Repeated missteps earned the program a spot on the Government Accountability Office’s “high-risk list” for 13 consecutive years — and doubts among agency employees that the job could even be done.
“The department was in crisis mode on everything,” said Julie Rushin, the deputy chief information officer for operations. “There was no confidence.”
This year, the GAO removed the IRS from its list, and the agency has updated its online filing platform. It has switched to a system of daily instead of weekly tax processing, helping speed refunds and reduce fraud, according to the congressional watchdog agency.
For Milholland’s work, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service has named him a finalist for its annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals for citizen services.
Immediately after arriving at the agency, the Baltimore native declared that the IRS should operate a world-class IT program. But the transition wasn’t going to be easy for the staff, or for Milholland, who had served as chief information officer and chief technology officer for corporations including Geico, Boeing and Visa.
Milholland realized that he was going to have to simultaneously dismantle a system and build a new one — without offending his new colleagues.
IRS employees had grown comfortable using a hodgepodge of technologies and systems they’d developed. Different offices used different programs, and many weren’t compatible. “Even if the end result may work, it’s not a very efficient and effective way to operate,” Milholland said.
“When you standardize this stuff, people can do more, and you increase capacity,” said Milholland, who divides his time between Washington and his home in Frisco, Tex.
He required his engineers to learn Java, one of the most common programming languages. The move made IRS systems compatible with one another and helped the agency attract the best new talent, which is largely trained in using the code, Milholland said.
To avoid resistance and hurt feelings as practices changed, Milholland emphasized the need for standardization instead of dwelling on which old systems worked and which didn’t. “I learned over the years not to come in as a know-it-all,” he said. “People want you to apply your knowledge about the way things ought to be done without making the way things are already done look bad.”
Milholland also encouraged his employees to look inward instead of pointing fingers when problems arose. He also called for respectful collaboration with vendors outside the agency.
“There’s cross-organizational collaboration now, both within the IRS and with other agencies,” said Ann Altman, IBM’s general manager for federal government and industries. “It’s a trusted relationship across the board.”