- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2002

Taxpayers resolved to filing their taxes early this year might soon wish that they had set their sights on something easier like collecting the $25 million reward for finding Osama bin Laden.
That's because those who try to contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for help with taxing questions will almost certainly face airport security-style waits and may well receive inaccurate answers, according to a recently released report from the General Accounting Office (GAO).
Specifically, GAO investigators found that, in 2001, the 70 million or so individuals who called the IRS with tax questions faced a taxing hold of four minutes a 15 percent increase over the wait in 2000. In many cases, those minutes of mood music set the tone for wrong answers. Individuals who asked about tax law received wrong answers about 25 percent of the time, and those who asked about their own accounts were given bad information about 12 percent of the time.
Theoretically, quality control is one of the reasons that managers exist. But the GAO report noted that IRS managers often reached their conclusions about the key determinants of accuracy and access without bothering to conduct any analysis. Moreover, no one at the IRS bothered to monitor the results. Astonishingly, IRS managers simply overlooked the concept of accountability.
Unfortunately, the IRS has a history of doing so. David C. Williams, the Treasury Department's inspector general (IG) for tax administration, told a House committee in April that, during random tests, auditors from the IG were unable to even get through to IRS representatives more than one-third of the time when they used the agency's toll-free number. Those auditors who did get through got wrong answers to nearly half the questions they posed even though those questions came from the IRS' list of frequently asked questions. The problem wasn't restricted to Washington, either. Auditors who visited 47 taxpayer assistance centers in 11 different states received wrong answers 49 percent of the time.
Fortunately, Mr. Williams' testimony was cited by Sen. Fred Thompson, the former chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, in a June 2001 report on the federal government's myriad management problems, which listed IRS financial mismanagement as one of his top 10 concerns.
Clearly, the bottom line is that taxpayers simply aren't getting their money's worth out of the people that they are paying to take their money. The IRS should be capable of supplying more than mood music and wrong answers, and its scant remaining credibility is on the line as its most taxing season approaches.

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