E-tax man: Always on the job

IRS Free File initiative

For most Americans, April 15 is tax day. But for Terry Lutes, director of the Internal Revenue Service's Electronic Tax Administration, it's just another busy day at the office.

Lutes leads one of the government's biggest marketing, customer service and performance improvement initiatives. And so far, he has much to be proud of: Millions are taking advantage of the electronic filing services the IRS now offers.

But his work is far from finished. Millions of Americans prepare their taxes with software and then mail the returns, and more do not consider e-filing at all. But even as Lutes and his team push for more e-filing, the IRS is not ready to process more e-filed individual and business returns than it already has.

What the Electronic Tax Administration has already accomplished — establishing the capability to handle electronic filing of the 1040 forms and launching Free File Alliance LLC's Free File program — are only the first steps in a multifaceted effort. Now Lutes is focusing on the back-office systems that support more complex returns, faster service and more accurate reviews.

"We're going to get these millions [of electronic tax returns] on an infrastructure that was designed in 1985" and will not support the extra services that people inside and outside the IRS expect, Lutes said. "We've been working on modernization for a long time. Now is the point that we've got to deliver visible manifestations of that work."

This will involve even closer collaboration among the approximately 115 people in the Electronic Tax Administration and the rest of the IRS.

Lutes views his organization as the conduit between the agency's operational units and the information technology unit, translating business needs into the creation of a new infrastructure. "It's a lot of collaboration and cooperation, and sometimes it's a bit of pushing and shoving," he said.

This is a year-round job, not one that demands his time solely during the three-and-a-half-month tax season. But "there is absolutely no lack of commitment" to electronic tax filing, Lutes said.

One thing he has learned is how to be flexible. He got his job in part because of a 1997 agency reorganization that cut his old position. "When they created the organization, I was the IRS executive that didn't have a job," he said.

Lutes does not have a background in IT, but that hasn't hindered him. "I knew how to turn a PC on," he said.

In fact, he became director of the Electronic Tax Administration in December 1999 only two weeks before the tax-filing season started, not the best time to be taking on an extremely high- profile job.

"Crisis is a great learning mechanism. I learned essentially by dealing with the problems facing me," Lutes said. "It was totally on-the-job training."

But that challenge never stopped him from taking on a job, and it was hardly a barrier here. "I've done a lot of things in my career that were not exactly consistent with my background," he said.

Lutes started out in the Air Force, first in uniform and then as a civilian. In 1977, the last year he earned a Defense Department paycheck, he was working on the Air Force's social actions programs. Those programs offer counseling for drug and alcohol abuse, mental health problems, sexual harassment and other similar issues.

The programs had very little to do with the IRS, much less electronic tax filing. But when the IRS office in Denver invited Lutes to go there and discuss the programs with them, the office's director took a liking to him. The director kept Lutes updated on IRS positions as they became available. Eventually that same year, one caught his attention and he's been with the agency ever since.

"Terry Lutes brings unwavering determination" to his work at the IRS, said Jonathan Womer, portfolio director for the government-to-citizens e-government initiatives at the Office of Management and Budget. He has worked closely with Lutes on the Free File initiative and other efforts. "He juggles requirements from a complex IT infrastructure, senior management and, most importantly, the customer with great skill," Womer said. "At the end of the day, he has navigated a difficult path and delivered results."

One of the things Lutes says he likes most about his job is that the Electronic Tax Administration really is about customer service. "What technology offers is a chance to change the whole way that citizens perceive and interact with government." n

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The Terry Lutes file

Title: Director of the Electronic Tax Administration at the Internal Revenue Service.

Education: Bachelor of arts from Eastern Kentucky University and a master's in public administration from the University of Colorado.

Previous experience: Lutes served in the U.S. Air Force from 1970 to 1977. He moved to the IRS in 1977 and has held positions nationwide, including director of Electronic Program Operations and director of the Martinsburg National Computing Center.

Proudest moments of the past two years: Getting Free File up and running. "For the foreseeable future, we've got a solution that works," he said. Also, rallying support within the IRS for the modernization effort.

Next position: "I still haven't decided what I want to be when I grow up."

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