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Taxpayers and technology, part 2: taxpayer rights

In the first part of this post, we noted how the IRS has tried to rely on automated systems to make up for its lack of enough human workers to administer the tax system effectively.

We gave a couple of examples of this, such as automatically generated tax levy notices that lack proper oversight from humans. When such levies are wrong or a taxpayer is ready to resolve them, the IRS often fails to make a human being available to respond.

In this part of the post, let's look in more detail at how this situation came to pass. Our point of departure will be the recent contention by National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson that the IRS is suffering, for one thing, from an internal erosion of its commitment to taxpayer rights.

It was not so long ago, after all, that Congress held hearings in which irate taxpayers told tales of outrageous overreaching by the IRS. After those hearings in the 1990s, the IRS was forced to back off on overly aggressive enforcement actions.

Though a national taxpayer bill of rights was not passed, the concept of taxpayer’s rights was clearly made a priority. The very existence of a position of national taxpayer advocate is at least some evidence of this.

More recently, however, Congressional scrutiny of the IRS has given way to the demands of a deficit-strapped federal government for more revenue.

It is telling, in that regard, that the national taxpayer advocate’s voice was silenced during the 16-day government shutdown in October. The IRS did not see fit to include the advocate in its contingency plan for the shutdown.

And so, with a commitment to taxpayer rights that seems to be wavering, the IRS tries to rely on technological quick-fixes instead of rebuilding its capacity to provide adequate customer service to taxpayers trying to comply with an overly complicated tax system.

Critics of the IRS would say that what ails the agency is not only an overreliance on automation. That issue may be merely a symptom of a larger problem, namely a faltering respect for the rights of taxpayers.

Source: Forbes, "The IRS: A Greek Tragedy," Christopher Bergin, Nov. 15, 2013

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