New IRS chief to make updating agency technology a priority

New IRS chief to make updating agency technology a priority
© Greg Nash

New IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig spoke Tuesday about his desire to modernize the agency's technology in his first public presentation since starting the job last month.

In a speech at a conference hosted by the American Institute of CPAs, Rettig said that the IRS's computer system "has been patched year after year after year" likening it to a car that had parts replaced many times but ultimately needs to be replaced with a new car.

He said that taxpayers deserve to get the kind of service at the IRS that they do at private companies.

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"I can call Google, or State Farm, or All State and a recording comes on and says, 'you are 14th in line, we can call you back, you won't lose your place in line," said Rettig, who started as IRS commissioner Oct. 1. "We don't have those tools, we need those tools, and that's important."

Rettig also said that Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinFive key players in Trump's trade battles Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid Trump phoned bank CEOs as stock market plunged Wednesday: report MORE is "tremendously supportive" of the IRS and "understands that we need to bring the IRS into the 21st Century."

The IRS has long struggled with technology issues. The agency uses some systems that date back to the 1960s, and has also had some issues with newer pieces of technology as well. In April, a systems failure occurred on a one-and-a-half year-old piece of software on the tax-filing deadline, resulting in the agency giving people an extra day to file their taxes.

The IRS has also struggled with its customer service to taxpayers, with many callers to the IRS's phone lines experiencing significant wait times or not being able to reach an agency representative.

Earlier in the conference, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, the IRS's in-house watchdog, said she plans to recommend Congress give the IRS a five-year funding pool for research and development, separate from the rest of the agency's funding. The agency would have to show that it's making progress toward replacing its technology to get its designated amount in the funding pot for the following year.

Rettig said the fact that the IRS often has long wait times for calls, and doesn't currently have customer service as good as Apple's, doesn't mean that its employees are not working hard. He said that during natural disasters, the IRS's representatives at call centers start handling disaster-relief calls on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"You might be on hold for 17 minutes, but it may also be that the person who could have cut that to 14... was talking to someone who just lost their house," he said.

The new IRS commissioner, who previously was a tax lawyer in California, spent much of his speech praising the IRS's employees and said that he wants them and the agency as a whole to be respected. He noted that IRS employees have faced challenges with limited financial resources.

"Part of my goal here is to make sure that the American public knows that the Internal Revenue Service is a huge federal government agency operated by people and people who care," he said.

Rettig also touched on implementing President TrumpDonald John TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE's new tax law, saying he wants the implementation done "seamlessly." He said that the agency plans to post its tax-law training materials for IRS employees online in the near future.

Rettig spoke about his background and how that influences is perspective at the IRS.

He mentioned that his wife and her family are Vietnamese immigrants, and said he's been "stressing the importance of multi-language forms."

He also talked about how his father had a small air-conditioning business, and that he's "sensitive to the small-business community."