City director hopes to help IRS' image

January 03, 1994|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

There are, no doubt, a goodly number of readers who will be pleased by the image of the district director of the Internal Revenue Service in pain. Just don't get used to it.

Paul M. Harrington, the new director of the 1,700-employee Baltimore-based office that serves Maryland and Washington, was still moving into his Catonsville home when he sat down to chat at the office last week, and the affable 52-year-old was joking about muscles in his back that hadn't been heard from in years. But that's a pain he says he's glad to bear.

"One of the chief officers in Washington asked me what my interest was in Baltimore on a scale of 1 to 10," he said. "I said 14."

So Mr. Harrington, who took over Herma Hightower's position in September, will get over his pain. And as far-fetched as it may seem at this time of year, his job is to make dealing with the IRS less of a pain for other people as well, since he and 62 other district directors are to be the point leaders of the IRS' highly-publicized effort to improve taxpayer service through an extensive reorganization and stiff dose of new technology.

"The real moments of truth occur at the district level because that's where contact with the taxpayer occurs," said Ms. Hightower, Mr. Harrington's predecessor and now the IRS' commissioner of the North Atlantic region, based in New York.

"The leadership exerted at the district level is going to make or break the credibility of the service," Ms. Hightower said.

Mr. Harrington's job will be to run the Baltimore office's part of a reorganization that will cut the IRS' seven regional headquarters to five, cut 70 customer service centers nationwide to 23 (including expanded operations in and around Baltimore) and improve service to the point where 95 percent of taxpayers who call IRS on the phone will be able to get an accurate answer the first time they call, without them needing to call later or having to call some other office that has the taxpayer's file.

"The principal difference is that there will be significantly better service," said Mr. Harrington, though he said the change will occur gradually through the rest of the decade.

"I don't think we're delivering particularly good service if we have to tell people to call another number. . . . They ought to be able, when they hang up the phone, to know that an issue is over with."

Mr. Harrington said he doesn't even know what percentage of problems get taken care of in one call. His guess is up to 75 percent, but he allows that he "wouldn't bet my last buck on that figure."

The keys to improvement are going to be technology, management and training, Mr. Harrington said.

Technology needs to be upgraded so an IRS employee answering the phone in Baltimore or Owings Mills can call up the taxpayer's file on a computer, or so lunch-time calls can be easily routed to a service center in another time zone so Baltimore employees can get lunch at a normal hour without leaving phones understaffed. IRS can't easily do those things today, he said.

Public service ethic

Mr. Harrington has spent 27 years with the IRS preparing for the Baltimore job, which has proved a steppingstone to major IRS jobs such as regional commissioner in the New York office (Ms. Hightower's new job) and chief operations officer at IRS headquarters in Washington (held by Ms. Hightower's predecessor, Phil Brand).

"It may sound corny, but it was kind of the public service ethic [of] President John Kennedy" that attracted Paul Harrington to the IRS, he said. "I was an English literature major. I've never taken an accounting course."

The only major flirtation he's had with leaving came when he went to law school at night. But by the time he graduated in 1975, the former Army Intelligence officer, who spent a year stationed at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, had risen from an entry-level revenue officer in Boston to a branch chief. Practicing law would have meant a pay cut, and he had three kids by then.

By 1978, the IRS started moving him around as he moved up the ladder. The Baltimore posting is his sixth address for the IRS, the most recent being the directorship of the district office in Portsmouth, N.H., and a stint in Washington as deputy assistant director of collections for the entire IRS.

"Baltimore for me is by choice," he said. "My wife is in love with this area."

People skills

Other IRS officials point to the job's history, as well as Mr. Harrington's assignment to key national IRS tasks, such as chairing a national task force to simplify wage tax reporting for employers, as evidence that he is likely to continue the Baltimore job's history as a way station to bigger things, even though Mr. Harrington says he's content to stay put for a while.

"The fact that he was the executive chosen to lead this [the wage tax task force] says something about how he is viewed," Ms. Hightower said.

"A lot of it is his people skills," said Charles H. Brennan, regional commissioner for the IRS Mid-Atlantic Region in Philadelphia and Mr. Harrington's boss. "He has a willingness to change and explore new things and that's what we're doing a lot of."

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