TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Saturday, January 11, 2014

NY Times: Charting the Decline in Service at the IRS

New York Times:  Charting the Decline in Service at the IRS, by Catherine Rampell:

The national taxpayer advocate, the ombudswoman for the Internal Revenue Service, has released her annual report about the biggest issues facing the agency. One major concern that the advocate, Nina E. Olson, emphasized was declining customer service at the agency, driven by budget cuts.

How much has the service declined? Here’s a chart showing the share of taxpayers who called wanting to speak with a customer representative and actually spoke to one (blue line), and the wait before reaching a representative (green bars):


IRS News, Tax | Permalink


The problem here is that imperfect data is being analyzed by those who have an incentive to interpret it in a way that helps build their part of the bureaucracy. Everyone who gets through to IRS and waits long enough, is served. Their success rate is 100%. But what about those who hang up after five minutes, or get a busy signal?

The hangups can be counted, but since they hear a recorded message reminding them that answers can be found on the IRS website, maybe they chose that alternative, at a lower cost to the IRS budget and a greater chance of an accurate answer. (The IRS Oversight Board found that "2012 survey results indicated that 86 percent of the public stated they were likely to visit the IRS website, up from 72 percent in 2003.) Others may have decided to call back (on a recharged phone?) when they had more time to wait.

As for the busy signals, we have no way of knowing how many real people they represent. One person trying ten times, or ten people giving up after two attempts? In the early days of toll-free taxpayer service, the formula was three busies equal one person. More lines were installed, at greater expense, to favor long waits over busy signals. IRS might have changed this formula, but they should reveal it when disseminating charts like this one.

What this chart shows is that the longer the wait time, which can be measured, the higher the percentage of people who give up, which cannot be measured -- it's just a guess. If your budget depended on such a guess, how would you lean?
In the Oversight Board survey released last February, “Overall taxpayer (i.e., the general public’s) satisfaction with interactions with the IRS remained unchanged from last year, with 76 percent reporting they were ‘very and somewhat satisfied;’ however the share who stated they were ‘very satisfied’ grew in 2012 to 41 percent – tying the highest level ever recorded in a Board survey.”

Posted by: Bob Kamman | Jan 12, 2014 8:58:33 AM