The Advocate Who Keeps an Eye on the IRS (La Presse)

July 17, 2015

National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson was interviewed in the French-language newspaper La Presse. Below is a translation of the original article.

By Vincent Brousseau-Pouliot

Is the IRS always right? In the United States, Nina Olson has been keeping an eye on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Since 2001, the former tax law university professor and manager of a tax law workshop for the low-income population has been running the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS), a 1,900-employee office within IRS, which helps resolve 250,000 taxpayer files per year, while making recommendations to the IRS and to Congress.

She talks about the two presentations she gave in Quebec last week, before the Canadian Tax Foundation of Montreal and the School of Law of Laval University in Quebec.

Q: What is the role of the Taxpayer Advocate Service?

A: I defend the taxpayers’ rights within the IRS. Technically, I am an IRS employee, but I am appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury and I report to Congress. Congress assigns four missions to us: to help taxpayers resolve their issues, to identify the areas where taxpayers experience the most problems with the IRS, to propose administrative changes within the IRS in order to solve such issues, and to propose legislative changes. We make our recommendations in our two annual reports addressed to Congress and we need to identify the 20 most pressing issues in our December report. [...] Out of millions of taxpayer files, we help resolve 250,000 per year. [...] We are not an alternative solution to the regular methods for appealing a tax notice, but we are here for files raising major issues for the taxpayer.

Q: What is the Americans’ perception of the IRS?

A: In the United States, people’s attitude towards taxes goes back to the Tea Party (in 1773). They hate taxes. There is no greater power than to take your money and [distribute it] for the public benefit. Is the Government too small or too large? People are suspicious of tax authorities and taxes. They don’t necessarily see the IRS as a government agency whose purpose is to collect money for the public benefit.

Q: The IRS sometimes has a bad reputation. Is it justified?

A: IRS is made up of people who are extremely dedicated to its mission, which is essentially to collect the taxpayers’ money. From an administrative point of view, certain taxpayers sometimes feel that they are found guilty and nobody likes to be judged by someone else. Most taxpayers want to comply with the tax laws, but sometimes, when they feel that they are being judged, they may have a bad reaction and no longer communicate information. In a self-assessment system like ours, give me two or three hours and I could find something to correct in every income tax return. The law is so complex that taxpayers often don’t know what they are being blamed for. [...] A solution that we see more and more often: soft notices. The IRS informs you that it has the information in question, that it understands that you have made a mistake, but not to do it again.

Q: What changes should be implemented within the IRS?

A: The IRS clearly needs larger budgets. The budgets for assistance to taxpayers, file enforcement and creation of electronic tax accounts have been reduced. The United States is the only large, well-developed country that does not offer electronic tax accounts to its taxpayers. We also want to use the Taxpayer Bill of Rights adopted in 2014 as reference for all IRS actions.

Q: How do you compare the Taxpayer Advocate Service to the Office of the Taxpayers’ Ombudsman created in Canada in 2008?

A: We have worked with the Canada Revenue Agency to create their Ombudsman Office. They came to examine how our office works. At the same time, it’s not fair to make this comparison, because our office was created in the 1970s (in 1979) and it has developed and grown over the years, based on the additional mandates assigned to us by the US Congress. Each mandate is specific to the culture of the country in question.

Note: the interview has been condensed.

“In a self-assessment system like ours, give me two or three hours, and I could find something to correct in every income tax return” – Nina Olson, manager of the Taxpayer Advocate Service.

The Taxpayer Advocate Service in numbers:

75: Number of TAS offices throughout the United States. There must be at least one office in each of the 50 US states.

1,900: Number of TAS employees

250,000: Average number of taxpayer files resolved by TAS every year

Photo Caption: (PHOTO IVANOH DEMERS, LA PRESSE)-- Former tax law university professor and manager of a tax law workshop for the low-income population, Nina Olson has been running the Taxpayer Advocate Service since 2001

Read the article on La Presse (French): L’avocate qui a le fisc américain à l’œil