Friday, February 24, 2012

IRS and Tech: Cudgel or Lever?

The National Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, has a posse.  And for good reason. I attended the American Bar Association Tax Section mid-year meeting in San Diego last week and had the opportunity to hear Olson speak.  She wields statistics, legal provisions and specific taxpayer examples to show how the IRS has steadily de-personalized tax administration.  This has dramatically increased inequities for small business owners and lower income taxpayers.  Automated systems have replaced individual judgement and human contact throughout the IRS, while tax laws, regulations and guidance become more impenetrable.

The problem with technology at the IRS, according to Olson, is emphasis.  The relatively small technology budget has been primarily applied to enforcement and in creating a distance between taxpayers and individuals.  I asked about technologies to *improve* customer service, and Olson said that her office was starting to take some steps in that direction (e.g. video conferencing with taxpayers at remote Taxpayer Advocate offices), and that more needs to be done.  

She suggested putting together a conference of technologists and tax experts to discuss ways that technology could used on the taxpayer's behalf, and I think that there are a host of creative and capable consumer-facing companies in the Silicon Valley and Bay Area that could take up this task.  

What about an online tax dispute system, that reduces the barriers for a taxpayer challenging assessment? The IRS has a list of FAQs on its site, but what about a more comprehensive Q&A site, with technologies like Quora or stackoverflow.com to identify the relevant taxpayer issue?  These are just the tip of the iceberg, and I am confident that there are dozens of other technologies that could help cut through the complexity of tax law, if civic hackers and consumer internet entrepreneurs set their minds to the task.  

What do you think? Olson also now has a blog.  If you have ideas for technology and tax, you can let her know there, or post your comments here.