The IRS makes the case for better case management

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To the IRS, taxpayers are also cases. That makes case management a vital function, to help people resolve issues or get answers to questions. Over the years, the IRS has accumulated dozens of case management systems. Many are long in tooth. Last year the agency set up an office knowns as Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management. Its task is to consolidate and modernize cast management. For a progress report, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to co-director Justin Abold-LaBreche.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. LaBreche, good to have you on.

Justin Abold-LaBreche: Thanks. I’m glad to be here.

Tom Temin: Now there’s a syllable in the title of your office that caught my eye. And then I did a little reading and found out that it’s an important syllable. It’s digitalization and not digitization. And that means something in the context of your work. Tell us about that syllable.

Justin Abold-LaBreche: Absolutely. So I think I should start off by saying my office, Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management, is unique in that we have two directors or co-directors. I focus on the case management part. But I want to introduce virtually, Harrison Smith, who’s my co-director, he focuses on digitalization, and the example he likes to use when talking about digitalization is that when he speaks with his relatives on the phone, and he’s trying to figure out something to help them, he’ll just say, “hey take a photo of whatever you’re looking at, and send it to me so that I can look at the same thing and walk you through it.” And that’s an example of taking a piece of paper and sending an image of it and digitizing it so that we’ve got it. But there’s a limit to what you can do. Because then that image is hard to analyze, it gets hard to extract the data from it and take the next step. So digitalization is about taking that next step. And being able to leverage what has been digitized or create a digital native process to bring that data in, so that we can then really take advantage of that data and use it to transform our business processes. And for us, that means delivering better services for the taxpayer.

Tom Temin: Now on the case management side, I noticed that it looks like IRS has about 60 case management systems of varying age and varying capabilities and bearing technologies. So how will you get all of those rationalized and what’s the goal here for them?

Justin Abold-LaBreche: That is a great question. Yeah, we, like many big companies, or many big government agencies, we have a history of information technology that dates decades back. And as we move through, depending on our funding, we’ve been able to enhance systems or build new systems. But as a result, we like many people have a very large legacy IT infrastructure, including our case management area. And so we have 60-plus legacy case management systems, as well as a whole host of spreadsheets and databases and associated tools that our business customers have used to make their delivery of service better. But there comes a point in time when you need to rationalize all that and say they’re outdated, they don’t talk to one another. If a taxpayer is journeying from one part of the IRS to another, so to speak, we want to be able to journey with them so that that handoff is seamless. And the taxpayer, when they encounter the next person down the line doesn’t have to start out and explain again, everything they just told us. And so we have a very large initiative, enterprise case management as part of our IRS integrated business modernization approach. And what my charge to do on behalf the IRS is to stand up an enterprise platform, we’re using Pegasystems as a leading commercial off the shelf, low code, no code case management platform, and to modernize and migrate all those business processes that are in those legacy case management systems, and bring them into enterprise case management. And when we do that, do it in a way that enables employees to be able to have access to the data that they need and should appropriately have access to, to resolve taxpayer issues and to make it easier for us to float a case through the system so that the journey for the taxpayer is also seamless.

Tom Temin: Now do you make the distinction between individual accounts and business accounts because those are divisions within the IRS itself?

Justin Abold-LaBreche: In fact, my project encompasses all of that individual taxpayer cases, business, taxpayer cases, international, everything that’s flowing through the IRS that needs a case management backbone, we will come through enterprise case management. Now we’ll do that with strong role based and action based security so that we are appropriately protecting information, but we’re going to do it in a way that enables our employees to access the right case information when they need it to resolve it, whether it’s dealing with an individual or a business taxpayer or a nonprofit or a tax exempt bond.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Justin Abold-LaBreche. He’s co-director of the Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management Office at the IRS. How important to this effort are some of the other efforts going on in the IRS such as the ongoing the element of the customer account data engine CADE, I guess throw in CADE2, maybe three or four by now, to get some of that legacy coding out into the relational database age, Is that necessary to be completed before you can complete your work?

Justin Abold-LaBreche: Well, I mean, the first thing I want to say is the IT organization at the IRS is great.. And they are providing a really strong technology backbone, and they’re working with a really challenging legacy environment. And so the work on CADE, CADE2, to be able to update that database and make that data more easily accessible. It’s extraordinarily important not just for the work in ECM, but more broadly across the IRS. What is, I think, a real strength of how we’re approaching modernization here in the IRS is that rather than have sequential projects that push the modernization timeframe out far, far in the future, we’re able to run multiple modernization projects in parallel. Which means on the case management side, we’re focused on delivering new applications as soon as we possibly can. And in some cases, we might have dependencies on other parts of our modernization efforts. And in many cases, we’re coordinating to get the timing right. Or we might just have a workaround, like we know that some other part of the modernization is going to mature a year from now. So let’s sequence what we’re doing in case management to tie up with that in a really smart way.

Tom Temin: And as you integrate all of these case management systems into one, I guess, virtual one using this low code platform, are you also modernizing the processes so that you don’t end up simply is the old expression goes paving the CALPADS?

Justin Abold-LaBreche: Yes, that is exactly what we’re doing. I wish I could take credit for that vision. But it actually predates me, to one of my colleagues, Brad Bouton, who worked together with one of the prior CIOs, and they really recognized the opportunity here isn’t just introducing new technology, the opportunity is to figure out how to fully take advantage of what that technology will allow us to do and the services that will allow us to offer. And so when we bring a business process into enterprise case management, it actually starts with business process modernization, and we use a combination of different modernization approaches. We’ve got customer centric design, design thinking, certainly some Lean Six Sigma aspects to it. So we have a wide variety of methodologies. We tailor them to a particular process and say, “where can we get the biggest lift and help our employees and managers envision what the future could look like with this new technology.

Tom Temin: And most business filers, I would say probably all business and corporate filers file electronically. And the majority of individual filers still do, but there’s still that persistent tens of millions of people that file with paper to this day with the IRS. Is there a way that those records can get somehow inculcated into this such that the case management can apply to those people that might have sent in packages of paper?

Justin Abold-LaBreche: Yeah, absolutely. That is one of the core reasons why enterprise digitalization and case management sit together in an office, as we do, is because that digitalization piece is essential to broad service delivery. But certainly for my job and case management, it’s essential to help bring in residual paper and ensure that we can provide the same level of service in ACM, paperless case files, but being able to convert that paper into digital format, and I think that I would put a plug in now for is to really encourage everyone to take advantage of our electronic our e-filing, we’ve got a variety of ways that people can do that. And so if that’s something that works for you, do it, it certainly makes the process work more smoothly. But we’re also committed to ensuring that those people who don’t have access to the internet have a way to meet their tax obligations so that’s a critical part of our service offering.

Tom Temin: And do you think that having this electronic update of all of the case management systems could, in turn, enable better service through the call centers, which has been a challenge?

Justin Abold-LaBreche: Absolutely. We are working towards introducing enterprise case management in a call center environment. We want to do that smartly, because it is so critical to our overall service delivery. So we’re taking good steps forward at a moderate pace to make certain that we integrate it well. And that it works for both the employee, but it does have that impact you’re talking about, which is the service offering to the public. and given the fact that it looks like people are going to be remote working now for who knows maybe another year, it’s hard to tell.

Tom Temin: Given the fact that it looks like people are going to be remote working now for who knows maybe another year, its hard to tell, is there a mobile and a remote component to what you plan to deploy in case the people dealing with the public using the case management system are not in an IRS facility?

Justin Abold-LaBreche: That’s absolutely one of the benefits of being in enterprise case management with paperless case files, is the virtualization of work workplace, but it’s also important for revenue agents that are out in the field talking with taxpayers and their work sites, or revenue officers that are visiting taxpayers again, in the field of their worksite, of their home, to be able to resolve issues, it’s important that they’re also able to access enterprise case management seamlessly. And so that’s another aspect of that paperless case file and virtualization that’s important for our service offering.

Tom Temin: And how do you come to this work? Do you come from the enterprise architecture side? The IT coding side? The management side? What’s your angle here?

Justin Abold-LaBreche: Oh, you know what, I come to it really out of the business. And that I think, is a source of strength. Because I’ve had the opportunity to work with the IRS for 10 years, I have loved working for the Internal Revenue Service. It is a fantastic place, people are committed to helping others. I’ve had the chance to work in all four of our large operating divisions, I’ve been able to see what the business looks like across the IRS. I think that’s a source of strength in the job. But of course, it means I have to be a really good partner with our technical subject matter experts on the IT side, the architecture side is super important to what we’re doing to be able to give us the right guard rails to move this forward in a way that’s consistent with the overall vision for it in the IRS.

Tom Temin: Justin Abold-LaBreche is co-director of the Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management office at the IRS. Thanks so much for joining me.

Justin Abold-LaBreche: Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having us, I love talking about this. And I know my co-director Harrison and  I would love to come back anytime. We’re doing good work here. It’s making things better for employees and the taxpayers talk to us anytime.

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