George Hani Comments on the IRS' Issue Practice Groups in Tax Notes Today

"Practitioners Express Qualified Approval of IPGs"
Tax Notes Today

George Hani comments on the IRS Large Business and International Division's issue practice groups (IPGs), which were implemented in August 2012 to better manage compliance priorities and provide guidance to examiners. "IPGs are reverting to an older era of coordination, where you didn't have the stranglehold of coordination with the tiered issues. Now the coordination is available when needed, but not superimposed," Hani said. However, he found the distinction between the operating structures of IPGs and international practice networks (IPNs), the international companion to IPGs, unnecessary, serving only to add complexity to the program. "They're both part of LB&I, so why can't there be one uniform [program]?" he said, adding that with uniformity, "you also wouldn't have international agents clashing with your regular agents."

Hani said even if an exam team reaches out to the IPG, the type of contact practitioners are permitted with IPGs is still not optimal. "You still have the communication problem. If you have a passive agent who is simply deferring to an IPG, it's often a game of telephone. The taxpayer doesn't interact with the IPG directly, even though the agent is deferring to the IPG," he said. Face-to-face dialogue with IPGs could remedy that problem, although he acknowledged that that may be difficult given limitations in the IRS's travel budget. He added that the decision by the audit team mangers to contact the IPG could be influenced by the personality of the team managers involved, and that agents' fear of criticism over failure to consult with IPGs drives audit teams to "virtually always" consult with IPGs, which may be why it is becoming rarer to find independent examining agents who seek IPG guidance but then make decisions contrary to it. "The agents may not be bound by the views of the IPG, but it is easier to follow than reject, so they end up viewing the input of the IPG as controlling," he said.

Hani said that the IPG program could be improved if the IRS were to increase transparency in how it works, including publication of IPG procedures. "The exact mechanics of how the IPGs work is a bit mysterious," he said. "You're reading tea leaves based on comments IRS officials make at various conferences." He added, "The examining agents, as well as taxpayers, are confused as to exactly what the role of an IPG is. Maybe that's purposeful, so that the IPGs could serve whatever role is useful for an agent. But if that's the reason, publish that and say that."

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