During my four-year period of underachievement known as college, an economics teacher, Mr. Walgrebe, once handed out an assignment requiring us to map out a business model and concept that you could present to a bank in hopes of getting a loan. Normally, an assignment like this would have thrilled me like a sprained ankle, but in a rare moment of academic motivation, I rushed to the library and began my research. I even went to one of the loan officers at a local bank branch and explained my mission.
When I handed in my submission for an upscale pizzeria, Mr. Walgrebe told me that listing the proposed menu and sketching the interior were fine, but what was missing were the details of how the place would actually generate revenue, such as customer counts, food and overhead costs, and average check prices.
Naturally, I didn't receive the grade I'd expected, but I did learn something about the importance of details.
The Internal Revenue Service must be feeling a bit like I did that afternoon after the Government Accountability Office ordered the service to expand a bit on descriptions, as well as cost and performance information - particularly on its new initiatives - when submitting its future budgets.
For 2008, the IRS has asked for $11.6 billion, a spending increase of roughly 5 percent - with the majority of that being spent on enforcement policies.
However, the auditor general said that the monetary justifications for the IRS's initiatives varied a bit too much. For example, some lacked significant information, while others, like the one for compliance enforcement, provided little or no information on how the budget, staff requests or specific work to be accomplished had been arrived at.
I can almost envision the GAO's version of Mr. Walgrebe's famous oversized red pen desecrating the IRS's budget outline.
The GAO did say that the IRS has made noticeable progress in its enforcement efforts; for example, between the 2004 and 2006 fiscal years, enforcement revenue increased 13 percent, to $48.7 billion. That's the legacy that will be left by outgoing Commissioner Mark Everson, whose administration adopted a "get tough" attitude with regard to non-compliance.
However, where it's falling short is in the lack of a detailed plan to hone its compliance databases, and the absence of tangible time frames to put some of its antiquated computer systems out to pasture. And while its e-filing initiative grew from past years, that was blunted by the fact that fewer than 4 percent of eligible taxpayers used the highly publicized Free File program. Many taxpayers also lost out on speedier refunds as a result of delays associated with its Customer Account Data Engine.
If the IRS is as serious about developing its electronic initiatives as it has claimed, it needs to sit down and map out a workable timetable for them, rather than wait for Everson's successor.
And don't forget to include the details.
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