A theme running through the recent Internal Revenue Service Independent Office of Appeals Focus Guide for fiscal year 2023 is moving on past the issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic and getting back to helping taxpayers through the appeals process.
“It’s time, as we leave some of those pandemic issues behind us, to focus more on our core mission in appeals, which is the quality resolution of taxpayer cases,” Independent Office of Appeals Chief Andy Keyso said in a recent interview with Federal Tax Daily. “I think that’s the theme you see throughout the focus guide,” which was issued November 4, 2022.
To that end, Keyso highlighted two key areas that will enable the office to meet that core mission – staffing and technology upgrades.
On the staffing side, Keyso noted that 10 years ago, the Appeals staff was at 2,100 employees, but in that window dropped to a low of about 1,100.
“We have made a big push to restack, using any kind of approval we could get here internally, and we currently are sitting at about 1,500 employees,” he said, adding that the office currently has about 1,500 employees, with a goal in 2023 to get up to 1,725.
Keyso noted that the office is different from other parts of the IRS that have an exam or a collections function.
“If you don’t have the number of people you’d like to have, you just do fewer collection actions or you do fewer audits,” Keyso said. “In Appeals, we have unique challenges. We’ve got to work every case that comes in the door. We can’t say, ‘We don’t have enough people, so we are not going to work your case.’ So for us, hiring is particularly an acute issue and recruiting and hiring will be one of our focus areas for this year.”
He added that the staffing targets are based on the IRS’ set budget for 2023 and do not include potential increases that could come with the additional funding provided by the Inflation Reduction Act.
Like the rest of the agency, the Office of Appeals is working through its own technology issues and is in need of upgrades.
In particular, Keyso highlighted the need to get away from paper.
“I think we learned during the pandemic a few things about technology and how paper can really be our Achilles heel when you have to move paper case files,” he said. “That was a particular issue during the pandemic when you didn’t have all of your people in the office to ship case files around.”
Moving to a more paperless environment is a “continuing challenge,” Keyso said, not only for communicating between Appeals employees, but between staff and taxpayers. “Should we really be mailing things back and forth through the U.S. Postal Service? Or is there a better way to communicate with taxpayers that’s faster and maybe preferable to taxpayers?”
As part of the technology challenges, the Independent Office of Appeals also is looking to continue to use video conferencing, something that gained traction during the pandemic.
“With the service wide return to the office, we are again offering in person conferences, which is something Appeals is very excited about,” Amy Giuliano, senior advisor to the Chief and Deputy Chief in the Office of Appeal, said. “But we want video conferences to remain a permanent option to alongside in person. We requested comments in August … for people to submit input on experiences they had with video conferences with appeals that should inform our longer term guidelines. And we’ve received a lot of positive feedback that video conferences, when they’re managed effectively, are a great way for a taxpayer to present their case to appeals.”
She applauded the fact that video conferences have the benefits of a face-to-face conference in that one can see the IRS agent they are dealing with, but they avoid the logistical issues with traveling to an IRS office to conduct the meeting. It makes things more accessible, especially if the taxpayer has medical or other mobility issues.
“That’s why it’s so important that it remain an option going forward alongside in person and alongside telephone,” she said.
Improving Overall Access
Keyso also noted that a key area of focus going forward is improving the overall access to the Independent Office of Appeals now that access has been codified into law through the Taxpayer First Act of 2019. Treasury is currently working on regulations that will implement the law.
“Our position in the Appeals Office is, you know, we want the broadest access to appeals possible for us to hear controversies or disputes between IRS and taxpayer,” Keyso said. “So we will continue to push for broad access to taxpayers to appeals.”
Giuliano added that “enhancing the taxpayer experience is really what sort of animates and informs everything else that we’re doing.”
Keyso also mentioned that Appeals is planning on continuing convening practitioner panels, during which the office invites practitioners to talk about issues they are facing as they deal with the appeals process. He noted that it was through these panels that the office made changes to letters that went out to taxpayers and their representatives that included more contact information on managers so taxpayers and their representatives have it handy if they need to escalate a situation.