Today we welcome back guest blogger Anna Gooch. Anna highlights ongoing discussions of the IRS’s communication and education strategy between TIGTA, the IRS, and stakeholder groups. This topic is particularly timely following the President’s executive order on improving customer experience across the federal government, which states in part, that
Agencies should continually improve their understanding of their customers, reduce administrative hurdles and paperwork burdens to minimize “time taxes,” enhance transparency, create greater efficiencies across Government, and redesign compliance-oriented processes to improve customer experience and more directly meet the needs of the people of the United States.
The Secretary of the Treasury is specifically directed to
design and deliver new online tools and services to ease the payment of taxes and provide the option to schedule customer support telephone call-backs. The Secretary of the Treasury should consider whether such tools and services might include expanded automatic direct deposit refunds based on prior year tax returns, tax credit eligibility tools, and expanded electronic filing options.
Creatively re-thinking taxpayer communication and education will help ensure that the agency’s new online tools and services make a meaningful difference in the taxpayer experience. Christine
In a report issued on September 2, 2021, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) released a report reviewing the IRS’ EITC audit practices and providing recommendations for improvement. In the report, TIGTA explained:
The IRS’s EITC examination strategy is not part of a larger IRS examination strategy that encompasses all examinations by which resources devoted to EITC examinations can be more easily assessed in the context of other challenges to taxpayer noncompliance. Also, due to IRS processing limitations, the IRS does not prioritize certain high-risk EITC claims for examination. Lastly, the IRS’s examination rates for EITC claims appear disproportionate with respect to certain Southern States; however, the examinations are aligned with tax returns flagged by IRS compliance filters.
Based on these findings, TIGTA made the following recommendations designed to improve the processes by which the IRS selects EITC claims for audit:
1. [C]onsider how refundable credits, including the EITC, would be examined to a different extent if the claims are considered for compliance purposes closer to the proportion that they contribute to the Tax Gap.
2. Evaluate the current programming for the prerefund selection process to ensure that cases identified by both [Questionable Refund Program (QRP)] and [Dependent Database (DDb)] selection pools are prioritized for DDb prerefund selection.
3. Evaluate and revise the scoring process to ensure that the cases with the highest risk are scored as such. This process should include adding weight to cases with higher QRP and DDb scores and [duplicate TIN filing] repeaters.
4. [T]ailor EITC-related educational efforts for the States with disproportionate error rates.
Of these four recommendations, three are focused on the IRS’ role as a revenue collector. The fourth recommendation, the only recommendation that the IRS did not agree to adopt, concerns the IRS’ role as benefits administrator. In rejecting that recommendation, the IRS relied on its belief that “it already has extensive outreach and education strategy in place,” including EITC Awareness Day and Refundable Credits Summit.
Although this report focuses solely on EITC audits, it provides an opportunity to explore the nature of current IRS outreach and education programs in the context of refundable credit compliance. The Refundable Credits Summit and EITC Awareness Day provide a window into such efforts.
On November 2 and 3, 2021, the IRS held its annual Refundable Credits Summit, a two-day conference hosted by the Wage & Investment Division and Return Integrity & Compliance Services. Commendably, the IRS has been holding these summits for several years now and invites various stakeholders – academics, nonprofits serving the target community, representatives of tax professional groups, LITCs, and tax preparation and VITA entities – to hear presentations from senior IRS leaders on topics relevant to refundable credits and to discuss concerns. The first day of the Fall 2021 Summit provided a summary of legislative and procedural developments regarding the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Credit, as well as progress made on advance payments of credits and the various portals associated with those credits. On the second day of the Summit, the IRS hosted a four-hour brainstorming session, requesting suggestions on ways to raise awareness of the availability of refundable credits. During this session, Summit participants offered ways in which the IRS can reach more Americans – posters in laundromats, billboards along highways, ads on local radio stations. There were seemingly endless ideas offered, and while raising awareness of refundable credits is undoubtedly important, this discussion highlighted the IRS’ limited view of “outreach.”
First, based on what was discussed during the Summit (and what was not discussed), it is clear that raising awareness is where the IRS’ plan ends. Reaching as many taxpayers as possible is admirable, but as several participants pointed out during the summit, the lack of a follow up education strategy from the IRS creates a risk that taxpayers will not understand how refundable credits apply to them and their circumstances, nor will they have resources to consult when they encounter a problem.
Second, it seems the IRS views itself as an information provider and not as the entity that would communicate directly with taxpayers. Rather, though aware of geographic, cultural, and demographic differences among eligible populations, the IRS did not appear to envision any role for itself in communicating with these populations. Instead, the IRS looked to the attendees to conduct community-based outreach using IRS-provided resources. Understandably, the IRS is proud of increasing its stakeholders and the number of eligible individuals it reaches; however, the IRS has no effective way of analyzing whether its materials and efforts are useful or effective because it delegates this responsibility to stakeholders.
Finally, the IRS failed to consider the importance of using data in its outreach campaigns. There exist data breaking down which areas are most at risk for failing to claim the expanded CTC, even if families in these areas are eligible. These areas should have not only a different, targeted outreach strategy, as TIGTA suggests, but also an intensive education campaign focusing on the communities where specific types of noncompliance occur. The IRS also doesn’t seem to use data in analyzing its efforts after the fact. As one participant stated during the Summit, the IRS cannot just throw several campaigns out and hope that something sticks. If the IRS wants outreach and education to be effective, it must analyze what works and what doesn’t.
In terms of education, as noted in the recent TIGTA report, the IRS relies on its existing EITC Awareness Day to provide sufficient education to EITC claimants. According to the IRS website, “Awareness Day is an event organized by the IRS and its partners to educate the public about the EITC and requirements to claim the credit. The goal is to raise awareness of EITC to ensure every qualified worker claim and receive [sic] their EITC. We also ask you to join us in getting the right message out about the CTC/ACTC and the AOTC to the right people who deserve the credits” (emphasis added). Despite the IRS’ apparent goal to reach “every qualified worker,” the reach of Awareness Day is quite limited. In 2020, via its 1,500 “supporters,” the IRS reached 2 million individuals on EITC Awareness Day. While the IRS does state that “other activities such as news releases and articles for EITC Awareness Day” were conducted, it is silent as to what exactly these activities are or what their reach is, especially because the IRS relies so heavily on its “partners.” In 2020, 25 million taxpayers claimed the EITC on their return. Two million is 8% of 25 million – not exactly “every qualified worker.” The IRS does not publish much data on EITC Awareness Day, so it’s not entirely clear who is targeted, what the message is, or if there is any follow up, much less what communities the education actually occurred in. The information that is published suggests that there is room for improvement of EITC (and other refundable credit) education efforts, particularly those targeted toward the 5 million taxpayers who are potentially eligible for the EITC but do not claim it.
The TIGTA report is just one example of where the IRS is failing to embrace its dual role as both revenue collector and benefits administrator, and outreach and education are just a small part of adopting that role. The IRS could begin to improve its educational programs by starting with small pilot programs targeting communities with high noncompliance or nonparticipation, as TIGTA suggests. From these programs, the IRS would be able to test and analyze multiple strategies and approaches to determine the best approach for larger markets. Among other changes, the IRS could revise its mission statement, create a specialized unit dedicated to benefits administration, adjust administrative processes, and improve communications to better reflect the role it has in administering some of the nation’s largest anti-poverty programs. Of course, all of this cannot happen overnight, but as Congress continues to place benefit administration in the IRS, the IRS must adapt accordingly.