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Tax day: 1040 reasons you should know Nina Olson

Nina Olson is the National Taxpayer Advocate – the voice of the public at the IRS. She's trying to help you navigate the tax code you love to loathe.

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"She has very much shaped the office," says Christopher Bergin, publisher of Tax Analysts, a leading tracker of the tax code. "She's tenacious. She's brilliant. She's a hard driver."

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Olson describes herself as an accidental occupant of the office. She never set out with a goal of holding a prominent government position, but her background girded her with some crucial job traits: knowing the tax problems Americans face and being unafraid to battle entrenched powers.

Even though her authority on setting tax policy is limited – the job of enacting long-term fixes rests with Congress – she can use her office as an amplifier for the concerns of average citizens. At a time when at least some members of both parties are talking about the need for sweeping tax reform, some of her ideas could capture more attention.

She has been a consistent crusader in particular for simplifying the federal tax code – a tangled tome that today contains nearly five times the number of words in the Bible.

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Part of Olson's philosophy in running the advocate office is rooted in a dirty kitchen. While still in college, she took a break from course work to launch a vegetarian restaurant with friends. They scraped together used equipment to outfit the kitchen. Other than knowing how to cook, "we had no idea what we were doing," she says.

When a public health inspector showed up one day, "he could have shut us down on the spot." Instead, Olson says, he listed the five most urgent problems and said those had to be fixed when he came back the next week. He followed the same pattern for four more weeks. Each time the youthful proprietors got five more things to fix and seven days to do it.

"That was an incredible lesson," Olson says. The restaurant was able to stay in business, all because an official was willing to work with people to bring them into compliance.

The parallel to her current job: As the NTA, she wants to help well-meaning taxpayers get treated fairly and to prod the IRS to be humane in its dealings with people.

Public policy experts say it's inevitable that the agency must seek a balance between hard-headed collection and what can plausibly be called customer service – efforts to help tax-payers understand and navigate the system more easily. The two objectives aren't necessarily incompatible. Olson's job is to nag and goad the agency – sometimes in ways that rattle top IRS officials – yet that role arguably benefits revenue collection as well as taxpayers. An angry or befuddled taxpayer, after all, is less likely to send in money voluntarily to help pay the nation's bills.

Still, the job description is awkward. If Olson pushes too far, IRS insiders could lash back against the gadfly in their midst. If she isn't pushy enough, outside critics will wonder if a supposedly independent voice has been co-opted by the agency where she's employed. (For the record, the NTA is appointed by the Treasury secretary – and can be asked to leave by the secretary – but the IRS commissioner is typically an influential voice at Treasury on key decisions affecting the IRS.)

The built-in tension in Olson's job came about by Congress's careful design.

"This is ... one thing they got right," says Scott Hodge, president of the Tax Foundation, a research group in Washington. "They gave it complete independence within the IRS."

Being an insider means Olson and her staff know the IRS intimately. Being independent means she can feel like her own boss.

Congress took care not to give the NTA powers that directly rival those of the commissioner. Essentially Olson can recommend or urge actions, not decide things on her own. But where the commissioner needs to work through administration channels (the Treasury secretary and White House), Congress calls on the NTA to make her own recommendations for legislation and IRS reform at least once a year.


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