The Business of Government Hour

 

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The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

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Robert E. Wenzel interview

Monday, November 29th, 1999 - 20:00
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Robert E. Wenzel
Radio show date: 
Wed, 04/26/2000
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Missions and Programs...

Missions and Programs

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Arlington, Virginia

Friday, April 26, 2000

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour, conversations with government leaders. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and co-chair of the PricewaterhouseCoopers' Endowment for the Business of Government. The Endowment was created in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. To find out more about the Endowment visit us on the Web at www.endowment.pwcglobal.com.

The Business of Government Hour focuses on outstanding government executives who are changing the way government does business. Our special guest tonight is Bob Wenzel, deputy commissioner of operations for the IRS. Welcome, Bob.

Mr. Wenzel: Good evening, Paul.

Mr. Lawrence: Joining us in our conversation is Jim Cook, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Hi, Jim.

Mr. Cook: Good evening, Paul.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, Bob, in this first segment let's talk about your career, but first I want to talk about the IRS. Around tax time everybody thinks about the IRS and they're aware of tax collections, but that's not all they do. Perhaps you could tell us more about the IRS and some of its major functions.

Mr. Wenzel: Well, Paul, you're certainly right about our being on everyone's mind about this time of year. Many people think that the IRS is all about April 15th. This year it was April 17th. But you're right on point when you talk about and note that the IRS responsibilities extend far beyond its tax-collection role.

We are responsible for implementing a great number of new tax laws and provisions each and every year. We're responsible for educating taxpayers about their responsibilities, and for helping individuals and corporate taxpayers in many, many different ways.

We have education, assistance, and outreach programs to individual taxpayers, to small businesses, business liaison groups, and corporate taxpayers. We also interact with and assist, as you might expect, other government agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the Small Business Administration, just to name two.

We have a very active international tax organization and assist other countries, both in emerging and established countries, in administrating their programs and setting up or enhancing their tax-administration programs.

Our criminal investigation function, another example of a part of the IRS that a lot of folks might now know about, is in the forefront of battling crimes involving illegal drugs, financial crimes, tax evasion, and money laundering.

I could really tell you that the IRS is recognized as the worldwide leader in tax administration. I can also admit that we really needed to change, upgrade, and move with the times to provide even better service to taxpayers here in our country and to American citizens working overseas.

The IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, that many individuals are familiar with, gave us the mandate and provided the tools to accomplish this, while the leadership of Commissioner Charles Rossotti has established the direction and shape of the future of the Internal Revenue Service.

Mr. Cook: Bob, you've been with the IRS for over 30 years, and as such you're now the highest-ranking career official at the IRS. Over that time you've held a number of positions and you've had a number of accomplishments. You've been instrumental in some of the changes that have taken place. Can you describe for us a little bit about your history?

Mr. Wenzel: Jim, it's actually soon to be 37 years. Two years of that is with service in the United States Army, but the other 35 years has all been with the Internal Revenue Service. I mean this when I say it seems like a short period of time because it's gone by so quickly.

During this time, I have been fortunate I have worked for an organization like the Internal Revenue Service, working with employees who work for the Service because there is real pride in doing a good job and a really sincere commitment in helping taxpayers.

We've seen many, many changes over that period of time occurring throughout the world. That is, in the private sector and in government. And although I think the IRS has always been concerned with doing the job well, I think the focus of our job has changed. Offering quality service to our customer is not so much a "nice to have," but an integral part of doing our job correctly and well.

I started with the IRS as a revenue officer, a GS-5, right out of college in Chicago, and worked in both our Chicago and Detroit offices before being selected for our executive selection and development program. While I was working in Detroit for seven years in the '70s, I was observing what was happening to the U.S. auto industry. That taught me an extremely important lesson about how important it is, not just in the private sector, but also in public service, to offer good customer service and high quality. That is, providing the best products in public service and providing the best customer service that we possibly can offer. That experience also taught me what happens to business or government when these elements are lacking or considered not the most important way of delivering products or services.

After Detroit, and having a number of management positions both in Chicago and Detroit, I spent a significant portion of my time as an executive. Other than at Washington at our national headquarters, I also served at our National Computing Center in Martinsburg, West Virginia, as the director there, and also as director in our two service enters, one in Ogden, Utah, and the other in Fresno, California, and I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated my time as director in those three offices and locations.

It gave me a real good understanding and a hearty appreciation for the challenges facing the processing activity within the Internal Revenue Service.

I've been the deputy commissioner for the Internal Revenue Service since 1998, and I have to say this is the greatest challenge and most important assignment, obviously, of my entire government career. It comes at a time when the IRS is changing and modernizing itself during the most critical rebuilding phase the Service has really faced since 1952, the last time when we significantly reorganized ourselves.

By the way, I wasn't there at the time. I can only share with you what I've read and learned about it. But I will say that we're in a period of time right now when we are changing the way we do business with a renewed focus upon meeting our taxpayer needs and delivering quality customer service. I'm just really appreciative of the fact that I have the opportunity to be a part of this major change that's underway within our organization.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, 37 years certainly is a long time. What is it about public service that drew you to it?

Mr. Wenzel: When I think back to 1963, Paul, when I graduated college, I had several career choices. There were a number of corporations that came to the college campus and interviewed for positions there and I was offered several opportunities to go into the private sector � by the way, at a starting salary that was about twice of what I finally accepted with the Internal Revenue Service.

But in 1963 a lot of the young people like myself back in those days thought of government service as the right thing to do for their country. Personally speaking, I am a first-generation American. My parents immigrated to the United States, and their formal education stopped at the age of 14 in the country that they came from.

But they learned about the constitution of the United States early on and set as their goal when they were young to come to the United States for a better way of life. So, being raised in that environment, my father and mother encouraged me to always remember what a great country this is given the opportunity, and that we all have a responsibility to give back to our country.

The Internal Revenue Service was on the college campus along with other corporations, and I interviewed for the Internal Revenue Service. I was an accounting major, and I said if I really had a sincere interest to go into public service then the Internal Revenue Service was the right fit for me � and I made that my career choice.

As I mentioned earlier, I started as a GS-5 and really enjoyed the training that I received initially and stayed with the Internal Revenue Service all these years.

Mr. Lawrence: It's time for a break. We'll be right back with more of The Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tonight's conversation is with Bob Wenzel, deputy commissioner of operations for the IRS. Joining me is Jim Cook, a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Well, Bob, in the first segment you touched on a very interesting point, which is even as far back as 1963 the private sector was offering higher salaries than the public sector was, and that's something that comes up a lot today. So, I'd like to follow-up and ask about the IRS's ability to attract young or junior people into the service.

Mr. Wenzel: Paul that�s really an excellent question. Let me respond by answering it this way, that, first of all, I really believe that the Internal Revenue Service is the only game in town when it comes to learning about tax administration. Whether an individual wants to acquire a strong background within the public sector and move on to something else, or whether an individual wants a career in public service from the beginning, we've always been recognized for the excellent training we offer.

So, there's somebody coming in and working with us for a number of years, and hopefully they'll stay with us. But if there's another option, there is another option for those individuals to go into the private sector.

Second, there are still many, many individuals who feel, I believe, a sense of commitment and a need to give back to their nation in some very, very meaningful way, and I can't think of a better way than going into public service. If you visit our headquarters office right on 12th and Constitution Avenue, right above our main entrance there's an inscription there by Oliver Wendell Holmes. I think it really describes our purpose very, very well, saying simply that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.

It is the belief of so many IRS employees, the 100,000 folks that work for us past and present that the ultimate function of the IRS is to support and to finance our democracy, and Oliver Wendell Holmes' statement is so very, very appropriate. Our current commissioner, Commissioner Rossotti, and all of our past commissioners are prime examples of this maxim, as are our recently recruited new executives and many, many of our rank and file employees.

Mr. Cook: Bob, as a follow-on to that, you've talked about the challenge and your thoughts on recruiting junior folks to the IRS. Let's talk a little bit about leadership. The IRS is traditionally a career agency, and with the exception of the commissioner, the senior leaders really came from within the IRS. But, in recent years, Commissioner Rossotti has started to recruit some outstanding individuals from other areas of the public sector and private sector. I guess I'm interested in finding out a little bit more about your thoughts on the appropriate mix between senior career executives and recruiting senior leaders directly into the IRS.

Mr. Wenzel: Right, Jim. You're absolutely right. Up until the Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 there were two political appointments with IRS and the rest of us were all career civil servants. That is, the commissioner, as you pointed out, and our chief counsel.

But the Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 allowed the commissioner to bring in up to 40 additional individuals from the private sector, and although we haven't reached that number yet, 17 new executives have joined our organization from the private sector.

What we've discovered from that very positive experience is that there's real value in both sources for recruitment of IRS leadership inside and outside. During the past year or two we've put in place teams of experienced and highly qualified executives from, as I said, both inside and outside the IRS. All of them have became leaders because they saw an opportunity to improve the Internal Revenue Service, and all of them were chosen as leaders because they bring a unique ability to implement change at this critical point in time in our history.

We all work together and value one another in terms of what we each bring to the table. The key we found is to continue to do what we do well in the traditional ways and to keep an open mind, embrace change and progress, and readily accept new ideas of achieving our new mission and goals. We know we must be prepared to make changes and implement innovations, and I really believe that our new mix of people, their backgrounds, their experiences and ideas, allows us to even do better than what we've ever, ever done before.

Mr. Lawrence: We know as you've been talking about that the IRS has been moving towards becoming a more customer-centric organization, performance based, and focusing on world-class service to the taxpayers. Sounds like a tremendous transition. I was wondering if you could tell us about the steps that the IRS is taking as it moves towards these goals.

Mr. Wenzel: I think the principal changes that we've implemented in this new approach is that we've included as many of our people as possible in the changes within our organization. In the past we did that to a limited extent, but not to the point that we've done it since the last almost 3 years. As we started to implement the changes the Restructuring and Reform Act in itself required � a new mission statement, new goals, a new organizational structure, new performance measures, and it's a whole list of requirements � we engaged our entire work force as much as we possibly could. Now we have 100,000 employees as I mentioned.

Mr. Lawrence: I was going to ask how you do that with 100,000 employees?

Mr. Wenzel: They're scattered all over the United States, and even in some of our embassies around the world. So, how do you do that? Well, first of all, we've opened up the internal communications as much as you can possibly imagine in terms of trying to get input. For example, Commissioner Rossotti has welcomed e-mail messages, voice mail messages, and he receives scores and scores of direct contact in the form of ideas, thoughts, and recommendations from employees from all over the United States.

But one of the principal things that we've done is we've started to implement the changes. We have brought numbers of employees from around the country. As we sit here this evening for example, there are 600 employees in Washington, D.C. that are modernizing the IRS task groups and being an integral part of developing the changes and improvements.

Mr. Lawrence: It's time for a break. We'll be right back with more of The Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tonight's conversation is with Bob Wenzel, deputy commissioner of operations for the IRS. Joining me is Jim Cook, also with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Jim?

Mr. Cook: Thank you, Paul. Bob, in the last segment you talked a little bit about some of the things that you're doing, in particular with the employees and involving the employees in the modernization effort. I'd like to talk a little bit about managing that effort itself.

Some have characterized the IRS's modernization effort as changing the IRS's focus to assistance of taxpayers, rather than managing compliance. We've all heard in particular over the last 6 to 8 months about managing the balance between those two. I'd like you to get you to talk a little bit about how you manage and maintain this balance, and how you manage in particular the expectations of your employees, the taxpayers, and Congress on this critical issue.

Mr. Wenzel: Jim, that's certainly a fair question, and let me respond to it this way, although it's been identified as a concern right now, we're really addressing this day in and day out. Certainly we've changed our focus. To be sure, we have revamped our mission statement, and we've developed newly defined goals.

But just because we've moved to do a better job to meet the needs of taxpayers, it does not follow that we no longer require taxpayers to meet their legal obligations. That's never been the intent here. It is the role of taxpayers to understand and meet their tax obligations, and most do so. A very high percentage of folks do so without even a single intervention on the part of anyone with the Internal Revenue Service.

We want to do a better job at helping that overwhelming majority of taxpayers to comply, but we have not in any way lessened our commitment to taxpayers to comply. Let me underscore that. We haven't lessened our commitment to taxpayers to comply, and it's important that small minority who are not willing to comply are not permitted to get away with not complying. That's one of our principal roles, to make sure that we don't put additional burden on compliant taxpayers. People expect this of us, and we remain committed to doing just that.

Certainly, over the past year there was some confusion and misinterpretation by employees and managers about the meaning of some of the aspects of the Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998. You may have heard, for example, about Section 1203, which our employees have referred to as the "ten deadly sins." What that basically sys is that if somebody violated this one section of the act itself, it could result in removal. Then we also had a Section 1204, which addresses the use of statistics inside IRS.

But we've really worked hard on trying to alleviate the concerns of our employees, and we've done this right from the commissioner all the way down. The top leaders in our organization, by educating our employees, clearly elucidate our position in every way that you can possibly think of.

We've reinforced our position to employees that enforcement activity is a very vital component of our strategy for achieving overall compliance. But it's not the only component, and enforcement revenue is not a good measure of success in achieving our goal of service to all taxpayers.

Mr. Lawrence: The IRS modernization is a tremendous undertaking and you have to align the organization, the processes and the technology, and I think that would be difficult under any circumstances, but yet you have to continue the current operations. Can you talk to us about this change in general, and how it takes place when the IRS can't disrupt the filing season?

Mr. Wenzel: Well, we've talked already about how important it is to communicate effectively with our employees. But what we've also tried to do is to make sure that we communicate information on an ongoing basis with all our stakeholders, including various practitioners and liaison groups, other government agencies, such as the Small Business Administration and Social Security Administration, and many large and small taxpayer groups.

A good example is what we did in January when all of these external stakeholder groups came together here in Washington, D.C., and we held a press conference that was broadcast throughout the whole country. We called it our modernization conference, and it was entitled The New IRS Stands Up. This provided an opportunity for many taxpayer and tax practitioner groups to get a glimpse of our new organization and hear firsthand what was happening within the Internal Revenue Service.

It's so important for us as an agency and our mission to have open and frequent communication. Our ability to achieve employee and customer buy-in to our many changes that are underway in our organization, has been a key to much of our success thus far.

We really recognized in the earliest planning stages of the modernization that internal communication was important, but that it was also necessary to manage communication and decision-making operations in order to keep our top management out of endless and repetitive meetings.

When you talk about managing change, we've established a management process within our organization for each area of change with an executive steering committee is how we're organized consisting of the commissioner as the chairperson and identified senior executives to perform as the top-level governing body.

Additionally, included in those executive steering committees is the assistant secretary of the Treasury Department, the assistant secretary for administration of the department, our president of the National Treasury Employee's Union, NTEU, and many, many other key leaders. We work within this executive steering committee to provide consistent direction and prompt decision-making on major issues that affect progress in any or all of the change areas.

Mr. Cook: Bob, let's talk a little bit more about the employees. You've touched on that several times throughout this discussion this evening, and you've talked a little bit about some of the things that you're doing differently with the employees to include them in this effort. But how do you feel the employees are dealing with this culture shift within the IRS, and what if any resistance have you seen?

Mr. Wenzel: Jim, we've really tried to issue timely communications within the organization and to be receptive to any and all incoming correspondence. The example I gave with our commissioner having an e-mail address -- believe me, employees utilize that. At least that's been our experience. We've gotten tremendous ideas and suggestions directly from our employees that way.

We do have a very effective communications and liaison organization within our agency. We value that and make sure that we provide the right staffing and budget for communications and liaison which really helps us provide consistent and timely outward-bound communications to our employees.

Going a little bit further on that, we've been thoroughly committed from the top down, and it's gone back several years now, to listening to our employees. And one of the ways we do that is to conduct an annual employee survey using survey feedback action processes.

We just started our year 2000 survey. We expect somewhere close to 80,000 of our 100,000 employees to voluntarily take time out to do this survey. Since we've done this kind of survey for four years, we have a base line experience. We can compare from one year to the next in terms of how we're doing.

But let me just go back and say perhaps most importantly for our employees and our participants, that over 600 of our employees right now representing all functions, all areas of the country geographically in all positions within the service are participating in our whole design efforts. This is our phase 3 of our design effort. In phase 1 we've had about 400 employees, phase 2 about 500 employees, and now we're in our final phase. They are linked to their peers around the country, so there's a lot of active engagement, a lot of communication has taken place.

What's so important here is that so many employees have spent months away from their families and their regular work in order to contribute to the original design efforts, but we had more volunteers than what we actually could accommodate in our effort.

So, I think that with what's happened within the Internal Revenue Service. Our employees feel good that they have this opportunity to have the input. I also believe it's helped through this difficult transition as it relates to their attitude and their feeling about their job and their role within the IRS.

Mr. Lawrence: It's time for a break. We'll be right back with more of The Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tonight's conversation is with Bob Wenzel, deputy commissioner of operations for the IRS. I'm joined by Jim Cook, a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Well, Bob, I'd like to follow-up on something you mentioned in the last segment about working with the union. I'm curious to know how it is to work with the union as a key stakeholder in this effort.

Mr. Wenzel: I really can best answer that by saying that my personal experience has only been extremely positive. We started to build and strengthen our partnership with the NTEU going all the way back to 1987 when the commissioner and president of the NTEU signed an agreement to become partners in the way the IRS goes about our business.

As I said, it goes back a number of years and has become stronger and more professional as I see it with each year that passes. It's now reached the point, for example, that the Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 calls for an oversight board that still has not been officially finalized with Congress and by the administration, but hopefully it will be in the near future.

One of the individuals nominated to be a part of the oversight board of the IRS is the former NTEU president. He has been nominated and I expect he will be appointed as a member of the oversight board. Our current president of the NTEU, Colleen Kelly is also a very active member of these executive steering committees and is actively engaged in policy and key decision-making at the executive steering committee level.

Of course, we have at the headquarters, at the highest level of the Internal Revenue Service, what we call the national partnership council. The council consists of the president of the National Treasury Employee's Union, myself, and the top leadership, and it's a representation where it's literally almost equal numbers of individuals appointed by the president of the National Treasury Employee's Union and those executives that I appoint.

We meet every other month, normally for about 3 days on key issues of concern to both of us, and all the recommendations in terms of what comes out of that effort is forwarded on. You can see a very high percentage of those recommendations being implemented throughout the Service.

So, while we go back a ways, and it's important now that we we're going through this change that we've engaged NTEU once again. They're the people that I've talked about being on the design teams. The national president of the NTEU also has the opportunity to appoint a number of members from the union to be a part of those design teams.

Those appointments are not all just management type appointments. It's that partnering effort that really we've committed ourselves to continue to have a strong and effective relationship with mutual goals, obviously, improving the quality of service, the quality of work life for all of our employees, and increasing our employee and customer satisfaction.

We have three basic goals in terms of measures, and that is customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and business results, and NTEU is a critical part of making that happen.

Mr. Cook: Bob, you've talked a lot about the reinvention efforts, and I always find it interesting that the general tone in the media about the IRS tends to be somewhat negative. But despite that, I'm always amazed about the fact that the IRS is in fact the model around the world for how to run a tax-administration organization. As the deputy commissioner of operations, you have primary responsibility for all of those programs that address customer service, collect the revenue, process the payments, issue the refunds. I'm interested to find a little bit more about how you and your people ensure that these programs operate in an effective and efficient manner.

Mr. Wenzel: That's a good question, and you just reminded me again of one of my experiences in my career when I was in Detroit for 7 years, and part of that time I was responsible for the state of Michigan and the customer-service program for the entire state.

One day I had a group of reporters in my office. It was near the end of the filing season in that particular year, and I asked a question. I said, when are you going to write an article that says something positive about the Internal Revenue Service, and one of them looked at me straight in the eye and said, "Bob, that doesn't sell newspapers."

It's when you make mistakes. Of course, we realize that because we have a very delicate mission in terms of our responsibility. We're very conscious of the fact that we really need to make sure we don't make mistakes, to keep them to a minimum and if we do make them, and to learn from the mistakes so that we can improve our operation.

Jim, the other side of that if I may comment, is that I'm really proud to say, and without any bragging, is that the Internal Revenue Service remains the leader throughout the world in tax administration. I say that, and I can bring in leaders from other countries that will vouch for that. We have regular visitors come into the Internal Revenue Service from around the world, including their commissioners, if you will, and their top staffs, to learn about our operations and how we go about our business.

We're doing that in spite of lagging technology and resource needs. That we've been able to maintain this leadership role is testimony to the commitment and dedication of our employees, many of whom literally have forced our 40-year-old computers to continue to work. And it's just amazing how they are able to do this. We�ve also been consistently fortunate, I believe, because of Commissioner Rossotti's highly effective and efficient leadership. He's now been with us over 2 years. Along with other top leaders, and a very, very dedicated work force from the top down and the bottom up, we are convinced that we not only will ensure continued tax-administration leadership, but we will provide better, more effective operations serving as a model throughout the world.

Mr. Lawrence: Internet speed is changing how everybody thinks about federal agencies, including the IRS, and I'm wondering how has technology impacted customer service at the IRS.

Mr. Wenzel: This really is a great opportunity for the IRS to serve our customers even better through technology. There is also a great incentive for us to be able to provide better, quicker service to taxpayers. Our ability to serve taxpayers is key to our ability to achieve our mission, and electronic tax administration is a vital piece of our future plans. We've moved into the Internet in a very, very big way, and we'll continue to look for more ways to serve taxpayers through technology.

I guess it may be fair to say that the future of electronic tax administration is really the real future of tax administration, and I mean that.

Our electronic-filing strategy is both ambitious and totally within reach, and it includes use of the Web for a wide range of tax administration purposes. As I'm sure you're probably aware, we also have underway a multiyear plan to modernize our core computer systems. This is critical to our success. Our goal is to be able to provide the public with the same level of service and responsiveness the private sector is able to deliver.

With the continued support of the Congress, and once again, the leadership of our commissioner, Charles Rossotti, and our chief information officer, Paul Cosgrave, we really expect significant results and enormous technological improvements over the next several years.

Mr. Lawrence: I'm afraid we're out of time. Thank you very much, Bob, for spending some time with us today. Jim and I have enjoyed our conversation very much. This has been The Business of Government Hour, conversations with government leaders.

I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the co-chair of the PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government. To learn more about the Endowment's programs and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness, visit us on the Web at www.endowment.pwcglobal.com. See you next week.

Robert E. Wenzel interview
04/26/2000
Robert E. Wenzel

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