IRS Tries Walking in Our Shoes

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, February 15, 2009

With a budget deficit projected to top $1 trillion this year, IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman may start feeling some pressure.

After all, it's the IRS's job to collect the money that finances most government operations and public services. Quite naturally, one would think there will be increased demand to collect every penny that taxpayers owe.

But Shulman, who is just one year into a five-year term, says he's committed to creating a balance between taxpayer service and strong tax enforcement.

"We need to be a world-class service organization," Shulman said during an hour-long interview. "We need to walk a mile in the taxpayer's shoes. My theory is people don't expect flawless service. But they do want to be told what to expect and then get it."

The IRS is probably the most loathed federal agency, the one people dread coming into contact with. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that the IRS collects money many people would rather keep for themselves.

I remember congressional hearings in the late 1990s when taxpayers testified about the rough, "Sopranos"-like treatment they were getting from IRS agents.

Talking behind big screens, longtime IRS employees accused management of fostering a culture in which workers were preoccupied with achieving high collection statistics, even if their collection tactics were illegal.

The late William Roth, the Delaware Republican who was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee at the time, held a series of hearings on IRS tax collection efforts.

"There is no other agency in this country that directly touches the lives of more Americans," Roth said. "The threat of an audit . . . looms like the sword of Damocles over the heads of taxpayers."

Although subsequent investigations didn't turn up widespread abuses, the hearings were instrumental in passing legislation that restructured the IRS and expanded taxpayer rights.

"We want to systematically find where people get lost in the system," Shulman said. "We want to understand the taxpayer experience."

Right now, for many taxpayers, what they are experiencing is being broke. Recognizing the problem, Shulman said he gave front-line IRS employees the authority to be easier on people having trouble paying their taxes because of the economy.

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