IRS Employees Only Semi-Literate, Finds Audit


The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) doesn't do English good, according to a Treasury inspector general audit. The Hill reports that, although the IRS sometimes speaks and writes comprehensibly, it still falls far short of expectations:

The watchdog…said that half the letters and two-thirds of the notices it examined either weren't written clearly or didn't give enough information.

Mind you, that's only for extant correspondence. It turns out internal emails aren't the only forms of correspondence lost in the rabbit hole of IRS hard drives:

The inspector general also found that the IRS doesn't have a full list of all the letters and messages it sends to taxpayers, making it difficult to know how clearly the agency is communicating.

The syntactically challenged employees are also, incidentally, in violation of federal law. The Plain Writing Act (yes, that exists) mandates that federal workers write coherently. The act requires a senior official within an agency to, among other things, "train employees of the agency in plain writing" and submit annual compliance reports—also, presumably, in plain writing.

For an agency that expects taxpayers to follow the exact letter of a byzantine code whose complexity costs Americans hundreds of billions of dollars to comply with, the IRS seems fairly blasé about the literacy of its own gendarmes. Without a hint of irony, the agency blames its coherency problems on the difficulty of keeping track of its extensive correspondence:

Agency officials say they have tried to inventory all the messages they send out, but that the sheer number makes that difficult. The IRS office that corresponds with taxpayers also has 44 separate systems it uses to craft letters or notices to taxpayers.

But never fear. At the agency that to date has spent roughly $18 million to find lost communications and create a system for storing emails, progress soldiers on:

The inspector general did say that the IRS had made strides in some areas to comply with the Plain Writing Act, including by increasing training for staffers and corresponding differently with taxpayers and tax professionals. 

If the government insists on scrounging every last penny from American taxpayers, the least it can do is let us know in clear, concise English beforehand.

NEXT: Pentagon Picks a Name for Its Latest War—the Same One It Already Rejected

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. NYC Reasonoid Meet-Up!

    Important Update – New Date

    When: Wednesday, 10/22/14, 6:00PM
    Where: Rattle N Hum
    14 E 33rd St

  2. You want plain language? OK, you asked for it:

    “Give Oog your stuff. Oog have rock. Oog bash you head if you not give Oog your stuff.”

    1. Not a single polysyllabic word in there!

    2. “You born in tribe. That mean tribe own all your stuff. Oog work for tribe. You give Oog your stuff. Oog keep some of your stuff, give some of your stuff to Wog and Mog and Tog. Is fair. Fuck you that why.”

  3. Shoulders on? Don’t you mean soldiers on? This isn’t very clear.

    1. The Iron Laws apply to blogging too.

    2. Smoulders on.

    3. Learn Olbanian!

  4. The watchdog?said that half the letters and two-thirds of the notices it examined either weren’t written clearly or didn’t give enough information.

    In my experience, that’s an intended feature.

  5. After reading this post, I have a sneaking suspicion that my condo management are all former IRS employees. I got a notice of violation(s) I have to fix. The violation(s)? Literally “u, c” was written on the form. Yeah, I’ll get right on that.

    1. i c
      u c
      we all c
      4 c

    2. Damn you wealthy libertarians and your condos and nice cars and fancy hats and such.

  6. And any post that uses the Top. Men. clip is a WINNAR.

  7. Why are we treating the IRS unfairly here? I’m sure that all bureaucracies aren’t more than semi-literate.

  8. From the ‘Act itself: “PLAIN WRITING. -The term ‘plain writing’ means
    writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other
    best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended

    Is it fair to ask for or to demand that Federal Employees write both clearly and concisely?

    1. Most laws aren’t written clearly or concisely. Why should federal employees be required to write clearly and concisely?

  9. The pisser is: do most of you (I know you do Kristen & John) have any idea how tough it is to get hired by the Fed? I actually have done tax work in the private sector. I’ve applied to the IRS. I can’t get the time of day from them. There are agencies just to help people negotiate the idiotic hurdles .Gov throws in front of job seekers. And this is who they let in?


    1. I didn’t make it past the initial cert for a job on the TEAM FOR WHICH I ALREADY WORK AS A CONTRACTOR. I mean, seriously. And I know how to tailor my resume specifically for the Fed Gov hiring process, too. Doesn’t help a goddamn bit except to get to an actual human’s desk (at OPM), who then throws it in the trash.

    2. It’s your fault for not being a Black Jewish Native American Womyn whose family contributed over 10k to the DNC.

    3. Hell, I work for the government, and it is hard to get promoted now. A lot of shady shit going on nowadays. If the person they want does not make the cut, they cancel the job, reannounce it, and have that person fix their resume so that they make the list.

      I have been referred for dozens of jobs and been interviewed 0 times.

      Oh, and if you are using USAJOBS, always put that you are an expert at every single question they have, otherwise you will not get referred. Does not matter if you know absolutely nothing about it. Even supervisors above me cannot be consider “EXPERTS” at everything at my grade or one step higher. But you will only be referred if you say you are an expert.

      It’s BS.

      1. Moah AFFIRMATIVE ACTION will fix it all!!!

  10. My friends all know they can get me to rant and rave for a solid five minutes (minimum) if they bring up the IRS or the tax code, but I should point out that I think grammar/clarity in writing is a problem for many businesses, not just the IRS.

    I frequently see terribly worded/punctuated e-mails from our employees, including top level executives, and it’s not like we’re some 10-person start-up. We employ hundreds of people across four different states, but there don’t really seem to be any standards in place.

    1. Try working for a Swiss multi-national that has American English as its official language, yet I have to argue with people in the Confederatio Helevetica over the meaning and effect of certain American English words…

      It does let me practice cursing in German, however.

      1. Yikes!

        The closest I’ve come to anything like that is trying to order parts from Russia or one of the Frenchier regions of Canada.

    2. Youo know what I’d like to see in my work email?

      Capitals and puntucation. I’ve seen five year olds with better keyboard etiquette.

  11. I see a ton of poor grammar on local news Facebook feeds, in particular.

    And some fucker on the Weather Channel was using “phenomena” as a singular the other day.

  12. uh-oh. CNN is reporting that the second infected nurse traveled on a commercial airline from Cleveland. While having a fever.

    Also, OT

    1. So the Browns can let everyone down by contracting ebola?

    2. Need to have a doctor’s prescription to wear latex gloves or a haz-mat suit, that will fix it all… Need to have Emperor Obozo’s permission to board an aircraft,. too…

  13. I get to see a lot of DoD documents in the course of my work, and it is painfully obvious that they never use the spell checker that I added to all the text areas.

  14. The act requires a senior official within an agency to, among other things, “train employees of the agency in plain writing” and submit annual compliance reports?also, presumably, in plain writing.

    So, this is an actual law that needed to be passed. Get your head around that.

  15. Wait, Semi Literate?

    So they are improving dramatically

  16. The government doesn’t hire based on qualifications. It’s painfully obvious to anyone who has ever interacted with them.

    The answer to failed government regulation is also always more regulation. Your employees can’t form sentences? Mandatory workshops!

  17. Eschew obfuscation………

  18. I wonder if Lois Lerner’s emails were written plainly enough.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.