Making IRS work less taxing

Paul Cosgrave, the chief information officer at the Internal Revenue Service, brought to the embattled tax agency years of technology experience acquired in the private sector. He also brought his own unfavorable image of the federal work force.

But Cosgrave said that image was quickly replaced with the real-life picture of hard-working IRS employees who are dedicated to their jobs. In nine months as CIO, he has learned that the workers are not the culprits blocking progress at the agency.

"The problem is our processes and old computer systems," Cosgrave said. "As executives, it's our job to make changes where they are needed. The people have not been the problem. I was impressed with the quality of people over here."

As CIO, or "chief computer geek," as he is affectionately called sometimes, Cosgrave directs all aspects of the IRS' information systems, including modernization plans, Year 2000 activities, privacy and security.

He wants the IRS to be managed like most successful major corporations but admits that sometimes it is challenging to balance his private-sector experience with the needs of his new job.

"We want to use the best practices that worked in business," Cosgrave said. "But certainly some things have to be done differently because this is government.''

In his first public address as an IRS top administrator, Cosgrave promised to make it easier for the 102,000 IRS employees to do their jobs, which he said would ultimately benefit taxpayers.

His vision for the IRS included installing a standardized computer system, organizing a new management team, encouraging staff members to be more customer-friendly, dividing the agency into four major business centers and doubling the computer training budget.

To make matters even more challenging, Cosgrave inherited the agency's Year 2000 computer problem, which is expected to be fixed by June.

"A lot had to change," Cosgrave said. "I sort of laid out a lot of issues. The services were behind.''

Cosgrave has been sticking with his promises to prepare the IRS for the 21st century. The Prime Systems Integration Services Contract to modernize the IRS was awarded last year to Computer Sciences Corp., with plans to begin deployment this fall. The agency's mission has been revised to encourage a more customer-friendly approach, and the technology training budget has jumped from $4 million to $11 million.

"That's still significantly under my view of what it should be," Cosgrave said. "Our goal is to request $20 million."

The former IRS consultant said he decided to give up 26 years in private industry to join the IRS in search of a new challenge. But Cosgrave is the first to admit that he has acquired tasks that will continue beyond his tenure.

"I was looking for something different to do for the rest of my life," he said. "This is about the biggest challenge I could have landed."

A graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a bachelor's and a master's degree in industrial engineering, Cosgrave said he was interested in computers during a time when there were not enough related jobs around to encourage careers in the area.

Cosgrave credits his involvement with the Eagle Scouts and the Boys Scouts for introducing him to the world of computers through a program sponsored by IBM Corp.

Even as "chief computer geek," Cosgrave maintains a sense of humor - something else he views as a requirement for a job that involves improving customer relations.

"A CIO has to be a lot more than just a technology expert," Cosgrave said. "The job requires a lot more than just knowing about computers."

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