The dervish is in the details

At the IRS, and at other agencies before, Smoter has stayed on the cutting edge

Those are some sly dogs over there at the Capitol.

“The government got me through trickery,” said Susan Smoter, director of Internet development services at the IRS’ Electronic Tax Administration. “My mother was a government lifer,” she said, “and I was not going there. But I applied to a blind ad in the Washington Post, and it turned out to be too good a job to turn down.”

Doing computer-based training for the U.S. Senate was “so creative and so much fun that I stayed there for seven years,” she said.

A brief stint in the private sector followed, but the Postal Service won her back, and that started a career trek though several agencies, each stop marked by significant IT achievements.

“When I started in government in 1979, there were a lot of Kennedy and Eisenhower administration people still around,” she said. “They taught that this was a job you did because you wanted to give back to your country. I believe in service.”

Charged with developing the Postal Service’s Web Interactive Network of Government Services (Wings) kiosk program, Smoter looked at the obvious technology choices—and rejected them.

In 1994, kiosks relied on videodisks for data. “Preparing, printing, distributing videodisks—how could you get information out to people in a timely manner?” she scoffed. She opted instead for an emerging technology: the Internet.

She also found the hardware lacking. Because touch screens were heat driven, “if you had a prosthetic finger, they wouldn’t work,” she said. So she persuaded touch-screen makers to make pressure-sensitive monitors.

Kiosk makers also got a visit from Smoter, after which they changed their designs to accommodate people using wheelchairs and walkers.

She tapped the Trace Center at the University of Wisconsin to develop new accessibility standards, which later formed the basis for the Section 508 Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998.

Spreading her wings

She extended Wings’ usability with another first: a Web gateway. The kiosk program was superseded by new technology, but Smoter’s vision survives as the precursor to e-government, said Wilma Lanier, an IRS program analyst.

On mobility assignment at the Transportation Department, Smoter brought the department into compliance with Section 508. “DOT’s 13 operating groups had never agreed on anything,” she said. “As an outsider, I was unaware of cultural differences going on, so I just said, ‘Here’s a law that’s going to kick in June 21, and here’s what we have to do,’ and they did it.”

At the Overseas Private Investment Corp., a government agency that helps U.S. businesses invest overseas, Smoter used a Web forms creation tool to develop a graphical user interface Web wrapper and provide Windows functionality to 20-year-old mainframe applications, no rewriting required.

“The CEO of the software company whose tool was used said that nobody had ever used [it] in such an innovative way or gotten such results,” Lanier said.

As chief technology officer for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, she pulled the District of Columbia’s chestnuts out of the fire, developing and implementing—in five months—the Sex Offender Registry, helping D.C. avoid a federal violation and preserving its grant status.

Next came the IRS, where, despite funding cuts, Smoter updated the site and recently earned a five-point increase in customer satisfaction on the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the University of Michigan’s annual e-gov evaluation.

“Some places don’t offer much challenge,” Smoter said, explaining her crowded resume. “But it’s going to take longer than I have to do everything there is to do here.”

Smoter’s influence extends beyond our shores—she’s co-chair of Oasis, the Tax Extensible Markup Language technical committee for international standards group. Taxpayers working in multiple countries must file multiple tax forms, “so we’re working on standards for data exchange and interoperability of tax data so they’ll only have to prepare their taxes once,” she says.

The hard-driving Smoter is also a favorite boss. “There are always people trying to get on her team,” said IRS spokeswoman Nora Butler.

“She’s a Level 5 leader” who puts her staff and organization first, Lanier said. “She paved the way for a new mentoring program” and created developmental opportunities for a dozen staffers.

Then there’s today’s problem: The IRS is close to meeting its e-business goals—by next year, 80 percent of returns will be filed electronically.

“But what are the next things we should be doing?” Smoter asked. “We didn’t have those answers, so I volunteered to take over mapping our e-strategy for growth. I get to set up goals for the next three years.”

“Now, this is the kind of thing I can really get my teeth into.”

About the Author

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