When public service runs in the family

Crystal Philcox, assistant commissioner for operations at the General Services Administration's Technology Transformation Service, is a good example of how fede...

At a luncheon with a former IRS executive the other day, we reminisced about the old Tax Systems Modernization program. My tablemate, Jim Williams, had worked on that project in the 1990s. We chatted about Hank Philcox, who retired from the IRS in 1995. Hank had the title of “chief information officer” long before CIO came into vogue. He was an exemplary public servant I’ve always remembered.

Jim commented casually, “That’s his daughter right over there.” He pointed out a woman sitting at another table. Crystal Philcox is the assistant commissioner for operations at the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service.

Turns out, Crystal is a good example of how federal service can run in families. She’s been a federal employee for 28 years, having started as an intern at the IRS. As we’re talking, I’m thinking, here I am interviewing the children of federal executives I interviewed earlier in my career!

Crystal said Hank is doing well, having fully retired in 2000 after five years with DynCorp. Now he divides his time between two homes, one in a warmer climate.  Father and daughter are close. When she texted him for his exact retirement year, he answered within seconds.

When thinking about college, Crystal said her dad initially refused to pay unless she would major in computer science. “He was convinced that was the future,” Crystal said. She majored in English literature at the University of Texas, Austin. Her parents paid anyway. She acquired both technology and management skills somewhere along the line. Among her professional projects: running operations for the Earned Income Tax Credit apparatus, and standing up Health Care Tax Credit systems and the Affordable Care Act project management office.

Those are critical and complex systems. So the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. In his day, Hank Philcox oversaw projects such as establishing wide-area networks so IRS service centers didn’t have to ship reels of magnetic tape all over the country to synchronize databases. He was at the center of the expensive and politically fraught TSM. It had its fits and starts, but it ultimately sent the IRS on a continuous path toward modernization of its systems. As Williams reminded me, most taxpayers file online, refunds come in days instead of weeks, and a relational database of taxpayer information lets the IRS perform analysis and offer information services that were difficult or impossible in the 1980s.

Now IRS officials are approaching the heart of the beast, namely the critical logic embedded in its millions of lines of assembler code. Crystal noted that former Chief Technology Officer Terry Milholland once commented on how elegantly written that old code actually is, even if assembler is now obsolete. The conversion project is in the hands of a Hank Philcox protege, CIO Gina Garza.

In fact, recently a federal auditor whose responsibilities include the IRS praised the agency for its engineering and software development skills. Its principal challenge is focus, given how much there is to do.

I asked Crystal if she ever had doubts about following her dad’s footsteps into public service.

She answered immediately. “Never a chance. I’m a public service girl.” She likes government service because “it’s really mission-driven and because the problems are huge and fascinating, complicated and hard to solve.” She added that when facing a thorny problem, Hank “is the first person I call.” She admires what she described as her dad’s super-high integrity. “Dad didn’t want to waste money or do what wouldn’t bring high value.” She expressed pride in her own, and her team’s, work on the ACA. “It was a fabulous job, on budget and on time. And everything worked.”

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