use of “secret shopping techniques,” referencing their calls to IRS to test phone systems for LEP customers.