Erin Collins loves a good metaphor.
Paper — including the massive backlog of old tax returns the IRS has struggled to clear — is the agency’s Superman-style “kryptonite.” The 2021 filing season, with challenges presented by stimulus checks and staffing problems, was “a perfect storm.” When IRS processes break down, taxpayers may “fall through the cracks.”
As the national taxpayer advocate (her actual job title), Collins knows she has to get creative in order to get her point across. The more specific the example, the better the chance it has of sticking in the mind of listeners. And when more listeners get on board, it’s easier to—
—wait, hold on, she’s got a metaphor for this.
“Think of football,” Collins says. “When someone's got the ball and you're trying to take them down, one person will tackle 'em, and then another person can get on. By the time the third person is there, the IRS hears it loud and clear."
For all her analogies, Collins is literally the voice of the taxpayer. You can hear her on C-SPAN testifying before the Ways and Means Committee, leaning into the mic to calmly but confidently draw attention to bureaucratic issues hurting everyday Americans.
Collins actually came out of retirement to take the gig at the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an independent organization in the IRS that helps people individually resolve tax issues while surfacing systemic problems. A former attorney, her term started in March 2020, the month Americans first started to feel the impact of the COVID-19 crisis: “I jumped into the deep end,” she recalls.
Amid nationwide lockdowns, unemployment spiked almost immediately and was followed by three rounds of stimulus checks… which the IRS was tasked with distributing. At the same time most of its staff was working from home. A backlog of tax returns grew, which led to refund delays for taxpayers who desperately needed them.
It galvanized Collins.
“Millions and millions of people were having challenges,” she says, “so our voice representing those folks became really important.”
She learned quickly that she occupies a unique position. If we’re using metaphors, it’s a balancing act: She alone doesn’t have the authority to implement change, so she has to convince legislators why certain proposals are “either in the IRS's best interest or, most importantly, in the taxpayers’ best interest.”
It’s a lot to take on. “The IRS touches more individuals and more businesses than any other government agency,” she tells Money. “It is so important that we get this right.”
To do that, she must grab people’s attention and make them understand her point of view. Her habit of using adages partially comes from her mom, partially from her time as a lawyer and partially just from her personality. (“It's kind of just me being me,” Collins quips.)
Her list of desired improvements is long: scanning technology for the next tax season, a functional search engine on IRS.gov, greater transparency, better readability of tax transcripts and more.
But looking to 2023, she’s focused on improving two areas in particular. She wants people to have access to “robust” accounts on the IRS website where they can view their tax data, and she wants the customer service to improve. The latter is particularly pressing: During tax time this year, fewer than 20% of callers to the IRS actually got through to an employee, waiting an average of 29 minutes on hold.
She hopes this will trigger a domino effect. Similar to how Democrats argue better enforcement will equal fewer audits, she posits that fewer people will be seeking IRS support because they’ll be able to solve tax problems on their own on the website.
“The challenge with the phone is really the number of people. If we can resolve the problems, people will stop calling,” Collins says. Decrease the volume, increase the rate of response.
Sounds simple enough, but the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. And nobody knows that better than Collins’ predecessor, Nina Olson, who was in the role for 18 years. That begs the question: Does Collins think she’ll be the national taxpayer advocate for that long?
“Um, I do not,” she says, adding that she thinks change is good. “Having new ideas and bringing in a leader that can think a little bit differently is a good thing for the organization and is a good thing for the agency.”
For now, though, she’s quick to declare that she loves her job, especially when she gets to interact with taxpayers and IRS agents. (She recently visited an IRS campus in Kansas City and worked in the mailroom.) She constantly credits her team, saying “it takes a village” to achieve what she does, and unwinds by hiking and taking family vacations.
Collins likes to think that if she’d chosen a different career path, she might have been a house flipper. She loves a remodel, which is kind of the perfect metaphor.
“You can tackle a project in a weekend or a week or a month, and it's done. You can paint a room and go, ‘Oh my gosh, this looks better,’” she says. “But with taxes, sometimes it's weeks, months or years before you get something resolved.”