By Steve Kelman

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Just in time for tax season: An IRS example of (online) government at its worst

IRS, industry to share data to fight tax fraud

Blog readers surely know that I am hardly one to look for opportunities to bash the performance of government organizations. Recently, for example, I posted about my excellent experience deregistering my car and cancelling my insurance online with the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.

However, I have recently had a small experience with online IRS “service” that is so appalling it has driven even me to complain.

That experience involved the W-2 form I submit each year for a part-time household employee (and a W-3 that aggregates my employee W-2 forms, in this case for this one employee).

Up to now, reflecting my general status as a tech dinosaur, I have requested my W-2 and W-3 forms each year over the telephone – where you can dictate your request without human intervention. This year, however, I decided to enter the 21st century (actually the late 20th) and get the forms online from the IRS website -- or more precisely, I asked my wife to download them at work because I don’t have a printer at home. (Remember: tech dinosaur.)

I had filled out the forms and was preparing to mail them when my wife showed me a text appended to the download section of the website marked “Attention.”

That notice declared that “the official printed version of this IRS form is scannable, but the online version of this, printed from this website, is not. Do not print and file Copy A downloaded from this website with the SSA.” (“Not” was actually in boldface.)

“To order official IRS information returns such as Forms W-2 and W-3, go to IRS Online Ordering for Information Returns and Employer Returns. We’ll mail you the scannable forms and any other products you order.”

I was planning to bring my tax documentation to my tax accountant next weekend, but the printed form won’t arrive in time for that.

The ”good news” is that other than Copy A of the form, which is the one that goes to the Social Security Administration, the the other copies that must be submitted – for the employee and for state tax departments – can use the online form. But since every filer using this form must submit Copy A, one cannot simply use forms downloaded from the website to complete this transaction.

I should also note that it is possible to submit these forms electronically, but for somebody submitting only one W-2 or a small number of them, such as myself, this takes a lot of time and effort.

It gets worse. If you file a downloaded, non-scannable copy of the form, the IRS tells us, “a penalty may be imposed for filing forms that can’t be scanned.” (Again, this word was in boldface.)

Is this actually happening? Is the IRS making these forms available online, only to not allow their use? Do IRS officials get the idea behind making forms available online in the first place? Is this their idea of online government? Can they possibly be threatening to impose a penalty on taxpayers who submit a non-scannable form, probably because they went online to get these forms and never bothered to read the IRS’ warning?

Who at the agency decided this was a good idea? Has anybody ever heard the phrase “user-centered design”?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 20, 2018 at 11:05 AM


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