Audit says IRS Phone Stats Don’t Tell the Whole Story

In many stories about the IRS’ customer service accomplishments or shortcomings, the agency’s telephone performance statistics are frequently cited. But a new audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) finds that those phone statistics may not be giving us the complete picture of the IRS’ performance.

Part pf the IRS’ stated mission is to “provide America’s taxpayers top quality service by helping them to understand and meet their tax responsibilities and by applying the tax law with integrity and fairness to all.” Telephone assistance is crucial to the IRS mission as millions of taxpayers call the agency’s telephone assistance lines every year, seeking help to understand the tax laws and meet their tax obligations.

Not All Calls are Counted

The Inspector General performed the audit to see “whether IRS telephone measures accurately reflect the performance and accuracy of service provided to taxpayers.” The IRS tracks multiple performance measures for telephone services, but reports only four, with Level of Service being its primary measure.

TIGTA found the IRS telephone performance measures don’t reflect overall call demand or performance for IRS telephone assistance.

The Level of Service, as calculated by the IRS, doesn’t account for total taxpayer demand, the cost of providing telephone service, the time it takes taxpayers to talk to an assistor, or the level of resources the IRS is able to devote to phone service.

The report also faults IRS management for not clearly disclosing the total scope of Level of service in congressional testimony or to other external stakeholders.

For Fiscal Year 2018, the IRS had 110 toll-free telephone lines, but reports to Congress and other external stakeholders contained Level of Service statistics only on the 30 Accounts Management phone lines. This meant the measure of the agency’s telephone performance was calculated using data from just 27 percent of its phone lines.

The audit report says IRS hasn’t made sufficient progress to offer taxpayers the same level of service they get from other organizations. For example, the IRS does not offer taxpayers a customer-callback service.

Finally, the audit also reviewed 111 tax law calls and 116 tax account calls between Jan. 1, 2018 and April 30, 2018. The review found that the IRS did not accurately evaluate 7 percent of the tax law calls and 4 percent of the tax account calls for customer accuracy. The audit projected that 222 of the 3,079 total tax law calls and 228 of the 5,303 total tax account calls during the sample period may not have been evaluated accurately.

What TIGTA Recommended

Recommendations of the audit include:

  • The IRS should update its externally reported performance measures to include calculating and externally reporting Level of Access,
  • include all IRS telephone lines in the calculation of the Level of Service or disclose that the Level of Service represents only those taxpayers who call the Accounts Management function’s telephone lines,
  • ensure that quality reviewers properly review calls and accurately report errors, and
  • update internal guidelines to require customer service representatives to verify taxpayers’ comprehension of the information given to them or ask taxpayers if all their questions were answered at the end of the call to ensure that taxpayer questions are resolved the first time.

IRS management agreed with all the recommendations, but the report cautions that the problems may not go away any time soon.

“The IRS’s planned corrective actions to follow existing procedures will not address the deficiencies cited in the report.  Additional actions are needed to ensure that calls are properly reviewed, errors are accurately reported, and taxpayer’s questions are resolved the first time.”

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