NTA Blog: The Roadmap to the Roadmap: A Travelogue

July 29, 2019

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On July 10th, my office released the 2019 Taxpayer Roadmap—a visual representation of the taxpayer’s journey through the tax system. I am enormously proud of this accomplishment. As someone with a strong background in fine arts (that was my undergraduate major), I have always thought that graphic presentation of complex information, transactions, and systems is one of the most effective tools for communication and comprehension. The Taxpayer Roadmap simultaneously and succinctly conveys, in ways words never can, the convoluted nature of our tax system and the taxpayer’s path through that system.

Although it may seem the map appeared out of nowhere, the roadmap has had a long gestation period, and I think it is worth describing the Roadmap’s roadmap, so to speak. The earliest version of the roadmap entered my life in 1993 as a pencil drawing in course materials for a Tax Practice and Procedure course I took at Georgetown University Law School, as part of the Masters of Law in Taxation degree program. I treasured that drawing—it was very reductive, and focused on a few vitally important steps in audit, appeals, litigation, and collection.

The map entered its next stage with the advent of funding for Low Income Taxpayer Clinics (LITCs). With the first grant awards in 1999, new LITCs popped up throughout the country. Many were affiliated with legal service entities that previously had not provided representation in tax controversies. As Executive Director of The Community Tax Law Project, for two years I traveled the country conducting several two-day training sessions called “The Roadmap to a Tax Controversy” for LITC staff and volunteer attorneys. As part of the training materials I expanded and redesigned the roadmap a bit, so it became three maps, and it graduated from being a pencil drawing to a computer-generated drawing. I also incorporated the maps into the curricula for the tax practicum courses I taught at University of Richmond Law and William and Mary law schools.

When I became the National Taxpayer Advocate, one of my earliest initiatives was to teach a truncated version of the Roadmap class to all 2,000 of my employees in the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS). In those class sessions, conducted in person over two weeks, the roadmap drawings featured prominently.  In the summer of 2012, I taped a three-hour class on the Roadmap, and TAS created some wonderful posters of the three roadmaps—audit and appeals, litigation, and collection—that are now prominently displayed in every TAS office. The video and the maps were also made available to LITCs for use in training their staff and volunteers.

In 2014, we began to think about creating an app to help taxpayers navigate the tax system. I and the TAS communications Executive Director, Maryclaire Ramsey, and several members of my staff spent two days at The Nerdery, an innovative group that helps clients explore possible mobile application concepts taking into consideration existing experiences, user types and motivations, brainstorming ideas. We ended up covering the wall with sticky notes and ideas of how we could create a website where taxpayers could describe their problem or enter an IRS notice or letter number and find out, in plain language, where they were in the system and what they needed to do. We never did create the app, but the ideas discussed in those sessions formed the basis for today’s Roadmap.

The next developmental stage for the Roadmap was the adoption and later enactment of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TBOR). As a tool to convince the IRS to adopt TBOR, we in TAS worked with Chief Counsel to identify the various statutory and administrative protections that gave meaning to the ten TBOR rights. (You can find this crosswalk here.) This crosswalk provided the foundation for identifying key points on the roadmap where taxpayer protections featured prominently. 

In 2018, with a new IRS Commissioner on the horizon, I decided to set “The Taxpayer’s Journey” as the theme for the 2018 Annual Report to Congress. I thought it would be helpful for the Commissioner if we used the Most Serious Problem section of the report to establish a baseline of IRS activity, from the taxpayer’s perspective. Thus, the 2018 Annual Report covered the stages of the taxpayer’s journey—tax preparation, return processing, audit, appeals, litigation, and collection—and included seven “roadmaps” for each of these stages. 

Those roadmaps were the result of dozens of hours in which I, Maryclaire, Laura Baek (TAS Senior Attorney Advisor) and Karen Tober (my Executive Assistant) locked ourselves in Maryclaire’s office and mapped the taxpayer’s journey. There were so many stages and detours and bypasses that we found it impossible to just diagram the maps with pencil and paper. Ultimately, we cut up tiny squares of differently colored construction paper. Each separate stage of the journey had a different color theme—for some reason, collection was red, exam was orange, and appeals was purple—and we would tape the squares to a huge whiteboard and draw lines between them and then move them around as we thought through intervening steps. It felt a little bit like going back to kindergarten, and all we needed were glue sticks, but it worked. Ultimately the little colored squares covered an entire wall of Maryclaire’s office. We took photos, and worked with Amber Richardson, TAS’s in-house graphic designer, so she could attempt to make visual sense of what we had done.

All along, I had intended that we would create a true roadmap like the ones we used when I was a child and took long road trips in my parents’ Ford Falcon station wagon. I have memories of my mother navigating with this huge map unfurled. When we got to our destination, it was my and my siblings’ job to fold up the roadmap back to its original, tidy form. That was no mean feat. I thought the folding would be part of the process of conveying the complexity of the tax system. (I didn’t account for the fact that GPS had made roadmaps almost obsolete so a whole generation of my employees had no idea what I was talking about when I said I wanted a roadmap.)

And then the shutdown hit.

The shutdown foiled all our plans to print a true roadmap for the Annual Report to Congress. We came back from the shutdown wrestling with how to visually convey all the intersecting and overlapping processes and their branches and sub-branches. Our initial version of Amber’s drawing of the roadmap was complete with trees and ducks and, of course, goats. We finally hit on the idea of a subway map—as a resident of Washington, D.C., I spend hours standing in the metro and have the iconic metro map imprinted on my memory. The metro map would have nodes, and major stations where lines intersected. It was a perfect way to display the tax system!

For the Annual Report, because of time constraints, we ended up creating seven different maps, one for each stage of the journey. This turned out to be a key part of our development process, because by this time we had circled back around to our idea from years ago of creating a website that would be the navigational tool for taxpayers through the tax system. After the publication of the Annual Report, I established small teams of three TAS employees, one team for each stage of the taxpayer’s journey. The teams went to work on identifying and mapping the more detailed processes that underpinned the high-level maps we published in the 2018 Annual Report. They also identified all of the letters and notices the IRS sends to taxpayers at each of those stages. 

I cannot describe sufficiently what a Herculean feat this was—the work of these teams was amazing. And … it continues. Now that the metro map version of the Taxpayer Roadmap is published, we will continue to update. But the TAS teams are now working on the digital version of the roadmap, and this is where the original vision will finally be realized. Taxpayers will be able to go to the TAS website and input the number on their letter or notice from the IRS. They will get a pop-up box that gives them, in plain and simple terms,

  • an explanation of the notice,
  • why it is important,
  • what rights and taxpayer protections are implicated,
  • what they need to do and why they shouldn’t ignore it,
  • links to where they can get more information about the next steps,
  • links to the roadmap to see where they are in the process and how they got there (the “you are here” function), and 
  • where they can get help.

Before TAS has the digital version, however, we are continuing to improve the 2019 Taxpayer Roadmap. Chris Germano, a TAS Communications, Stakeholder Liaison and Online Services employee, created this really nifty video about the roadmap, complete with a voice-over. We plan to publish a glossary of terms on the reverse side of the Roadmap, and we will be adding key notice and letter numbers at different stages of the Roadmap for reference. Each printing of the Roadmap will have enhancements. But there is a point when only a digital version, with its interactivity and linkages, will truly empower taxpayers and help them find their way through the tax system.

One of the reasons I wanted to write about TAS’s journey in developing the Roadmap is to highlight the creativity of TAS employees. Far too often, government employees are characterized as hidebound bureaucrats. Well, it wasn’t the private sector that came up with the Roadmap. It was a small—very small—team of Taxpayer Advocate Service employees who worked on this map, and continue to do so, in addition to doing their day jobs. They saw the potential this tool has to educate taxpayers about their rights and how to claim them. As I said at the beginning of this post, I am enormously proud of these folks, and it is they who we should congratulate and celebrate.

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the National Taxpayer Advocate. The National Taxpayer Advocate is appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury and reports to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. However, the National Taxpayer Advocate presents an independent taxpayer perspective that does not necessarily reflect the position of the IRS, the Treasury Department, or the Office of Management and Budget.