IRS chief John Koskinen said, "We spend so much time in government defending ourselves."

IRS chief John Koskinen said, "We spend so much time in government defending ourselves." J. Scott Applewhite/AP

IRS Chief, First EPA Head Awarded Public Service Prize

Koskinen and Ruckleshaus describe serving government in tense times at agencies that are now under attack in the presidential campaign.

One is a living hero from the Watergate scandal who in 1970 became the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The other is a veteran of the 1990s Office of Management and Budget who is under constant political fire as the current commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.

Both William Ruckelshaus and John Koskinen on Tuesday night were awarded the Elliot L. Richardson Prize for Excellence in Public Service by the National Academy of Public Administration, and both weighed in on the perils of public service in today’s hyperpartisan climate.

The prestigious award—named for a four-time Cabinet member who served in all three branches of government under six presidents—comes with $25,000 cash, at least half of which is earmarked to a charity of the recipient’s choice. Winners are selected by the Elliot L. Richardson Prize Fund board after nominations over a period of months by a committee including NAPA fellows.

“John Koskinen and William Ruckelshaus have had long and distinguished careers in the public sector, and have had a significant impact on the ability of the federal government to function effectively for our citizens,” fund chair Michael C. Rogers said at a ceremony at Washington’s Ronald Reagan Building. “They are both strong role models for future generations of government leaders.”

Ruckleshaus is famous for his role in the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” in which the then-deputy attorney general stood with his boss—Richardson himself—and refused embattled President Nixon’s order that they fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.  (The firing was eventually carried out by Justice Department Solicitor General Robert Bork, but Nixon would go on to lose his legal battle over disclosing White House tape recordings and resign.)

Koskinen, who ran President Clinton’s late-1990s White House effort to head off the threat of worldwide damage to computers with the calendar change of the millennium, is a veteran of Freddie Mac, the District of Columbia government and private-sector business turnaround consulting services. His tenure heading the IRS since December 2013 has been marked by tensions with congressional Republicans over investigations into alleged political bias in the agency’s mishandling of nonprofits’ applications for tax-exempt status.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has approved a resolution calling for Koskinen’s impeachment by the Judiciary Committee. Asked for a comment on the Richardson award, Chaffetz told Government Executive by email that, “If obstructing a congressional investigation and misleading Congress merits an award, then it seems like they have the right guy. I guess I define excellent public service differently.”

During a panel after the award presentation, Ruckelshaus recalled that working at the Justice Department during the Watergate drama allowed him to see Richardson, who died in 1999, “under the most intense pressure a human being can stand.” The two-time EPA chief and corporate attorney advised agency leaders that “in running any big institution, the more you can think ahead, the better. People don’t appreciate how hard you have to work,” he added, “but also you must work on the right things.” He recommended that agency heads take “two or three assignments on themselves,” rather than always delegate.

Koskinen joked that his multi-entry resume in both public and private sector jobs has been interpreted as “I can’t hold a job, but until recently no one had suggested my early departure would be a net gain.”

Unlike his two-year timeframe job addressing YTK at the White House, running the IRS began with “immediate daily pressures. There are only 24 hours in a day, so you focus on what you can do in the next 12 hours,” he said. He concentrated on “where we’re taking the organization, and what should the taxpayer experience be three to five years out.”

After years of being attacked, IRS employees, Koskinen said, needed to be supported and brought together to solve problems that have been “legitimately raised.” His approach is, “If you have a problem, it’s my problem, if someone makes a mistake it’s my mistake, and we will fix it,” he said, rather than resorting to an “immediate off with their head.”

The alleged political targeting took place “in one division, 900 people out of 90,000, but all felt under the gun,” he said, adding that he went on listening tours and personally spoke to 20,000 employees. Noting that IRS has since shrunk to 85,000, Koskinen said an “overwhelming” number of young people still seek employment at the agency. Unlike Ruckelshaus, who returned to EPA for a second tenure during the Reagan administration, Koskinen jokingly announced that he will not be returning for a second run at the IRS.

Addressing the current presidential campaign, Ruckelshaus said, “We both realize our agencies are under attack, so the question is which one will be abolished on Day 1.” Some of today’s candidates “say they will fix all the problems and people will love me. But people calling for the abolition of EPA haven’t been to Flint,” Mich., site of an ongoing water crisis. He cited an erosion of trust in government that goes back half a century to the Vietnam War and Watergate. “A free society simply won’t work if there is no basic trust. But government is 10 times better than people say it is,” Ruckelshaus added, saying he frequently tells business groups that they would respect federal officials more if they could see how they work and appreciate the complexity of the situations. Even many members of Congress, he said, when speaking privately, know they need to “wrestle with problems in an adult way.”

Koskinen said many people skeptical of government saw its value when he was at OMB during the mid-1990s government shutdowns, when they missed their government loans, payments and access to art galleries. “We spend so much time in government defending ourselves,” he said, noting that when people hear of the IRS, “all they think about are problems. It takes a village to create these problems,” he said.

“But 100 great things are being done every day. There’s an obligation to balance [the bad press] with the great things being done by public servants,” he said, noting that he once told friends he would have hired for his private-sector business turnaround company “the first 10 people I met at OMB.”

Citing the pressure on federal employees, Koskinen added, “In the private sector, you have to work pretty hard to show up in The Washington Post, but in the public sector you don’t have to do much.” Pulitzer Prizes, he added, “are not generally given for good news.” Today’s “fractious” 24-hour cable news environment does not leave him optimistic about a return of civil dialogue, Koskinen said.

And when he deals with hostile lawmakers—an experience he likens to “fencing”—he sees much of it as “Kabuki theater, members trying to get their 30 seconds on YouTube or the TV networks.” The current Republican presidential candidates, he said, are competing over “who can give the biggest tax cuts, as if we’re here to give things away” rather than perform public service to make the country a better place.

Koskinen also confided that his desire to meet with his critics—an encounter with the always harsh Wall Street Journal editorial page staff is a possibility—“drives my press team crazy.”

Panel moderator Francis Rose, a veteran federal affairs broadcaster, joked about Koskinen’s role in preventing a Y2K disaster and Ruckelshaus’s role in the Saturday Night Massacre. “One received great public recognition because nothing happened,” he said, “and the other I heard about because he quit his job.”