The Internal Revenue Service received fewer phone calls from taxpayers this year than in recent years, according to a new government report, but the percentage of callers seeking help who received it remained low while wait times remained high compared to prior years.

The report, from the Government Accountability Office, noted that the IRS’s processing of tax returns was timely, even though the filing season was delayed due to the 2013 government shutdown. Continued growth in electronic filing enables the IRS to reduce costs and issue refunds faster. Although the IRS received fewer calls in 2014, the percentage of callers seeking help who received it remained low and wait times remained high compared to prior years.

One way to improve taxpayer telephone service is to compare it to the best in the business, as required by Congress and executive orders, the GAO noted. However, the IRS has not systematically made such a comparison for its telephone service because of budget constraints and difficulty in identifying comparable organizations, according to IRS officials. “By not comparing itself to other call center operations, IRS is missing an opportunity to identify and address gaps between actual and desired service, and inform Congress about resources needed to close the gap,” said the GAO. “More efficient telephone service could help improve correspondence service because the same staff provides those services.”

The IRS did not set numerical goals—such as a reduction in wait time—or develop a plan to assess the effects of its 2014 service changes, the GAO pointed out. Such information would help Congress, IRS managers, and others understand the benefits and potential budget tradeoffs associated with IRS service changes. This is important because the IRS has identified additional service changes for 2015 and beyond.

The IRS used its new enterprise-wide risk management approach to identify risks such as staffing and training, the GAO acknowledged, and the IRS has made good progress in setting up its risk management process. However, while risks were identified and countermeasures discussed, such as contingency plans and workload adjustments, most countermeasures were not specific. “Without specific countermeasures identified in advance, IRS's ability to respond to adverse events may be hampered,” said the GAO.

In response to the report, the IRS argued that it had improved its telephone service abilities. “By effectively applying available resources, the IRS was able to exceed performance projections in many areas this filing season,” wrote IRS deputy commissioner of services and enforcement John M. Dalrymple. “Concentrating staffing in the January through June period enabled us to deliver a 70 percent level of telephone service and answer 15.2 million customer calls. Cumulatively, we maintained high levels of accuracy, 95 percent for Tax Law calls and 96 percent for Account calls. In addition, while receipts in our adjustments inventory program were 111 percent of prior year through June, our ending inventory was 63 percent of prior year with 468,000 fewer overage cases.”

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