EphBlog dubbed Doug Shulman ’89 with the catchy nickname ‘Least Popular Eph’ way back in 2007, when President Bush nominated him as Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. Fortunately for him, his five year term will end before the IRS likely adds between 5,900 and 16,500 agents to enforce the health care mandate, when it takes effect at the end of 2013. Unless, of course, President Obama asks him to stay on.

The Washington Post’s government leadership column interviewed Shulman about leading the IRS last week. Here are a couple of highlights:

How are you engaging your employees around the mission and work of the IRS?


When I became commissioner, I first spent 90 days listening, [and then] before those 90 days were up, I created a “workforce of tomorrow” task force [with the] goal of making the IRS a better place to work in government. You need to focus on your employees, and now we have a comprehensive strategy to focus on management, employee development and employee engagement. As a leadership team, we have a core belief that we need to have engaged, motivated employees if we’re going to serve taxpayers well.

I’m a big believer that a lot of times when there are breakdowns in organizations, it’s because of a lack of communication. So I make sure I have a dialogue with my direct reports and the people who report to them. We have a discussion with people about what they’re trying to achieve and how that connects with our overall strategy. We had the privilege to be working on some of the key policies to help with the economic recovery. I’ve spent a lot of time reminding people that your job might be to answer the [public’s] call and take their questions, process returns or do education for small business taxpayers, [but it’s] actually part of a bigger operation that has been integral to the recovery of the American economy. I spent a lot of time making sure they see that connection between a vital United States and a strong IRS.

How did you manage the fear of your employees after February’s attack on the IRS facility in Texas?

It was a real leadership challenge and opportunity to make sure our people understood this was an isolated incident and there wasn’t any increased danger for our employees – and that their leaders, starting with me, cared about them and were going to go the extra mile to find out what had happened and be 100 percent committed to protecting them.

Within hours of the event, every employee got an e-mail from me. Even though we had imperfect information, we wanted people to be informed. Once we knew what the situation was, I flew down [to Texas] and brought all the people in the building back together and worked directly with them. I went down two more times, did videos and an all-manager phone call. My belief is you’re never going to make a mistake of over-communicating.

Shulman’s interview shouldn’t generate much controversy, unlike another recent interview in which he acknowledged that he finds the tax system too complex to be able to do his own taxes:

“I’ve used one for years. I find it convenient. I find the tax code complex so I use a preparer.

As Shulman correctly pointed out, however, it’s not his fault:

Pressed on how he would make the tax code simpler, Shulman responded, “I don’t write the tax laws. Congress writes the tax laws so that’s a whole different discussion.”

He’s also declared that his “philosophy is that everybody at the IRS should try to walk in the taxpayers’ shoes and understand their service needs,” which is also admirable leadership. According to a recent GAO report, his efforts to improve service have had mixed results:

Compared to 2009, the percentage of callers seeking live assistance who received it improved in 2010 and the accuracy of answers remained high, at over 90 percent. However, the average wait time increased. Further, IRS’s annual goal for providing caller assistance was lower than any of the preceding 5 years. However, IRS lacks a standard for what constitutes good customer telephone service that could be compared to its annual goals. Such a standard would make the gap between the annual goals and the standard more transparent.

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