John Koskinen is the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), presiding over the nation’s tax system, which collects approximately $2.4 trillion in tax revenue each year. Koskinen recently assumed the position, following a scandal at the IRS. Known as a turnaround specialist, Koskinen previously led the White House response to the Y2K computer scare and was former chairman of Freddie Mac. He spoke about the agency’s management challenges and opportunities with Tom Fox a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. When you enter into an organization that has experienced operational challenges, what are your first priorities?
A. When you get parachuted in, the most important thing is to talk to as many people as you can, as quickly as you can — and listen to what they say. That’s the takeaway theme from my management experience.
One of the first big things that I decided to do in this situation was to visit the 25 largest IRS offices in cities across the country. I want to hear directly from the employees about what’s working, what’s not and what we need to address. So far I’ve been to 20 cities. You would think that by the time I got to the 20th city I would have heard it all. Yet every place I go, there are new insights and different perspectives that are helpful in understanding the opportunities for the agency and where to put our resources going forward.
Q. What are some of the biggest surprises as IRS commissioner?
A. Through talking with about 9,000 IRS employees so far, the most pleasant surprise is the lack of complaints. With everything that’s happened to these federal employees the past four years — no raises, a government shutdown, furloughs, the negative publicity surrounding the IRS — you would expect some significant grumbling about being overworked and underpaid. Surprisingly, the employees that I talk to are more focused on the needs of taxpayers than on themselves, which is a great tribute to the professionalism of the workforce.
The not-so-pleasant surprise is the critical issue surrounding funding. We’ve lost enough funding and people that we are significantly under-performing on our ability to provide services to taxpayers and collect revenues that the government is owed.
I spent 20 years in the private sector dealing with troubled and bankrupt organizations, and I’ve never dealt with an organization that is so short of resources across the board. We literally do not have enough people anywhere, including critical shortages in taxpayer service call centers, collections and enforcement. We’re down about 10,000 people in four years, even though we deal with virtually every American and have several million more taxpayers and new statutorily imposed responsibilities.
Q. What message would you like to share with Congress and the public?
A. The IRS is now often viewed as this faceless bureaucracy that seems to have problems. My goal is to get Congress and the public to have a fuller picture of the IRS and the people who work here. I want them to understand the great work that our employees are doing and how much time, effort and resources we put into trying to help taxpayers and make it as easy as possible for them to figure out what they owe and how to pay it. We’re going to process almost 150 million returns this tax filing season, and I want the public to step back and understand that that’s a huge number and a significant accomplishment by thousands of dedicated employees.
Congress and the public should also understand the negative impact of the significant cuts in our funding. I’m spending a lot of time telling Congress what they’re not getting, because they’re not paying for it, and I told Congress that this is not a once-a-year conversation. Ultimately it’s in the country’s interest for the agency to be appropriately funded, and I think Congress will understand that.
Q. Why did you take this job?
A. I’ve enjoyed coming back to the government. This is the first time I’ve worked in the public sector in 10 years. People often lose sight of the fact that public servants go to work for the government — whether it’s at the federal, state or local level — because of a commitment to serving the public. The great thing about working for the IRS, or anywhere in the public sector really, is that you don’t wake up Monday mornings and wonder if what you’re doing is worth it. You know you are making an important contribution to the public good.
When people ask me why I would take this job, the next question is always: “How long did it take you to decide?” And I say: "About 15 seconds." Even though at this stage in my career and life I was getting used to the idea that I had free time to play with my grandchildren and go to soccer games, the chance to help an organization as critical to the country as the IRS solve its problems was too good an opportunity to pass up.