The new face of modernization at IRS

Going toe-to-toe with the big boys at the negotiating table is a familiar experience for Richard Spires. What's different for the two-decade veteran of the private sector is that now he represents the government side in the money talks.

The new associate chief information officer for the Internal Revenue Service's troubled Business Systems Modernization (BSM) effort has an appreciation for the pressures that contractors face. And that allows him to craft "deals that are both good for us and are also palatable to them," Spires recently said, sitting in his office at IRS headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Spires replaced Fred Forman Sept. 17 as leader of the $10 billion effort to modernize the IRS' tax-processing technology, and he sees bright spots showing up in the performance of the six-company Prime Alliance of BSM contractors led by Computer Sciences Corp.

But issues remain, Spires said, and he has been addressing those topics of concern since he came on board. For example, he wasted no time initiating a review of the program support provided by the Prime Alliance.

"We have an opportunity to really drive ourselves," said Jim Sheaffer, CSC's vice president and Prime Alliance general manager. "I think Richard wants to continue to find out how we can effectively work together. I don't see it as a fundamental change in the way we do business together."

Spires has also been busy creating a new change requirements office and reworking the BSM Challenge Plan, a 46-point program IRS officials and contractors agreed to earlier this year to get the BSM effort moving again.

A running start like this doesn't happen without preparation, however. As part of an unusual transition process, Spires actually joined the IRS in April, as one of four associate chief information officers. W. Todd Grams, the agency's CIO, created a position expressly for Spires that was dissolved after the changeover in BSM leadership.

"I had five months in which to really learn the program, work closely with the team," Spires said. "It's almost like I was [Forman's] deputy for five months, and then we switched, and now he's staying on to help me continue to transition, but now I'm formally running the program." Forman is scheduled to leave the IRS by mid-November, about six months before his nonrenewable four-year contract runs out.

"I'm really glad we did it this way," Spires said.

Landing a government job was no accident for him. After spending 16 years at SRA International and another three as president and chief operating officer of Mantas, a vendor of software that helps detect money laundering, Spires decided to start looking into career options in the public sector.

"I was looking at opportunities," he said. "I actually decided to apply not, as it turns out, for the job I'm in, but for a different job in IRS."

Working for the government is different, Spires said. The level of oversight "is certainly more than you would see in the private sector." And although Spires finds IRS leaders open to change, the number of overseers — including officials at the Treasury Department, the Office of Management and Budget, the Government Accountability Office and Congress does make change a slower process, he said.

Nevertheless, his migration from the for-profit world to the government is part of a larger push on the part of IRS officials to recruit private-sector executives to fill open and newly created slots in the Modernization and Information Technology Services division. Agency officials have spoken of relying on IRS civil servants who are experts in tax administration and IRS outsiders who have strong IT project experience.

"There are excellent people here at the IRS," Spires said. "I really enjoy this team and am proud to be a part of this team. But there are particular areas where we want to bring in private-sector skills or skills that don't exist in people we have here."

Agency watchers characterize the infusion of outside talent into the IRS as a necessary endeavor. "I think they need qualified new blood," said one expert, who requested anonymity. "It would be true of any organization where people work in the same place for a long time. They lose sometimes the ability to see things outside of the context of their operations."

The effort is having the desired effect, Spires said. "I think that [it] has shifted the culture a bit. I see a real openness to bringing in other executives who can add value."

However, IRS employees have voiced resentment in the past to outsiders coming in, the observer added, saying, "There's no doubt that there was some pushback from the long-standing folks, some resentment and some 'I'll show them — I'm not going to cooperate.' "

Overcoming that attitude requires "salesmanship, good sensitivity, good diplomacy skills," the observer said.

IRS officials' next move will be to hire an executive to fill the new position of associate CIO for enterprise services, a post Spires said he worked closely with Grams to define. The new organization will ensure that Modernization and IT Services officials adhere to life cycle planning principles, he said.

"The real concept is that this new organization — Enterprise Services — is going to be taking some of the functions that exist today in BSM and [Information Technology Services] and combine them so we have an end-to-end process all the way from developing applications to fielding them," he said.

The Richard Spires file

Current position: Associate chief information officer for Business Systems Modernization at the Internal Revenue Service.

Age: 43.

Birthplace: Summit, N.J.

Education: Spires has two bachelor's degrees, in electrical engineering and mathematical sciences, from the University of Cincinnati. He also has a master's degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University.

Hobbies: Golf, running, weight training and travel.

Most recently read book: "The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty" by Caroline Alexander.

Typical weekend: Spending time with his wife and three children — "in particular, spending time at my children's sporting events." Spires has a son, 13, and two daughters, 8 and 11.

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