Acting IRS Chief Bemoans Travel and Training Cuts

Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel Acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel Charles Dharapak/AP

Cuts of 80 percent to the travel and training budgets at the Internal Revenue Service have left the agency “in a world in which we’re not training effectively and not co-locating employees effectively, or at all,” the agency’s acting commissioner said Tuesday.

“That’s a pretty significant amount of money to take out of an agency,” Danny Werfel added, warning that in the aftermath of the “inappropriate” overspending at earlier IRS conferences, “there is a danger that the pendulum will swing back too much of the way.” House Republicans’ recent effort to cut his agency’s budget by 24 percent -- on top of the $1 billion it has been reduced since 2010 –“drove home to me that we need a more robust dialogue that gets past talking points and sound bites” on how to “invest strategically” in making IRS a 21st century “cutting-edge financial services agency.”

Werfel spoke at a Washington ceremony presenting the Roger W. Jones Award for Executive Leadership, given by the American University School of Public Affairs.

Awardees for 2013 picked by a selection committee led by former Comptroller General David Walker included David Bray, chief information officer at the Federal Communications Commission, whose work history (which began at age 15 as an Education Department intern) includes heading a commission on research and development for the intelligence community and five years at the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.

Also recognized was Brian Persons, assistant deputy chief of Naval operations for warfare systems and former executive director of the Naval Sea Systems Command. In giving thanks for the award, he noted that 10 of the 12 Navy Yard employees and contractors who died in last month’s shooting had worked under him. The Navy’s response in the hours that followed, he added, was his career’s proudest moment.

The AU school described the awards as a way to “counter the perception that public service is irrelevant and is taken for granted” at a time when federal employees have endured pay freezes, sequestration and the recent shutdown.

Robert Tobias, director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at AU who knows Werfel from his service on the IRS Oversight Board, said the awards “shine a light” on the work of federal employees who, despite the “disdain” with which many are treated, “are dedicated to something larger than themselves. Members of Congress could learn something from them.”

Werfel revealed that he was inspired to enter public service during a meeting with his undergraduate adviser at Cornell University, who impressed him with her plan to travel to Paraguay to help reform that country’s social security system. “It hit me like a ton of bricks that this is what I want to do,” he said.

Werfel’s past work at the Office of Management and Budget has left him concerned about recruiting the next generation of federal workers and a need to counter some “myths,” he said.

One is that federal employees go home at 5:00 p.m. “That’s when the work is just getting started,” he said, recalling driving by agency buildings and seeing lights on at 9:00 p.m. The second myth has to do with competence, Werfel said, comparing the awe he felt on arrival with his awe upon moving up from high school to college-level peers. “The level of talent is unbelievable,” he said. “By 10:00 a.m. on any day, most Americans are touched by some government program that improves American life, but [they] don’t think about it.”

Overall, nearly everyone wants government to be “efficient, effective and responsive,” Werfel said. “But the outcomes need to be cultivated, and we should invest there.” Though his tenure at IRS is short-term (President Obama has nominated former OMB official John Koskinen for the permanent job), Werfel said he hopes for sufficient investment in IRS to “reach its full potential” as a “high-performing agency” with management controls that “knock it out of the park” when it comes to audits and reports from the inspector general and Government Accountability Office.

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