Instructions Not Included. At Tax Time, That Could be a Problem.

Apr 10, 2017

Pitts_Mark-WebBy Mark Pitts
Executive Director, Printing-Writing and Pulp

We are getting increasingly used to products that no longer come with or need an owner’s manual or instruction booklet. Gone are the days when the box containing a new computer or phone also includes an instruction manual. The products are getting “smarter” and more intuitive, lessening the need for extensive printed instructions or user guides to get them up and running.

Filing the annual Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax return, one of those certainties of life, however, is a different story. The tax codes are neither getting simpler nor smarter. Yet the IRS expects taxpayers to comply with an increasingly complex set of requirements while at the same time reducing access to tools and resources needed to accomplish the task. The most basic tool is the Tax Instruction Guide for Individuals. If you don’t have yours perhaps that is because the IRS has stopped mailing it to taxpayers and has discontinued providing forms and instructions at Post Offices and libraries. Your only options are to download and print the Guide (291 pages), or purchase it through the Government Printing Office. (Good luck with that if you don’t know that the name of the document is IRS Publication 17.)

For an agency fixated on improving efficiency and reducing costs, maybe the IRS should think more deeply about the implications of its short-term cost cutting actions. In the increasing absence of IRS phone and face-to-face support for tax questions, wouldn’t you think delivery of concise, easily accessible instructions would become more important for tax payers, and cut down the need for additional support?

Going digital has broader cost consequences than eliminating print and postage. The cost of identity theft associated with on-line tax filing dwarfs the savings from not mailing forms and instructions. For the 2014 filing season alone, the IRS reported sending $3.1 billion in fraudulent tax refunds.

The IRS assumes people trust the government enough to engage with them online. It assumes all taxpayers have the equipment, connectivity, computer literacy and proficiency to manage the filing process digitally. That is not the case for many. Thirty percent of U.S. adults don’t have broadband access at home, and nearly half of all seniors don’t even own a computer. Many Americans also worry about online security and simply prefer to have hard copies of important documents and transactions with the government.

Last week I listened with wonder as a colleague told me her daughter prepared and filed her 2016 tax return using her phone. The IRS should embrace her choice, but at the same time not forget their mission: “to provide America’s taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and by applying the tax law with integrity and fairness to all”.