NTA Blog: The IRS Refuses to Provide Mandatory Employee Training on Taxpayer Rights

October 10, 2018

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For many years, I urged the IRS to adopt a Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TBOR) and for Congress to add the list of fundamental taxpayer rights to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). In addition to its legal significance, a thematic, principle-based list of core taxpayer rights is an important source of foundational principles to guide IRS employees in their dealings with taxpayers, and provide information to taxpayers to assist them in their dealings with the IRS. A TBOR also serves as an organizing principle for tax administrators in establishing agency goals and performance measures. A TBOR also helps the IRS to restore trust in the tax system and ensure taxpayers know their rights and are able to avail themselves of those rights.  

In 2014, the IRS formally adopted the TBOR and then, in 2015, Congress added the list of fundamental rights to IRC § 7803(a)(3). The Code now also requires the IRS Commissioner to “ensure that employees of the Internal Revenue Service are familiar with and act in accord with taxpayer rights as afforded by other provisions of this title, including—

        (A)  the right to be informed,
        (B)  the right to quality service,
        (C)  the right to pay no more than the correct amount of tax,
        (D)  the right to challenge the position of the Internal Revenue Service and be heard,
        (E)   the right to appeal a decision of the Internal Revenue Service in an independent forum,
        (F)   the right to finality,
        (G)  the right to privacy,
        (H)  the right to confidentiality,
        (I)  the right to retain representation, and
        (J)  the right to a fair and just tax system.”

Notwithstanding these efforts, the IRS has not fulfilled Congress’s mandate in IRC § 7803(a)(3) in a comprehensive or strategic manner. I’ve provided details in my last two Annual Reports to Congress here and here about how the IRS has failed to incorporate the TBOR into its operations. Today, I want to focus on one specific action the IRS could take to fulfill its statutory mandate to ensure employees are familiar with and act in accord with the TBOR.

The IRS currently requires annual trainings for all employees, known as “mandatory briefings.”  Topics include ethics, physical security, information systems security, privacy and disclosure, records management, and section 1204 of the Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 (RRA 98), which relates to the use of enforcement statistics to evaluate employees and the fair and equitable treatment retention standard. In both my 2016 and 2017 Annual Reports to Congress, I recommended the IRS collaborate with TAS to create a mandatory briefing on the TBOR.

In response to my recommendation, the IRS stated that a TBOR mandatory briefing was not needed and it detailed several training courses for specific employee positions that include taxpayer rights information. While I commend the IRS for incorporating taxpayer rights into some of its courses, training employees on the TBOR should not be an either/or proposition, with either the TBOR incorporated into specific examples in specific courses or a broad training for all employees. Each one of these approaches has value. A mandatory briefing would supplement the taxpayer rights information in individual training courses. Individual courses vary greatly in their coverage of the TBOR and employees may take different courses depending on their positions.

A mandatory TBOR briefing, on the other hand, would periodically remind all employees about the TBOR and the IRS’s commitment to uphold it, in much the same way as the annual “UNAX” training (discussed below) has embedded the prohibition on browsing taxpayers’ records in the collective (un)consciousness of all IRS employees, regardless of position. The TBOR annual briefing would create a shared mindset among employees, reinforce the TBOR as a key part of tax administration, and foster an employee culture that respects taxpayer rights. I conducted a Literature Review on incorporating taxpayer rights into tax administration in 2016 and found that a
requirement for success is making the TBOR part of the IRS’s culture and way of doing things.

Moreover, a TBOR mandatory briefing would treat the TBOR with the same level of importance as taxpayer confidentiality. Specifically, the IRS conducts mandatory annual unauthorized access of taxpayer accounts (UNAX) training and also covers taxpayer confidentiality in function-and-job-specific training courses. The TBOR requires the same treatment to acknowledge the important of taxpayer rights.

In 2017, the IRS Human Capital Office informally approved the development of a mandatory briefing on the TBOR and worked with TAS to establish project deadlines. TAS began working on the briefing, creating a short video explaining the history of the TBOR, a storyboard highlighting each right with examples for IRS employees, and a knowledge check to ensure employees understood the information. However, with little explanation, the IRS abruptly reversed course in the fall of 2017 and refused to allow a mandatory briefing on the TBOR, despite TAS having met the deadlines established by the Human Capital Office and preliminarily developed the content for the course. I am baffled by the IRS’s reversal on the TBOR mandatory briefing. Not only does this action raise questions about the IRS’s commitment to the TBOR, but it also begs the question:  Is the IRS meeting its statutory obligation to “ensure that employees of the Internal Revenue Service are familiar with and act in accord with taxpayer rights?”  

The IRS is inexplicably passing up an opportunity to meet this statutory mandate, despite the de minimis amount of work that would be required on its part due to TAS having already developed the briefing. I look forward to working with the new Commissioner in reconsideration of the IRS’s former position regarding an annual mandatory TBOR briefing.

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.