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GovExpert: James Donelson, former Chief Operations Officer for the Internal Revenue Service

GovExpert is a biweekly interview of high-level authorities on government and government practices.
This week’s GovExpert is James Donelson. Mr. Donelson is a former Chief Operations Officer for the US Internal Revenue Service.

As an operations officer what made your job the most difficult?

The major challenge for me as IRS Chief Operations Officer was to make policy and program decisions that would impact taxpayers in a fair and positive way while managing and understanding a very complex agency.

The position of Chief Operations Officer with the Internal Revenue Service required a very broad understanding of the entire organization. The IRS employs around 100,000 people and is a very complex organization with a variety of operating functions sharing a common goal. That goal is to insure that our nation’s system of voluntary compliance is maintained in a fair and equitable manner. In order to achieve the goal of voluntary compliance, IRS operates various functions to assist taxpayers, enforce regulations and prevent tax evasion and fraud.

Each year the agency collects trillions of tax dollars, examines millions of tax returns, matches information documents to returns, processes hundreds of millions of tax documents and payments, issues millions of refunds and assists taxpayers to comply with tax responsibilities in person, by mail or over the telephone. My role as Chief Operations Officer was to maintain and improve policy and programmatic processes in order to reduce taxpayer burden and improve all aspects of voluntary compliance.

What is the one thing that you think government can implement to make it more efficient?

Clearly, any government process or policy that impacts millions of citizens should be fair, understandable, transparent and be seen by people to benefit them in their daily lives. The IRS struggles with this in many ways due to the complexity of the tax system. But within the IRS we made major progress to help taxpayers by making changes to achieve the goals of transparency and availability of information through technology.

One of my most significant accomplishments as Chief Operations was the launching of the IRS.Gov web site. IRS.Gov created a transparent and readily available tool for taxpayers and tax experts to research IRS procedural manuals to determine if IRS employees are addressing tax issues correctly. In addition, IRS employees, tax professionals and taxpayers all save time, money and travel expenses by downloading tax forms and other documents on their home computer rather than waiting in an IRS office for assistance.

An interesting aspect of launching IRS.Gov was that it was created in a “Skunk Works” operation in 1996 involving just a dozen technical staff before it was funded. The project was completely unfunded until they brought it to my attention because they needed a sponsor within the IRS. I was amazed at the potential savings and benefits demonstrated by the prototype and I gladly provided the first $50,000.00 requested to get IRS.Gov on line. IRS.Gov remains one of the most important internet sites on line as taxpayers attempt to comply with our nation’s complex tax system.

What advice would you give to young govies who are looking to make a career in operations?

I started my IRS career in 1971 as a Revenue Officer (a tax collector) in Brooklyn, N.Y. I rose through the ranks as a technician from GS 7 to GS 12 in four years. In the 1970’s that was unheard of. My secret then and throughout my 29 year IRS career was to take on the difficult, complex and important assignments that many of your peers may turn down.

An example of taking on a difficult and dangerous assignment occurred when I was a GS 9. The assignment involved collecting taxes through enforcement methods from people guilty of selling and possessing large amounts of illegal drugs. The law and case circumstances required IRS Revenue Officers to demand payment and seize property in person. The higher ranked GS 12’s and GS 11’s in my office were offered the assignments first, but declined. A fellow GS 9 and I agreed to take on the responsibility and we learned a great deal about examining returns, processing documents at IRS and Criminal Investigation. As Chief Operations Officer years later, I used experiences from that assignment to make informed decisions on a far more expanded scale.

My advice to young govies is to trust your instincts, take on assignments others may shy away from, become valuable to management and learn valuable lessons at every stage of your career.

James Donelson

Mr. Donelson joined IRS in 1971 in Brooklyn,NY as a revenue officer GS 7, He first managed as a Collection group manager GM13 in Hartford, CT. Subsequently, he managed a Taxpayer Service division in Hartford. He moved to Andover, MA. as a GM 14 Division Chief where he learned about processing tax returns, correspondence and other compliance programs. In 1985 Mr. Donelson became the Chief Collection Division in Southern California. He was selected as an IRS Executive in 1988 and served in various Senior Executive Service (SES) positions including Director of Collection Operations in Washington from 1990 to 1993. In 1996 through 1998 Mr. Donelson served as IRS Chief Operations Officer before retiring from the federal government to Atlanta in 2000. After IRS, he joined PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP as a Tax Director on the IRS Service Team. Mr. Donelson retired from that position in 2010, and currently lives in Pensacola, Florida.

Mr. Donelson is a graduate from Stonehill College, North Easton,MA where he earned a BA in Political Science in 1971. During his IRS career he attended IRS sponsored training at Duke University, Golden Gate University, the Center for Creative Leadership, and the Harvard JFK School for Government Studies.

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