IRS needs to improve service for taxpayers with limited proficiency in English

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The Internal Revenue Service did a good job last tax season dealing with the many changes in the tax law, despite the 35-day government shutdown, but it still needs to improve its dealings with taxpayers who have limited proficiency with the English language, according to a new report.

The report, from the Government Accountability Office, reviewed the 2019 tax filing season and how the IRS addressed the many tax law changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It also described how the IRS dealt with the 35-day partial government shutdown, and how the IRS performed in providing customer service and processing individual and business income tax returns.

In addition, the report discussed what opportunities exist for the IRS to improve its customer service and return processing, including services available to taxpayers with limited English proficiency. The report noted that IRS only has a few services for taxpayers with limited English-language skills, and the translated content on its website is outdated. The IRS also hasn’t assessed whether to translate many of its common tax forms (such as Form 1040).

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

In advance of the 2019 filing season, the IRS worked with the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget to implement the significant tax law changes from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. That included publishing guidance, creating tax products and forms, and reprogramming its computer systems. The IRS also took several steps to inform the public of the changes through public media campaigns and outreach.

The IRS’s performance during the 2019 filing season was initially hampered by significant challenges that IRS largely overcame, the report noted. As the agency implemented the TCJA, a five-week lapse in appropriations furloughed many IRS employees during a critical time period for 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 the IRS improved performance over the course of the filing season, its overall performance remained lower than last year.

The GAO report identified several areas for the IRS to improve its customer service and facilitate compliance. First, the report found the IRS’s services to taxpayers with limited-English proficiency 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. In addition, the IRS has not assessed and documented its decisions about whether to translate many vital tax products, including the Form 1040 and what oral interpretive services it could potentially provide to taxpayers with limited proficiency in English. Improving services for taxpayers with limited English proficiency would help them better understand their tax obligations and could help enhance their compliance, the report pointed out.

The IRS disputed some of the GAO’s findings on the effectiveness of the agency’s training. “We do not agree with statements in the report that the IRS does not regularly use employee input to identify improvements to its training,” wrote Sunita Lough, deputy commissioner for services and enforcement at the IRS, in response to the report. “We collect evaluations and analyze feedback from participants and managers after attending training. Employees are given an opportunity to provide feedback on their overall satisfaction with the training and their ability to apply what they’ve learned on the job.”

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