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Corporate Communications: What are the techniques employed by companies to prevent leak of internal memo?

For a corporate Communications professional, it is his or her biggest challenge to contain leaks of sensitive inside information. While companies are tightening the screws and at the same time, media, analysts etc are getting smarter by the day. It is always a cat and mouse game between the two as one tries to plug unofficial info source, other tries to open another one.There are several measures companies take to prevent unauthorised leaks.SPOC. There is a single point of contact with the outside world, particularly media, analysts, regulators, investors, and other stakeholders. So nobody else is allowed to interact with them in their official capacity. If there are multiple people involved, e.g. investor relation or media relations, then they work very closely together so that whatever information goes out, it is consistent.At most organizations, calls and emails are monitored so that any unauthorised contact with external world is red flagged. This is particularly true for banks and financial institutions where leakage of sensitive information has serious financial implications.Exemplary punishment to deter violation. If caught with evidence, organisations punish offenders so that it serves as an example for others.Routine self declaration by employees that they have not passed any sensitive information to any unauthorised person. This over a period of time becomes a habit. Similarly, in the terms of service, this clause is inserted with quantum of punishment mentioned to act as a deterrent.Presence of people from departments which exclusively deal with the external stakeholders (Corp Comm, IR, CSR, public or corporate affairs Etc) for any meeting involving any other department (e.g. finance or HR) with the external world. By their presence and moderating the conversation, lots of breaches are prevented.Monitor the social media handles of key internal people who are custodian of sensitive information if they are in contact with media, analysts, etc. While not all contacts need to raise a red flag, but routine leaks of info from the person to particular channel should call for deeper investigation.Declaration of their existing relations, be it social , professional or personal with the external stakeholders on a regular basis.These are some ways companies try to plug leaks.

How does it feel, when you first time join your first posting as an IAS, IPS or IRS officer?

It is a mixed bag both in terms of professional and personal life.Professional:I joined at a young age of 25, much like many of my batch mates. Iwas posted in a remote district in West Bengal as the assistant collector. The first one month went like a dream. The district magistrate hosted a dinner for me, there were community meetings,interactions with local government members. The posting have me a lot of scope to do meaningful work. Respect from people while in a job was new to me. I was earlier employed with a private firm where desk job had little scope. I was very interested in the documentation part too. Learning about terms of reference (ToRs), Request forProposals (RFPs) were all very eye-opening experiences.The best part lied in interactions with some of the senior bureaucrats. I distinctly remember one of the dinner hosted by the Chief Secretary in Kolkata. He was so jovial and practical and an absolute treat to speak with. The practical ideas that I got from all of them is still helping me in shaping strategies for my district (I'm posted as DC now).Personal life: Initially it was very rosy, coming back to a bungalow spread in acres with a horde of servants. However, with time loneliness does creep in. I studied in Delhi for my undergrad and civil services preparation. The small district left a void in comparison to the city life. I came back home with no one to talk to. As a young man, a sense of fulfillment does overtake yiu when you qualify in a rigorous exam. But as a young fellow, you also have obvious social, sexual and personal needs. My family insisted on me getting married, relatives flooded my email with photographs of prospective bride. Some of my batch mates were either getting married to daughter of an MLA or their batchmates/ long time girlfriend. Having studied in an IIT, the idea of having a female friend in itself is remote, let alone a girlfriend.But I was also clear that I will not marry for money or merely for killing my loneliness. And then comes the1 ray of hope- I had given interview in pratiyogita darpan on my success. I had also given my email address for aspirants to write to me if they had any doubts. In October, months after my selection, I got an email from a girl asking about optionals preparation. It was when I was still in academy. We started talking over email then phones. Earlier it was once in 3-4 months then it became more frequent. She qualified her state level PCs exam in September and I had to go to Delhi for a meeting. I decided to meet her mid-way in Allahabad, her hometown. The day we met I knew I have another exam to crack- to woo her. I thought it would be tough-she hailed from a different background. Daughter of an IPS officer,well educated, well traveled. She spoke English better than foreigners while I had my thick "bihari" accent. Coming back from work was a treat now. I would teach her Indian constitution and amidst it shared my daily chores. She wrote her mains in December.I finally asked if she has a boyfriend, answer was no, I wasted not a minute and said I liked her. She too answered affirmative. Then we worked "together" for mains and she helped me do great at my first posting. I made notes for her (yes, beat this) and she would give me tips for handling public emotions. Wooing my IPS father-in-law was easy too. Sometimes at work, i used to closely observe senior IPS officers as a preparation strategy. She had cleared her mains by then and shifted to Delhi for interview preparation. Our meetings became frequent. Families met. Her family was particularly impressed with the motivation I provided to their daughter. After work was fun now- phone calls, wedding planning and of course guiding my would-be wife for her interview. Finally Uttar Pradesh and Bihar came together in Bengal. My lady was also now an IAS batch 2009 (I'm 2007). I see my marriage to her as a bigger achievement than becoming an IAS. All of this in my first posting!This might be a little tangetial and becoming too much to read, but dear young officers, in case anyone reading it, please bear in mind the following facts:Never be proud, you are just a drop in an oceanDo not be with people who always agree with you. They dont improve you.Guys, do not marry someone for dowry. Try to be with her who respects you and seeks motivation from you. She will always respect and love you and you will love the newness she brings to your life.Do not mess with the media for useless attentionLet your actions do the talking.Good luck men and women.

How true is it that US Congress is about to "permanently bar" the IRS from offering free online tax filing?

There are many ways in which a thing can be true, and not all of them are equal.While ProPublica’s story is mostly true in a narrow sense, it’s also concerningly simplistic. It gives us a taste of the truth — enough to make us drunk with outrage. But what it doesn’t do is arm the reader to participate in the sort of discussion that might solve the real problems underneath.Compounding this, the dozens of clickshare re-writes of ProPublica’s story by other outlets have all been worse. What the ProPublica version lacked in breadth of address, the rest lack in depth (and also breadth).While we’re going to going to tackle those themes a bit more while unpacking the main elements of the tax story itself, just two bits of house-cleaning first:My main interest here is bias. Not political bias, mind you. More in the vein of what Jon Stewart suggested was the default bias of all mainstream media: “sensationalism, conflict, and laziness”.Some angles of this story get into murky territory, especially as it concerns legal recourse. I’ve done my best to be transparent about where I’m sure and where I’m speculating. As ever, I offer financial rewards for all corrections and meaningful improvements.Ok, on we go.Historical ContextBack in 1998, Congress passed the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act, which, among other things, spelled out one notable big-letter goal: “having 80% of Federal tax and information returns filed electronically by the year 2007”.Fast forward to 2002. The Bush II administration announced a new policy related to achieving that 80% goal: the creation of Free File Inc. (hereafter FFI) as part of the Free File Program (FFP).The basics:FFI (sometimes FFA in the press) is a consortium of a dozen major tax-prep companies.FFP is a deal that FFI made with the IRS wherein they would create software that allowed the bottom 60% (now 70%) of US earners to file their taxes electronically for free (no cost to the IRS or the filer).In exchange, the FFI demanded a non-compete agreement from the IRS. For as long as FFI was supplying these freebie filing options, the IRS couldn’t go and create their own.The FFP wasn’t law. Just a department policy predicated on a renewable contract between the IRS and the FFI. (This contract is referred to as a “memo of understanding”, or MOU.)Now, there are many ways of parsing this. On the one hand, free electronic filing for 60% of taxpayers was a win. Plus the government didn’t have to bother with creating this software from scratch. On the other hand, many FFI members had motivations beyond charity and civic pride. In exchange for their “donation”, they got to ensure the IRS wouldn’t cut their revenue streams by creating a better option of their own. (They knew that most filers would end up buying a paid product regardless of free options, which is something we’ll get to.)All said though, this being a negotiated contract meant it was mostly a win-win. The IRS got to focus elsewhere, and taxpayers got something useful. And in the event that the deal no longer made sense, the IRS was free to either renegotiate or try something new.What Happened This WeekThe House passed the Taxpayer First Act of 2019 this past Tuesday. Section 1102 of said bill began with this clause:The Secretary of the Treasury, or the Secretary’s delegate, shall continue to operate the IRS Free File Program as established by the Internal Revenue Service and published in the Federal Register on November 4, 2002 (67 Fed. Reg. 67247), including any subsequent agreements and governing rules established pursuant thereto.The force of this is pretty simple: the FFP (and the MOU underlying it) would graduate from department policy to federal law.But before we get into the implications of that, I want to contrast the above with a clause from a previous (unpassed) bill:The Secretary of the Treasury, or his delegate, may not establish, develop, sponsor, acquire, or make available individual income tax preparation software or electronic filing services that are offered under the IRS Free File program, except through the IRS Free File program, the Internal Revenue Service’s Taxpayer Assistance Centers, Tax Counseling for the Elderly, and volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) programs.Note the difference: in this second version, the non-compete aspect would have been part of the federal legislation itself (as opposed to it being a clause in an MOU referenced by the law, where that MOU could be updated to remove or modify or replace that clause). It also would have limited the IRS from sponsoring private partners outside the confines of the FFP. This is the kind of bill that lobbyists really wanted. What they got this week was a distinctly lesser win.Anyway, as for the MOU in question (now in its 8th version, having been renewed late last year), there are a few clauses in play here:In recognition of this commitment [of FFI members to offer free filing software to the bottom 70% of earners], the federal government has pledged to not enter the tax preparation software and e-filing services marketplace.But while this exchange is a classic quid pro quo, this isn’t to say the deal is entirely equal.Any unilateral changes imposed by the U.S. government on FFI whether by statute, regulation, or administrative action will result in an immediate re-evaluation of the decision to continue FFI, and could result in an immediate suspension of free services upon the decision of each Member.This is where things get really interesting, and where FFI lobbyists clearly earned their money. The new bill, while less onerous than previous attempts at codifying the MOU, does include one slippery sentence: it mandates that the government “shall continue to operate” the FFP.Here’s why this matters: if the IRS decides to revise the MOU to remove the non-compete angle, the FFI would have a powerful incentive to exercise the above clause. The presumption is that they’d then argue something to the effect of “the government’s unilateral decision forced our hand and now the FFP is basically untenable, and the law says that the government needs to keep the FFP alive”. (I’m not sure how successful this argument might be, but it certainly seems that the legislation was crafted to allow the FFI to make it.)But there’s one more thing from that MOU that represents a curveball:Should the IRS commit funding to offer Services for free to taxpayers, the IRS shall notify FFI immediately.This clause has been in the MOU since the first draft. It basically allows the FFI to stop offering the free services if the IRS begins their own. But this is somewhat in tension with the unilateral changes bit. If the IRS exercises an option that’s always been part of the MOU, does that weaken a potential claim by the FFI?(To be clear, I don’t know how this would play out in court. Different judges could rule differently. Though there are surely precedents I’m unaware of that might make certain outcomes more or less likely. What is clear though is that there would be non-trivial litigation risk for the IRS if they were to drop the non-compete and the FFI were to object.)Anyway, there’s more to the MOU that we need to look at, but I want to set up that discussion by reviewing a few other things first.There Must Be A Better Way!The crux of this week’s commentary has mostly been “man, it would be great if the US could be like other countries and have an option where the IRS just sends out a pre-filled postcard and all we need to do is verify and sign it”.The easy narrative here is that this system doesn’t exist solely because of the FFP (i.e., the companies that make up the FFI don’t want to lose revenues, and have thus thrown lots of lobbying dollars at Congress to keep the FFP in place, and that’s why we can’t have nice things).While there are other problems with this narrative, I think it’s worth getting into a fuller list of cautions that past studies have raised as it concerns the US pursuing such a program (pulling mostly from this 1996 GAO report, though leaving out all the arguments that have been obviated by tech advances):At the time, 55% of filers would have needed to make amendments to any pre-filled form the IRS could have come up with (or else would have needed to just do their own filing from scratch). While that number would be lower now, the complexities of US tax regimes (at both federal and state levels) combined with the backwater efficiency of most inter-governmental data-sharing systems would keep this number from being near as low as that of most other developed countries.Tax prep companies pay lots of tax on their profits, and employ lots of people who pay lots of tax on their wages. If you eliminate those jobs, the government takes in less money. Plus governments have to pay benefits to unemployed people until they find new work.Lots of US citizens don’t trust the IRS, which could mean that lots of pre-filled forms would be challenged, thus increasing the overall workload. In contrast, the selling point of “we’re going to help you pay the fewest dollars to the big bad government” is compelling to lots of Americans, and often solicits more trust (even if it shouldn’t).There was a fear at the time that people would be less likely to declare side income if their filing was pre-filled (I’m sure there’s relevant data from other countries who use this system — would love a link if any reader happens to know of quality research here).Employers are really bad at sending on forms in a timely way, making it hard for the IRS to gain the needed data to make correct calculations while also maintaining their current tax calendar.We can add two more things to this list:The IRS is intentionally under-funded (down nearly 20% this decade despite a host of new responsibilities). It’s hard to imagine either party giving them loads of money to institute new programs in the current climate, whatever their potential benefit. It’s just an electoral nightmare. Lobbyists and messaging consultants have done too effective a job at poisoning that particular well.US government agencies are generally bad at managing software projects. It isn’t at all clear that they’d get further developing their own system vs. forcing the FFI members to improve their existing offerings.Now, those arguments vary in power. I’m skeptical that even taken together they mean that the IRS shouldn’t try a large-scale pilot. But the last two are definitely non-trivial. Giving the IRS a larger budget is widely considered a non-starter, and changing political perception there would be a massive undertaking. But if you had to get them more money for either oversight or building their own program, oversight would be a whole lot cheaper, and may have a higher ROI.Bad Faith EffortsYou might be wondering: if the FFP has been around since 2002, why do only ~3 million people a year use it? (A number that’s been trending downward.)There are a handful of high-level answers here:Per the MOU (4.35), it’s actually the IRS’s responsibility to market the FFP. Doing this well would require them having a budget to do so (and them having the institutional competency to use that money well).Also per the MOU (4.15.4), FFI members are responsible to advertise the free service from their “Free File Landing Page”. They are not responsible to make this landing page easily accessible. In most cases, said pages are only reachable via the IRS’s little-known FFP program page.Most of the FFI’s FFP offerings suck (on purpose). The IRS has the right of review, but doesn’t use it very effectively. (As the FFI largely sees improving these offerings to be contrary to their financial interests, they’re only going to go as far as they’re pushed.)While some FFP offerings suck less, the FFI is dominated by Intuit (TurboTax) and H&R Block (i.e., the two players at least theoretically most opposed to improvements).Free options aren’t generally good at identifying all eligible deductions, leading most filers to opt for a paid service they perceive to be better at that.Filing taxes normally via TurboTax or a local outfit isn’t all that hard or expensive, and most taxpayers just aren’t bothered enough to seek an alternate solution.Of those factors, I want to focus on 3 and 4. To illustrate what bad faith means here, let’s look at how TurboTax goes about fulfilling their FFP obligations.Now, you might be thinking “well, that’s no so bad at all! — after all, the free option is clearly marked in an attractive way”.But then you click on that “simple tax returns” subhead and you’re greeted with a curious disclaimer:Hmm. Now why would these things not be covered? The obvious answer would be that artificial restrictions are useful for pushing customers to premium options. Pretty normal practice. But doesn’t the MOU forbid this type of upselling on FFP offerings?Trick question! The above offering has nothing to do with the FFP!TurboTax does have an FFP option, which does cover all the situations from the disclaimer. It’s just hidden. The only way you’d ever find it is if you came in via a link from the IRS’s FFP program page (or something written about it I guess). The fact that the two offerings share a confusingly similar name (“Free Edition” vs. “Free File”) is, ahem, a bit of poor luck. They say it isn’t their fault if consumers are confused, as it isn’t their job to educate them.And this is hardly the only kind of spirit-violating nonsense that FFI folks have gotten up to. Remember how the MOU demanded that the lowest 70% of earners all be given free options? Well, the MOU didn’t demand that each provider meet that goal individually — just collectively. The natural consequence? Each FFI provider has seemingly arbitrary restrictions on location and age/income ranges. While you’re guaranteed (if under the income cap) that one of them will work for you, the same one might not work for your sibling or next-door neighbor. It may not even work for you two years in a row! It’s complicated enough that the IRS had to develop a lookup tool that requires you to complete a survey to match you with the right offering. Friction, friction, friction.Why Governments Suck, Part IIf you read through the MOU, you might find yourself surprised at some of the clauses.4.36.3 - IRS and FFI mutually agree to support and promote Free File as an “Innovation Lab” to test, pilot, and offer capabilities to simplify taxpayer compliance, such as data importation offered by industry as described herein, and such as IRS’s Application Programming Interface (API) projects […]Yep, you read that right: the FFI actually has a mandate to create the sort of tax-filing experience we all dream of. (There’s a whole section on this.) On the balance, the MOU is honestly pretty taxpayer-friendly. The problem isn’t in the text — it’s in the fact that the US government is terrible at private-sector oversight, rendering most of these deals somewhere between one-sided and meaningless.This is why all those battles that Roger and Paul and Grover and Newt and Ralph fought in the 80s/90s mattered. They weren’t conservatives fighting against the encroachment of progressive values or the nanny-state. They were power-brokers looking to get paid by corporations keen to reduce oversight to something of a farce. (And they definitely had their allies on the left in this effort.) Now, sure, reasonable people can disagree on how much oversight the market needs. That’s why we have a democratic system that necessitates healthy compromises. Good legislation should certainly aim for balance, and so on. But what those men did was use the “government vs. markets” debate, not to shift the compromise, but to obscure what they were really doing: making sure that whatever compromises Congress reached would be toothless anyhow.The reality here is that the MOU itself is largely fine, as is the new law. And the litigation risk of backing out of the non-compete, however severe, is mostly a red herring. The IRS is still free to help other competitors (like Credit Karma) enhance their free services, and there’s no reason that FFI offerings couldn’t be made to be as good or better than whatever the IRS could come up with themselves. That the current options suck isn’t about who is building the software. It’s about the IRS having no real resources to either enforce/sweeten the MOU or market the FFP.And that, in turn, is a problem with public perception. The US can easily afford to properly fund the IRS (it would actually be a net savings on a longer timeline). But elected representatives are terrified of trying, largely thanks to the efforts of the Grovers of this world — along with a little help from the media.Why Governments Suck, Part IIIt isn’t a new observation that good governance requires an informed public. This has been a maxim since the first Greek experiments with democracy. Literacy and engagement are the central pillars of any nation worth living in.So why is the press doing such a poor job informing the public in a way likely to arm them with the data and context required to engage well?Let’s start with the ProPublica piece that set off this whole dialogue:Congress Is About to Ban the Government From Offering Free Online Tax Filing. Thank TurboTaxSetting aside the misleading implications of the headline as worded, let’s look at the article’s first paragraph:Just in time for Tax Day, the for-profit tax preparation industry is about to realize one of its long-sought goals. Congressional Democrats and Republicans are moving to permanently bar the IRS from creating a free electronic tax filing system.Note those words: “permanently bar”.Remember that Stewart line from the beginning about “sensationalism, conflict, and laziness”? Keep that in mind as you parse what exactly “permanently bar” might mean. It isn’t a term of art. Congress has no power to ban anything forever. That’s not how the law works. The closest we could get is a constitutional amendment, but even those can be re-written and re-interpreted. Laws, by their nature, are transitory things.The real focus of this new legislation isn’t permanence, but difficulty. The FFI hardly expects the status quo to last another 17 years, much less indefinitely. They just expect that litigation risk (and two-branch support) will act as a speed bump on change. Their monopoly would still be written in pencil, but the erasers would be just that little bit extra harder to come by, which would make them happy.Now, you might object that I’m being over-sensitive to the meaning of words here, and that ProPublica’s take wasn’t all that bad. And this is where we have to get a little philosophical. Some believe that every journalist’s responsibility is something to the effect of “collect some facts, avoid outright mistakes, and work with an editor to make your story marketable”. But this to me is the equivalent of requiring them to “tell the truth and nothing but the truth” while leaving out the bit about “the whole truth” as either unimportant or impractical. The story that ProPublica told was true, but it agitated more than it informed. The FFI likely read it and said “well, this will make this week suck, but the outrage isn’t well-directed to any end that represents a real obstacle to us, so, hey, whatever”.Look, good journalism is hard. I get that. And there’s certainly value to communicating key facts quickly. Not every news bulletin can wait on an exhaustive search for whatever we might consider a realist approximation of “the whole truth”. But it seems undeniable to me that the current model is broken. And this is nowhere more evident than in how primary reporting is reprocessed by secondary publishers in their quest for clickshare.Say you thought “permanently bar” was wrong but not very wrong. How do you feel about the first sentence of TechCrunch’s repackage?Thanks to pressure from tax preparation industry, Congress is getting ready to ban the IRS from ever building a free electronic tax filing system.Does TechCrunch say “ever” here if ProPublica didn’t use “permanently” first? If I was a casual reader, I’d assume that “ever” implied some real finality, like a door being shut that couldn’t be re-opened. (Where the reality here is that this particular door can be sprung with precisely the same force with which it was closed.)In the same vein, consider this follow-on by Popular Mechanics:Filing Your Taxes Could Be Way Easier, But Congress and Tax Companies Are Conniving To Make Sure It Stays TerribleConniving! Reminds me of that old saw about how one shouldn’t ascribe to malice what’s better explained by incompetence (or, in this case, inadequate resources).Anyway, as to the article itself:Tucked away in section 1102 of the bill, which relates to the IRS Free File Program that ensures fee-free filing for people under a certain income threshold, is language that subtly prevents the IRS for developing its own system by mandating that the agency continue to work with the private sector in this endeavor. In other words, the legislation locks us all into the status quo.I credit ProPublica with at least this: however narrow their perspective was, at least they did their homework. Their bias was more toward sensationalism and conflict than laziness. Popular Mechanics (and dozens of others) went for the full trifecta, in a much more brazen way.As a non-exhaustive list of problems here:While, yes, filing your taxes could be “way easier”, shifting the software burden to the IRS would be no guarantee of making this so.Section 1102 was the 3rd of 47 sections. If their goal was to hide it in the stack, the crafters did a poor job.There’s a deep confusion here between the bill and the MOU.The actual non-compete language is the opposite of subtle.This is like the game of Telephone. Most secondary publishers do near-zero research and just repackage the primary article, leaving the signal to degrade with each step.And then we have Twitter.Who says there is no common ground in politics?Democrats and Republicans in the House just unanimously passed a bill that makes it illegal for the IRS to create a system to let Americans file their taxes for free online— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) April 10, 2019This system already exists! It’s called the FFP! That the IRS can’t create their own competing system to the one they already manage is a much narrower issue.(Also, for the record, passing a bill by acclimation isn’t the same as passing one via a unanimous vote.)[EDIT: 05/01/21: I realize one counter-argument here is “ah but this system is limited to 70% of the population”. And that’s true so far as it goes. But the top 30%of earners generally have far more complicated returns, almost all use accountants, and largely wouldn’t be using a free file service anyway.]It's hard to find a clearer example of Congress sabotaging the public good than a bill -- lobbied for by TurboTax -- prohibiting the Internal Revenue Service from developing a free online system for filing your taxes.— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) April 10, 2019Ditto to above. This system already exists, and was developed under the auspices of the IRS.Also, the linked NYT piece (from their editorial board) includes this gem: “Instead of barring the I.R.S. from making April a little less miserable, why isn’t Congress requiring the I.R.S. to create a free tax filing website?”The IRS already mandated the creation of several such websites! The assumption that the IRS would create a better one on their own is plausible, but (really) far from certain when you look at the history of government software projects.Two facts:1. H&R Block and the makers of TurboTax spent $6.6 million lobbying last year. They want to ban the IRS from offering its own free, simple tax filing service.2. Congress is about to pass a law doing exactly that.— Eric Umansky (@ericuman) April 9, 2019The IRS isn’t getting “banned” from anything. They voluntarily signed a non-compete 17 years ago, which they renewed less than six months ago. (And this is from a ProPublica editor!)The extent to which all Americans suffer an annual cost in time and money to protect the monopolies of TurboTax and H&R Block is astounding. Is there any issue where Congress is more out of step with citizen desires?— Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) April 9, 2019Like, I get the desire for simpler taxes. But is $40 and 15 minutes really “suffering”? (And, again, for the lowest 70% of earners, they don’t even have to shell out the $40 if they don’t want to. Though I guess you could say that using existing FFP sites is a form of suffering, if in an excessively first-world sense.)Congress can’t muster the political will to eliminate the carried interest tax break for private equity titans, but it can get together to prevent free tax preparation for others:— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) April 10, 2019No free preparation! Except for 70% of you! And a handful of other special classes!Anyway, I could go on. But the point is that if the goal is to get voters to hold politicians accountable, it would certainly help if the voters knew what was happening, and why, and where the real problems are.It’s difficult to see how all the current coverage supports such a cause.More Adventures in Water-MuddyingConsider this quote (from the original ProPublica piece, but re-used in several secondary articles):“This could be a disaster. It could be the final nail in the coffin of the idea of the IRS ever being able to create its own program,” said Mandi Matlock, a tax attorney who does work for the National Consumer Law Center.This is, uh, pretty hyperbolic. Is there any justification for it? Does it aid clarity? Or does it just lend to the ever-marketable dynamics of sensationalism and conflict?Also consider this irreconcilable set of quotes from ProPublica’s sequel (published after lawmakers reacted to the first one).The IRS chief counsel confirmed to his office that the Taxpayer First Act does not bar the agency from implementing a direct-file program. … “My staff pushed back on a long-standing policy that blocks the IRS from competing with private tax preparation companies […]”vs.“Senate Republicans fit in some bitter pills and some problematic provisions,” said [Rep Katie Hill], who supported the bill as a whole, speaking on the House floor. “One of these is a piece that came to my attention today — which the corporate tax lobby has spent years and millions of dollars to get — which would bar the IRS from creating a simple, free filing system that would compete with their own.”I find this stuff infuriating, on three levels:Those who want to get quoted have biases and motives. Readers aren’t equipped to unpack those. Journalists need to do more than just “report the controversy”. Maybe that works for an AP news bulletin where speed is of the essence. But who is doing the work of coming in after and deconstructing for the reader why each party might have said what and how their statements relate to their bios?Far too many journalists (I’m not sure if this includes ProPublica) rely on services like HARO, where the experts are unknowns who respond to a call for a quote (vs. people with whom the journalist has an established relationship based on a keen understanding of competencies and incentives and likely spin). I know personally how low the bar is to getting quoted via HARO. I was never asked once to verify my identity or defend my position. What I said was just copied-and-pasted into a piece on the strength of a one-sentence self-supplied credential and my email address.Just because a politician has a quote doesn’t mean you should print it. It’s pretty clear that most who’ve commented on this legislation so far had/have (at best) a vague sense of what it contains, much less all the MOUs and external docs referenced in the bill. This isn’t uncommon. Only so many politicians have the right staff (and even then there are hard limits on scope and priorities). Journalists ought to push back more to ensure they aren’t just printing “um, I don’t reaaally know, but here’s my strong opinion that I’m told will play well to my base” quotes (or at least journalists need to carefully qualify those quotes when printing them).The Path ForwardI’ve written a lot over the past year about the failures of modern journalism — especially the hot-take/rapid-response/clickshare machine. There are things we can do to fix it, including some simple adjustments that could go a long way.In the absence of those changes, corporations like Intuit and H&R Block are going to have a field day. Their lobbyists will do what they’re paid very well to do, and our selective and ever-moving outrage will do nothing to solve the underlying problems. The MOU, whether law or policy, will continue to be enforced so poorly as to be one-sided, and tax innovation will be forever three or five years away.And so on and so on we’ll go, never to actually get anywhere, until we eventually decide that enough is enough, that the current model belongs in the dustbin of history, and that the time to make these changes is now.Note #1: I’m generally a fan of ProPublica. I thought their rundown last year was excellent, which has been true of a lot of their past coverage on this issue. I can’t really account for why this one missed the mark in relative terms.Note #2: An open question for any lawyer reading: could taxpayers sue the IRS for failing to meet the requirements set out in section 4.35 of the MOU (a promise to make “consistent, good faith efforts” to market the FFP)?EDITS [05/01/21]:Coming back to this two years later, I’ve made some fresh eyes edits. See log. The only thing that wasn’t typos or formatting or minor caveating was adding a clarification that the MOU could still have been modified by the IRS (as opposed to the law itself, which would have required help from Congress). While it’s true that the IRS would need the FFI to agree to any such revisions, they have a unilateral termination clause for leverage (Article 10.2). The bill just said they had to continue operating the program in keeping with the original outline and any subsequent agreements. Well the reigning agreement (as ProPublica acknowledged) says the IRS can unilaterally dissolve the MOU with a year’s notice. (I’m sure the FFI would threaten to sue if the IRS went that route. But the point here again is introducing friction to test the government’s resolve. Should the government have sufficient resolve, they have absurd leverage to win that fight. So it was hardly some adamantium handcuff situation.)There’s a way in which ProPublica’s reporting worked. The offending clause was taken out of the bill as passed by the Senate. But I’m still torn about their coverage (which is fresh in mind as I’m currently working on another story about them). On one hand, they did quality work directing attention towards a somewhat dodgy thing. And the uproar they whipped up stopped that somewhat dodgy thing from happening. Even so, the basic underlying situation hasn’t actually changed. Few voters have a clearer idea of what’s really in the way of improvements to the FFP (i.e., IRS executive virility in managing the existing MOU), far too many were led to believe that the law would have been irreversible, and most are still in the fantasyland of imagining that were it not for Intuit the IRS would somehow have the sort of system you see in countries like Sweden (when the real obstacles there are all orthogonal to FFP). While I still see them as the gold standard of journalism, that means less than it should.(I’d be curious to see how many more Americans used Free File in 2020 on the back of all this media attention. If I ever find an answer, I’ll come back to link it. As a big uptick vs. the prior trendline would be to their credit.)

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