Nina Olson: It may not be a household name, but it is the name of a woman who may just be the best friend you never knew you had. Olson is the National Taxpayer Advocate and the head of the Taxpayer Advocate Service. Olson and the TAS work to defend taxpayers who are having personal difficulties with the IRS, as well as to identify ruinous policies within the system and present them to Congress to initiate change. So, if you feel like you're drowning under all the red tape that makes up the Internal Revenue Service, Olson and her staff of 1,400 Case Advocates are poised to pull you out and help fight for your rights.  

Last week, Olson released her semi-annual report to Congress. It's hundreds of pages long and leads to one inescapable (and rhyming) conclusion: the IRS is a mess. Olson likened the situation to Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities "For the majority of taxpayers who filed their returns and did not need IRS assistance, " she writes, "the filing season was generally successful. For the segment of taxpayers who required help from the IRS, the filing season was by far the worst in memory. "  

Take a look at some of the "customer service" statistics Olson revealed, and you'll see why we put the term "customer service" in quotes:  

  • The IRS answered just 37% of the phone calls taxpayers made to customer service representatives, with an average hold time of more than half an hour. That's down from 71% for the 2014 filing season.
  • Olson's own unit hardly did better, answering just 39% of calls made to the National Taxpayer Advocate Toll-Free Hotline.
  • Tax professionals have always been able to "cut the line" by calling the Practitioner Priority Service line. Surely they get better service, right? Not so much. The IRS answered just 45% of those calls, with an average hold time of 3/4 of an hour.

Where do all those unanswered calls go? Here's a clue: the number of "courtesy disconnects" jumped from 544,000 last year to 8.8 million this year. "Courtesy disconnect" is the ironic term the IRS uses when the phone lines get so jammed that there's no hope you'll ever reach an actual human being, anyway — so the system just says "peace out" and hangs up on you.  

Why are things so miserable? The problem, of course, is money. The IRS budget is down 17% (adjusted for inflation) from 2010. Yet, even as Congress has gleefully slashed funding for everyone's least-favorite agency, they've also managed to stick the IRS with the responsibility of enforcing big parts of both the Affordable Care Act and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. The end result is that fewer IRS employees are available to help taxpayers, which culminates in a "customer service" experience that makes a trip to the DMV look like a beach vacation.  

Fortunately, we still have Olson and her fellow advocates on our side. And while that might not mean immediate results, we can at least rest in knowing that our voices will be heard and our rights fought for.