Tax Filing: Actions Needed to Address Processing Delays and Risks to the 2021 Filing Season

What GAO Found

The 2020 filing season occurred during the global COVID-19 pandemic, introducing challenges that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had to respond to quickly to fulfill its mission-essential functions. IRS took steps to protect the integrity of its operations, help ensure the health and safety of its employees, and provide relief to taxpayers. For example, IRS closed all its processing and service facilities for several weeks before re-opening with health and safety measures and extended the filing season deadline to July 15, 2020.

IRS’s 2020 processing of e-filed returns was generally on par with prior years. However, IRS’s overall 2020 performance was significantly impacted by its reliance on manual processes such as for paper returns, and its limited ability to process returns remotely while processing centers were closed. As a result, as of December 2020, IRS had a significant backlog of unprocessed returns and taxpayer correspondence. Additionally, costs increased including interest on delayed refunds which exceeded $3 billion in fiscal year 2020. IRS has not revised its estimates for addressing all of the backlog due to operational uncertainties created by the pandemic. Doing so would help IRS determine how best to address the backlog and perform 2021 filing season activities.

Refund Interest Paid to Taxpayers, Fiscal Years 2019 and 2020

GAO also found that about 23 percent of business tax returns were filed on paper even though an e-file option is available. IRS has not comprehensively identified barriers to business-related e-filing nor taken specific actions to increase e-filing. Doing so would help reduce the volume of costly paper-based work and improve services to business filers. Further, during the filing season, IRS transitioned nearly two-thirds of its phone customer service staff to telework, but was unable to do so for returns processing staff because most of its paper-based work is not set up to be performed remotely. As of late October 2020, about one-third of these staff remained on paid leave. Identifying and implementing alternative work assignments for staff that remain on paid leave would better support IRS operations and reduce costs.

IRS has not fully identified and assessed all risks to the 2021 filing season—including those exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—consistent with enterprise risk management practices. IRS identified some risks in October 2020 after GAO raised concerns, but did not fully address all essential elements of enterprise risk management, such as identifying options for risk response. Doing so would better position IRS to respond to risks during the 2021 filing season. In early 2021, after receiving a draft of this report, IRS provided additional information on its risk management efforts. GAO will review this information to determine if these efforts are sufficient to address its recommendation.

Why GAO Did This Study

During the annual tax filing season, generally from January to mid-April, IRS processes more than 150 million individual and business tax returns and provides telephone, correspondence, online, and in-person services to tens of millions of taxpayers. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to provide relief to taxpayers, IRS extended the 2020 filing and payment deadline by 3 months to July 15, 2020.

GAO was asked to review IRS’s performance during the 2020 filing season. This report (1) describes the changes IRS made to operations and services for the 2020 filing season due to the COVID-19 pandemic; (2) assesses IRS’s performance on providing customer service and processing individual and business income tax returns during the 2020 filing season and compare to prior filing seasons, where appropriate; and (3) evaluates IRS’s plans to prepare for the 2021 filing season.

GAO analyzed IRS documents, filing season performance data, and employee timecard data; assessed IRS’s plans for the 2021 filing season; and interviewed cognizant officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making seven recommendations, including that IRS revise estimates for addressing its backlog; identify and address barriers to e-filing for business taxpayers; identify and consider implementing alternative work assignments for returns processing staff on paid leave; and identify and assess risks to the 2021 filing season. IRS agreed with four recommendations and disagreed with three. GAO believes that the recommendations remain warranted.

For more information, contact Jessica Lucas-Judy at (202) 512-6806 or lucasjudyj@gao.gov.

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    What GAO Found U.S. workers have faced considerable changes in how they work and in the skills they need because of economic changes created by emerging technologies, disruptive business models, and other economic forces. Federal economic adjustment assistance (EAA) programs were established, in part, to help workers adjust to these economic disruptions. Consistent with GAO's prior work on EAA programs, experts in GAO's roundtable identified a range of challenges to using EAA programs to effectively respond to economic disruptions workers might experience. In light of these challenges, experts identified reform actions that could better serve workers (see table). The actions fell into six interrelated reform areas. Examples of Potential Reform Actions That Could Better Serve Workers Who Experience Economic Disruption, as Identified by Experts in GAO's Roundtable Reform area Examples of potential reform actions identified by experts Proactive efforts to address disruption Establish lifelong learning accounts for workers through contributions of individual workers, employers, and government agencies to fund continuous education and training opportunities. Establish a tax credit to help incentivize employers to retrain rather than lay off employees. Access to Economic Adjustment Assistance (EAA) programs Use the existing unemployment insurance system to better inform dislocated workers about the availability of and their eligibility for EAA programs. Worker training Expand the number of short-term, high-demand skills-based training opportunities. Prompt employers to develop apprenticeship programs. For example, require employers to operate apprenticeship programs of their own or pay a tax to fund the creation of apprenticeship programs. Income and other supports Create more opportunities for workers to co-enroll in training and financial safety-net programs. Develop supportive services programs for dislocated workers at the community colleges in which they are enrolled. EAA service delivery Provide dislocated workers ready access to easy-to-navigate data on high-demand skills, earnings in various occupations, and the number of available jobs in those occupations in their area. Provide community colleges with additional state or federal resources to deliver more career guidance to dislocated workers. Structure of the EAA system Invest in training infrastructure, such as publicly funded regional universities, community colleges, and other institutions. Reduce barriers to accessing existing national datasets to facilitate the evaluation of EAA program effectiveness. Source: GAO analysis of expert statements. | GAO-21-324 Note: These potential reform actions are not listed in any specific rank or order and their inclusion in this report should not be interpreted as GAO endorsing any of them. GAO did not assess how effective the potential reform actions may be or the extent to which program design modifications, legal changes, and federal financial support would be needed to implement any given reform action or combination of reform actions. Why GAO Did This Study Various economic disruptions, such as policy changes that affect global trade or the defense or energy industries and shifts in immigration, globalization, or automation, can lead to widespread job loss among workers within an entire region, industry, or occupation. GAO was asked about options for reforming the current policies and programs for helping workers weather economic disruption. This report describes a range of options, identified by experts, to reform the current policies and programs for helping workers weather economic disruption. With the assistance of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, GAO convened a 2-day, virtual roundtable in August 2020 with 12 experts, selected to represent a broad spectrum of views and expertise and a variety of professional and academic fields. They included academic researchers, program evaluators, labor economists, former federal agency officials, and state and local practitioners. GAO also reviewed relevant federal laws, prior GAO reports, and other research. For more information, contact Cindy S. Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.
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    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified 12 priority recommendations for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Since then, NASA has implemented one of those recommendations when it calculated the Space Launch System program's developmental cost growth using a baseline adjusted to reflect the scope of work planned for its first mission. GAO also closed two recommendations as not implemented. Since GAO's June 2019 recommendation to update the Orion crew vehicle's cost estimate to reflect the April 2023 baseline launch date for the first mission to carry crew, that mission's launch date has been delayed. There is no longer an opportunity for NASA to take action on this recommendation now that the program no longer expects to launch in April 2023. The second recommendation, closed as not implemented, was for NASA to develop and maintain a contingency plan for ensuring a presence on the International Space Station until a Commercial Crew Program contractor was certified. NASA took actions to maintain a U.S. presence on the space station and provided GAO periodic updates on considerations for maintaining a continued presence, but did not develop and maintain a contingency plan. NASA certified a Commercial Crew program contractor in November 2020. As a result, there is no longer an opportunity for NASA to take action on this recommendation. In May 2021, GAO identified two additional priority recommendations for NASA, bringing the total number to 11. These recommendations involve the following areas: monitoring program costs and execution, and ensuring cybersecurity. NASA's continued attention to these issues could lead to significant improvements in government operations. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015 GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Michele Mackin at (202) 512-4841 or mackinm@gao.gov.
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