Fast Facts

Para la versión de esta página en español, ver a GAO-20-313.

The IRS implemented significant changes to the tax laws before the 2019 filing season.

We identified several areas where the IRS could improve customer service and facilitate compliance with tax requirements. For instance, the agency only has a few services for taxpayers with limited English-language skills, and the translated content on its website is outdated. IRS also hasn’t assessed whether to translate many of its common tax forms (such as Form 1040).

We recommended (among other things) that the IRS improve services to taxpayers with limited English skills, which could help improve compliance with tax laws.

Form 1040, flag

Form 1040, flag

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Highlights

Para la versión de esta página en español, ver a GAO-20-313.

What GAO Found

In advance of the 2019 filing season, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) collaborated with the Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to implement significant tax law changes from Public Law 115-97—commonly known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). This included publishing guidance, creating tax products (e.g., forms), and reprogramming systems. IRS also took several steps to inform the public of the changes through public media campaigns and outreach.

IRS’s performance during the 2019 filing season was initially hindered by significant challenges that IRS largely overcame. As the agency implemented TCJA, a five-week lapse in appropriations furloughed many IRS employees during critical filing season preparations. This led to sharp declines in telephone service early in the filing season along with delays in paper return processing and backlogs of taxpayer correspondence. While IRS improved performance over the course of the filing season, overall performance remained lower than last year.

GAO identified several areas for IRS to improve customer service and facilitate compliance. First, its services to taxpayers with limited-English proficiency (LEP) are very limited, inaccurate in some cases, and difficult to access. For example, weaknesses in IRS procedures for reviewing and updating translated content lead to outdated information on its website (see figure). Also, IRS has not assessed and documented its decisions whether to translate many vital tax products, including Form 1040—one of the most commonly-used forms for individuals—and 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.

Figure: Outdated Translated Information on IRS.gov for 2019 Filing Season

Figure described in preceding paragraph. For additional information about this figure, refer to contacts listed at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-55

IRS also does not regularly use employee input to evaluate the impact of customer service training on performance to identify improvements. Finally, GAO found that IRS increasingly relies on overtime to meet processing and service goals; however, IRS lacks a strategy for efficiently using overtime. Dependence on overtime can increase costs to IRS and lead to employee burnout.

Why GAO Did This Study

During the tax filing season, generally from January to mid-April, IRS processes more than 100 million individual and business tax returns and provides telephone, correspondence, online, and in-person services to tens of millions of taxpayers. The 2019 filing season is the first during which most individuals and businesses filed returns affected by major tax law changes under TCJA.

GAO was asked to review IRS’s performance implementing TCJA and managing the 2019 filing season. GAO assessed (1) IRS’s performance collaborating with Treasury and OMB to implement TCJA prior to the 2019 filing season and IRS’s efforts to communicate tax law changes to the public; (2) IRS’s performance providing customer service and processing individual and business income tax returns during the 2019 filing season compared to prior filing seasons; and (3) any opportunities that may exist to improve IRS’s ability to provide quality customer service and to facilitate taxpayer compliance. GAO analyzed IRS, Treasury, and OMB documents and data and interviewed cognizant officials.

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Recommendations

GAO made 8 recommendations to IRS, including improving service to taxpayers with LEP by ensuring translated information on its website is updated, and assessing and documenting the appropriate mix of language services it should provide; using employee input to evaluate the impact of customer service training on performance; and implementing a strategy for efficient use of overtime. IRS agreed with 6 recommendations and neither agreed nor disagreed with 2 recommendations, as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Internal Revenue Service 1. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should make publicly available, such as on its website, a list of tax topics considered out of scope for CSRs to answer on the telephone, as well as include references for how and where to find information about these topics. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
In response to this recommendation, during the 2020 filing season, the telephone assistance section of the IRS website featured a message notifying taxpayers that customer service representatives (CSR) are unable to assist with some topics and included a link to the Internal Revenue Manual section listing these topics. In August 2020, IRS took additional action to implement the recommendation by connecting visitors to the help section of the IRS website with more organized content on complex tax law topics considered out of scope for CSRs. The list of topics linked to publications, forms, and other relevant content. By presenting this information, IRS may decrease the number of calls received on topics CSRs are unable to address while still providing those taxpayers with the information they need to fulfill their tax obligations.
Internal Revenue Service 2. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should reconcile authority and implement procedures for routinely reviewing the English versions of IRS's most commonly used vital tax products and web pages to ensure that information is included in commonly encountered languages about where taxpayers with LEP can obtain the translated content. If such content is not translated, the products and web pages should include information about where taxpayers with LEP can obtain language assistance from IRS. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In July 2020, IRS agreed with this recommendation and stated that it had started taking action to expand services provided to taxpayers with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). IRS stated that it developed a Servicewide Multilingual Improvement Strategy and other LEP initiatives that include the Language Services Executive Advisory Committee (LSEAC). The LSEAC is charged with further expanding available platforms and increasing available languages across multiple channels, including digital tools, telephone assistance, tax forms and publications, written correspondence, and outreach and education. IRS indicated that it would complete implementation by October 2020. As of January 2021, IRS has taken steps to expand services to taxpayers with LEP, including offering more translated content on its web site and translating the Form 1040 into Spanish. However, as of January 2021, IRS had not provided documentation related to reconciling authority and implementing procedures for routinely reviewing the English versions of IRS's most commonly used vital tax products and web pages.
Internal Revenue Service 3. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should reconcile authority and implement procedures for routinely reviewing its multilingual web pages to effectively prevent, or detect and correct, errors such as incorrect or outdated information. For example, these procedures could call for the divisions to work with the Linguistics, Policy, Tools, & Services (LPTS) section whenever the English version of translated content is updated. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In July 2020, IRS agreed with this recommendation and stated that, as part of the IRS Servicewide Multilingual Improvement Strategy, it was developing long and short-term plans and procedures to establish controls to review, detect, and correct errors or inconsistencies of multilingual web pages. IRS indicated that it would complete implementation by October 2022.
Internal Revenue Service 4. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should conduct the four-factor assessment of its language services to persons with LEP for its most commonly used vital tax products to determine (1) which products should be translated and into what languages, and (2) what interpretation assistance will be provided to arrive at the appropriate mix of translation and interpretation services. IRS should document these assessments, including the determinations it made, and take action as appropriate based on these assessments. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In July 2020, IRS agreed with this recommendation and stated that the four-factor assessment was being used as part of the IRS Servicewide Multilingual Improvement Strategy, and that IRS would document its assessment and take action as appropriate based on the results. IRS also stated that, with this assessment, it was undertaking several actions and initiatives to arrive at the appropriate mix of translation and interpretation services. IRS indicated that it would complete implementation by January 2022.
Internal Revenue Service 5. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should collect and use employee input on the strengths and weaknesses of its customer service training, including on whether training is effective in improving CSRs' performance, to inform changes to its training program and strategy under the Taxpayer First Act. (Recommendation 5)
Open
IRS agreed with this recommendation and said it would review the employee training evaluation process to determine what steps can be taken to improve training, such as making certain evaluations mandatory for employees and updating the surveys with more focused questions in order to get more substantial feedback. In July 2020, IRS stated that it would complete its actions by August 2021.
Internal Revenue Service 6. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should direct the Wage and Investment division to develop and implement a strategy, in collaboration with its strategic workforce planning initiative, for the efficient use of overtime. (Recommendation 6)
Open
IRS agreed with this recommendation, but stated that its existing process within the Wage and Investment division for the use and approval of overtime is sufficient, so it would not take any further action. However, we reported in January 2020 that offices in that division had exceeded their allocations of overtime in several years. We continue to believe that such a strategy, in collaboration with IRS's strategic workforce planning initiative, would help ensure an efficient use of overtime. If not well managed, overtime can be expensive, inefficient, contribute to skills gaps, and negatively affect employee morale.
Internal Revenue Service 7. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should further assess the increase in "system downtime" and identify possible solutions to mitigate any problems and reduce system downtime. (Recommendation 7)
Open
IRS agreed with this recommendation. In July 2020, IRS said it completed a further assessment after our audit and identified potential contributing factors. IRS said it implemented changes to the call center environment and was updating the Customer Service Representative technology platform to further improve system availability. IRS indicated that it would complete all actions by May 2021.
Internal Revenue Service 8. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should perform regular monitoring of fluctuations in system downtime charges, such as increases overall or by specific units, to determine what, if any, factors are interrupting CSRs' work. (Recommendation 8)
Open
IRS said it agreed with this recommendation and would monitor the system downtime reported by the Customer Service Representatives (CSR) in Customer Account Services. In July 2020, IRS said it had implemented changes to the call center environment and was updating the CSR technology platform to further improve system availability. IRS indicated it would complete all actions by May 2021.

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