To harried taxpayers, "quality" might not be the first word that comes to mind when the Internal Revenue Service is mentioned.

The IRS and its employe union want to change that.

IRS Commissioner Lawrence Gibbs and National Treasury Employees Union President Robert Tobias yesterday announced a program intended, as Tobias put it, to "improve the internal and external work product of the IRS" -- that is, to make IRS workers and taxpayers more satisfied.

Gibbs said the program is the first of its kind in the federal government to involve management and employes jointly (nearly 100,000 people will be involved). It centers on quality councils, which are groups of employes and managers at IRS service centers and other offices nationwide that will solve work problems by consensus.

Gibbs and Tobias said the program is in part a response to past IRS "difficulties," including computer snarls, liens on children's bank accounts and heavy-handed auditors. The specifics of the program, Gibbs said, are less important than its intentions.

"This isn't a program that has defined goals and limits," Gibbs said. "It's a process that can be as dynamic and ground-breaking and forward-looking as we allow it to be."

As an example, Gibbs cited an earlier effort involving companies that send taxes they withhold from employe paychecks to IRS coffers. The rate of errors, such as crediting deposits to the wrong account, dropped from 16,000 a week to 4,000 a month after the quality team's 90 recommendations were followed, Gibbs said.

The employe-management initiative comes as many companies are adopting quality-improvement programs -- so many, in fact, that the term has become something of a buzzword. Its success, private-sector experts said, depends on whether the effort is serious and involves workers at all levels.

The programs that fail "are the ones where the top tells the middle what to do at the bottom," said David Nadler, president of Delta Consulting Group. Noting that corporations tend to implement quality-improvement programs to counter competition, Nadler was a bit skeptical about the plan.

"Talk is cheap. The real question is whether there is a true commitment to spend time, to commit resources and to really examine a different way of doing business," he said. "Most organizations only tend to do that when there is sufficient pain to make them undergo it."