Could an IRS tech push leave taxpayers feeling abandoned?

The IRS has an ambitious plan for customer service, but will taxpayers be able to access live human help?

Shutterstock image (by Macrovector): operator service and support.

The 2015 tax-filing season was "by far the worst in memory" for taxpayers who needed help from the IRS, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson reported last summer. And the situation might get worse in the coming years.

In her annual report to Congress, published Jan. 6, Olson hammered the IRS over its "Future State" plan, a technology strategy that has been in the works since 2014 but has not been made publicly available.

"Implicit in the plan -- and explicit in internal discussions -- is an intention on the part of the IRS to substantially reduce telephone and face-to-face service," Olson wrote. "To the extent taxpayers require help, the IRS is developing procedures to enable third parties like tax return preparers and tax software companies to provide it -- an approach that will increase taxpayer compliance costs."

Due to the complexity of the tax code, the IRS has long trod carefully in the realm of taxpayer aid, forbidding IRS employees from offering tax advice on social media and prominently displaying disclaimers in its web offerings.

Olson contends that the Future State plan would only worsen the situation by funneling taxpayer problems to private companies and making it harder for taxpayers to talk through questions with the IRS, Olson said.

The plan does promote online taxpayer accounts, which she praised as a valuable streamlining tool. But it could also allow for unregulated third-party tax preparers to access taxpayers' accounts, a major security and fraud concern.

IRS officials responded to the report by affirming a commitment to taxpayer service while stressing that the Future State plan is a work in progress.

"These efforts are ongoing and have not been finalized, and the IRS emphasizes feedback from outside parties has been and will continue to be an important part of the process," the IRS said in a statement. "The National Taxpayer Advocate's report does not paint a full picture of these evolving Future State efforts. [Olson] seems to want the IRS to continue to do business the way we did 10 years ago."

In response to the report, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) promised rigorous oversight from his committee in the coming months.

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