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IRS executives begin soul-searching in wake of `horror stories' in Senate

In wake of the Senate's disturbing hearings on the IRS, it falls to people like Ellen Murphy to figure ways to prevent a rerun of taxpayer horror stories.

Murphy, a senior IRS executive in Dallas, joined some 200 IRS executives here this week to examine lessons from the Senate hearings on taxpayer abuses.She promises to identify problem cases a lot earlier in the process. "I will make it my business to get my hands dirty." She said she would redouble her efforts to capture problem cases before they get as bad as those described at the recent hearings.

"We've been criticized and in cases, rightfully so," Murphy said. "So let's look at this as an opportunity that we can see some of the improvements that we like to see in the system."

Al Brooke, the Georgia district director, said the hearings "sounded an alarm within the organization."

Murphy and Brooke were among those summoned to this Washington suburb for an unusual session that is part of the agency's response to allegations of taxpayer abuse.

In a classroom setting, two dozen executives racked their brains to list any and all factors that could cause mishandling of taxpayer cases.

The findings were scribbled in colored felt pen on large paper sheets, taped to a wall: "Confusing priorities . . . big caseloads . . . shifting cases around . . . stress."

Another panel debated how to handle telephone traffic and whether veteran revenue agents making $54,600 a year should be dispatched to handling telephones during busy periods.

Senior executives spoke about how to encourage workers to identify problems more quickly, shared tips on improving customer service and argued about how to measure efficiency without setting tax collection quotas.

"We've talked about issues that have kind of lingered in the agency for years," said Murphy. Of the numerous annual meetings of IRS executives, Murphy said this year "is one of the best that I've been to."

The meeting fulfilled a pledge by acting IRS Director Michael Dolan to review the Senate panel's findings with agency executives in the field. About 15 minutes of video from the hearings was played to refresh the group's memory about the one of the most painful weeks in the agency's history.

"It is unusual, highly unusual," Donald Alexander, IRS commissioner in the Nixon and Ford administrations, said of the scope of the meeting. "This was necessary. I think it was a good idea to do this."

The day's agenda included how to have employees take "ownership" of problem cases and make sure they are not relegated to a dusty bureaucratic shelf.

The executives also debated how to measure customer satisfaction - whether a taxpayer was treated in a courteous and professional manner - and how to gauge whether the agency was collecting the most tax at the least cost.