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Individual Tax

A Peek Behind the Curtain at TAP

Tim Shaw  

Tim Shaw  

Taxpayer Advocacy Panel (TAP) volunteers from around the country work year-round to make recommendations to the IRS on behalf of taxpayers. This article takes a closer look at TAP’s makeup and how it operates.

Created by the Treasury Department in 2002, TAP is a federal advisory body that focuses on how the IRS can improve its communications with taxpayers and course correct on systemic problems.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Robert Rosalia, a program analyst with TAP told Checkpoint in an interview. When asked what public should know about TAP, Rosalia answered: simply “knowing that we’re here” for taxpayers. TAP is not concerned with how the agency conducts its compliance enforcement activities.

Who is TAP? TAP is comprised of about 75 volunteers that serve three-year terms. At all times, there must be at least one member from each state, as well as from Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. One additional member represents U.S. citizens living or working abroad. Each member belongs to one of six core project committees: Notices and Correspondence, Special Projects, TAC Improvements, Tax Forms & Publications, Taxpayer Communications, and Toll-Free Phone Lines. Select members of these committees belong to the Outreach Committee, which is tasked with raising awareness about TAP, recruiting, and providing information to communities.

A little over half of the members from each committee, including their respective chairs, comprise a joint committee. Members have the option to switch committees between “TAP years,” a 12-month cycle that begins in November, so long as member numbers are balanced between the committees. The committees are further divided into subcommittees, which must also be evened out. Although it is April, committees are just now having their kickoff meetings due to delays with getting “final sign off” on new members IRS, according to Rosalia. TAP is “at the mercy” of the approval and appointment procedures that involve the IRS commissioner and Treasury.

Recruitment is an ongoing process, especially since about a third of members “retire” each year. Candidates for the next cycle are already being screened. Open enrollment periods are announced in the federal register and “usually last about six weeks,” TAP’s website says. Minimum eligibility criteria requires that applicants be at least 18 years old; be U.S. citizens; be current on their federal taxes; pass an FBI and background check; not be a Treasury employee or registered lobbyist; and commit to roughly 200-300 volunteer hours per year.

Rosalia said that TAP strives to maintain a “diverse group” and favors candidates with public outreach experience. Because members are citizens, not everyone necessarily needs to be a tax expert. Having a mix of perspectives is important for identifying issues and making appropriate recommendations. Rosalia said that, for example, a schoolteacher on the Notices and Correspondence Committee (over which he presides) could point out unclear language in an IRS notice and another member more familiar with the topic could recommend a revision. TAP also brings in subject matter experts to fill in gaps, as necessary.

How TAP works. Screening teams at TAP intake potential areas of concern called “issues,” which are assigned a number and passed along to a committee. Issues can come from a variety of sources, including from taxpayers and the IRS itself. Each committee convenes in meetings once per month to discuss progress of their issues. These updates are also shared at the joint committee at the end of the month.

Meetings are still held remotely because of COVID-19, which “definitely impacts” their flow and “changes the dynamic” with committee members, Rosalia said. Meeting face to face, as TAP did before the pandemic, makes things “so much easier.” Remote meetings invite myriad technical difficulties, delays, and scheduling issues. Further, licenses for software such as WebEx expire, meaning valuable time must be spent figuring out whether to renew or move to another platform.

TAP may tackle issues on an “ad hoc” basis, according to Rosalia. Someone looking into a particular project is “not bound” to only look at a specified matter. If an incidental issue is discovered, it is fair game for elevation. A committee can take on numerous issues at a time, including unresolved issues from the previous year. TAP, handling older and newer issues simultaneously, “burns the candle at both ends,” Rosalia said.

Several outcomes can happen when an issue is examined at committee. First, TAP may find that an issue does not have sufficient impact on taxpayer service. Issues can be dropped after a motion to “close” passes. When an issue is determined to be worth raising to the IRS, a formal recommendation is made. From there, the recommendation could be adopted, partially, or not adopted. If the IRS declines to adopt a recommendation, TAP can rebut.

For some members, the reasons the IRS gives for not adopting a recommendation can be frustrating. For example, TAP recommended that the IRS include page numbers on transcripts, which seems fairly basic at first glance. However, the IRS declined to do so, citing programming and monetary concerns. Not satisfied with this response, the Notices and Correspondence Committee at their April meeting deliberated on whether to rebut and press further, or to let it go and “focus on something we know we can change,” as the committee chair offered. Rosalia said the opposite can also happen, where the IRS completely rewrites something in response to a simple edit.

To help track the progress of each issue in a cycle, a member writes a “blurb” summarizing the issue and its outcome. Blurbs are compiled at the end of the TAP year in an annual report showcasing what the committees worked on and achieved. As illustrated in last year’s report, the six committees submitted nearly 200 recommendations, led by Tax Forms & Publications and Notices and Correspondence. Of the 126 that were closed following an IRS response, about half were adopted, in whole or in part. The two main themes TAP harped on were taxpayer access and IRS communications. “The inability of taxpayers and practitioners to reach the IRS, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, continued to be a significant taxpayer service issue in 2021,” read the report.

How is the relationship between TAP and the IRS? After all, the IRS is not obligated to implement recommended changes, even though it can present issues for TAP to look into and has final say on new members. “So far so good,” Rosalia said, not without a laugh.

 

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