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IRS’s Justin Abold-LaBreche shares his career story and how the IRS is digitally transforming its operations

When the discussion of “digital transformation” comes up, what often first springs to mind is the digital transformation of private sector businesses. But the reality is that public sector organizations are just as busy transforming the services they offer to their citizens. Consider the Internal Revenue Service’s newly created Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management Office. This office is spearheading the agency’s efforts to digitize and transform how IRS employees work with taxpayers.

The focus of the Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management office is to enhance taxpayer interactions with the agency and improve taxpayer experience by streamlining business processes and modernizing its digital systems. The office uses agile methodologies, customer-centered stories, and test-and-learn practices to determine, develop, and deploy the best technologies and business processes to serve taxpayers.

Harrison Smith, previously the IRS’s deputy chief procurement officer, and Justin Abold-LaBreche, the enterprise case management director, now lead the office as Co-Directors for Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management. For this interview, we reached out to Abold-LaBreche to discuss the start of his career in the military, why he wanted to leave the military to come out and begin a new career at the Department of Homeland Security; and how that all led to his joining the IRS and his role in its digital transformation efforts.

Today, as Co-Director of Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management, Abold-LaBreche leads the initiative to deploy the agency’s new commercial off-the-shelf case management software platform Pegasystems, modernize business processes and their legacy case management systems, complete the integration with other common services and retire legacy case management components.

This interview explores those digital transformation efforts and how identity management plays a central part in that transformation. Below is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation.

How did your career start, and how did you get started in technology?

It’s been an incredible journey. I started out as an ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corp) cadet in the Air Force. I went into the Air Force right after graduating from Yale University. I spent seven years working as an intelligence officer in the Air Force. I loved that job. That was a great introduction to the application of technology within the Department of Defense. One of my favorite assignments was working at Beale Air Force Base with our Reconnaissance wing, the U2 wing.

There is a significant technology component of that work. The U2 itself is amazing technology.

What did you decided to do next?

While I loved being an officer in the military – and come from a military family – this was back in the time where, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” was still the guiding policy. For my own whole-person integrity, I felt I needed to move on professionally, which I was fortunate to do with a lot of support from co-workers and family. So I left the military and joined Homeland Security. This was a wonderful transition into a very supportive environment. In Homeland Security, I held a range of jobs. I started working shift work within the operations center, briefing on threats to the United States. Later I transitioned to more senior leadership roles, eventually acting as a Division Director, leading policy, strategy, program management, mission integration and training for one of DHS’s components.

My last job at Homeland Security was a super fascinating one. I loved it. Yet, many of the people who had moved into more senior positions had PhDs, and I realized that if I’m going to continue growing in a real knowledge-intensive organization, I’d have to go and get my Ph.D.

Where did you go to seek your Ph.D., and what was your area of study?

It was a wonderful fortune to go to Oxford University and get my Ph.D. in criminology. I thought my career focus was going to be on how public safety organizations assess the risks in their environments using analytics and how they use that knowledge to protect their citizens and mitigate risks. So criminology was a great fit given my role in DHS. However, life had other plans for me!

As I was wrapping up my Ph.D., I evaluated all the things people do when they start to think about the senior executive service, such as working with a mentor or writing my executive core qualifications. By the way, if I had one piece of advice for anyone preparing to apply for SES positions or SES candidate development programs it would be to find a mentor who understands first-hand how to write up your Executive Core Qualifications as part of the application and can work with you as write up your ECQs and resume. And I was prepping by practicing and by applying to different agencies to get feedback.

I applied to the Internal Revenue Service for their SES candidate development program, and I received an offer for an interview, and I was astonished. I went back, and I checked my application just to make sure that it was accurate! I didn’t know anything about taxes! I made sure that I didn’t check any boxes that made it look like I claimed to know something about taxes that I didn’t. However, everything checked out. I think the IRS wanted to bring in a couple of people a year, from outside the IRS, for the executive development program.

I accepted their offer. Previously, I had heard wonderful things about the IRS and its exceptional executive development program. I leaped, and I’ve never looked back. The IRS is an amazing organization. It’s so supportive, and it spends a lot of time investing in its employees and its leaders.

Since I joined the IRS through its executive development program in 2011, I’ve led data analytics teams. I’ve led call centers. I’ve done policy work on the examination side, and I’ve gained shared services experience in budgeting, human resources, training, and more.

In 2019, I received the offer to lead our enterprise case management initiative. This experience has thrust me deep into the world of technology. And I’m so proud to say that I think we’re leading the IRS’s first agile at-scale business and technology transformation. It is an exciting moment for the IRS.

That’s a fascinating journey. What types of duties did you perform as acting director of compliance analytics at the IRS?

As acting director of compliance analytics, I led an extensive data analytics test-and-learn effort, which was a fantastic job. We stood up with best-in-class data analytics capabilities to do things like help protect taxpayers from identify theft as well as tackle other billion-dollar exam and collection compliance challenges.  That was a huge achievement and is due in large part to amazing leaders Dean Silverman, Susan Cunningham, and Eric Schweikert from the private sector who joined the IRS because of their commitment to service. If you look at the IRS’s accomplishments over the past ten years to strengthen our taxpayer identity theft protection, I think it’s due largely to work in data analytics and related technology in partnership with operational enhancements by our Wage & Investment Division and technology insertion by our Information Technology Division.

At heart, the value proposition for an office like the Office of Compliance Analytics as well as today’s Research, Applied Analytics and Statistics Office  is all about tackling business challenges that matter to the citizen and trying to find ways to make things better through testing and analytics.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management office’s digitalization efforts?

Yes, we stood up that office last year to spearhead efforts coming out of the Taxpayer First Act and our IRS Integrated Modernization Business Plan. We’re chartered to make case management successful as well as rapidly enhance our digitalization capabilities across the IRS. My Co-Director is Harrison Smith IV, the IRS’s former deputy chief procurement officer. We’re building strong foundations, and our goal is to bring the IRS into a place where our employees can work together with taxpayers in a much more simplified digital environment to resolve taxpayer issues, concerns, and questions.

I’ll give you an example. Case management is where the IRS interacts with taxpayers. We are using Pegasystems as our case management platform, and we’re working to modernize and migrate our case management business processes onto this modernized platform. For instance, we have a business process in the Tax Exempt and Government Entities division called Exempt Organizations, Correspondence Unit.

That unit will take requests from taxpayers for publicly available information about exempt organizations. They research and process those requests, and they send a copy of an exempt organization’s determination letter, application or other documents back to the taxpayer. Because these documents are publicly disclosable, it’s an important service that we offer. Determination letters issued on or after January 1, 2014, are available to the taxpayer by going on our  tax-exempt organizations search tool on the website.

For older letters or for copies of applications, users may need to send a form or letter by mail or E-Fax to make their request. Soon, we will have an online request tool. We previously received almost everything in paper. The TE/GE employees manually processed, signed, and tracked the requests, checking them in and out of a shared filing cabinet. Those employees provided good service – but you can see that we hadn’t been able in the past to provide them with the best tools to serve the customer.  We’ve taken all of that out, and we have created a digital front end. We’ve built this to work with our case management backbone so that we can go paperless. So now our caseworkers can now do almost everything they need to do to resolve their customer’s request in our enterprise case management platform.

Did that also streamline internal effort for internal IRS staff?

Previously, they might’ve had to go to two or three different systems to do the research to address a customer’s request. Much of that research now is automated and completed from within enterprise case management.

We started small; this is a small unit but with a prominent public-facing value proposition. We used this first value proposition to build and test our foundational technology including our cloud first approach as part of our first release. This was one of our first significant cloud first projects in the IRS. We embraced a lean and agile mindset – and we gained proficiency in lean and agile software development as well as business agility throughout our first release.

We are now operating just like any modern software company. We are resolving the issues that come out of production. We’re working with our customers side by side to improve the user experience. And we are amplifying the value that comes out on their value stream.

This sounds like a digital transformation that would rival what is happening in the private sector.

We are smack dab in the middle of digital transformation here. And I think we’re embracing many of the guiding principles of lean-agile as we do this. For many organizations in the private sector, this is becoming second nature. But here we’re at an inflection point where we’re transitioning away from waterfall approaches for both the business planning and the technology planning side.

We’re transitioning out of that world where we had large batches of upfront requirements from the business sent to IT, who had to get to work meeting those requests and deliver a workable product a year later. Instead, we’re bringing agility to both the business side and the technology side of things.

We’re in the midst of this transformation, and it’s working.

Where would you place the importance of identity management in your digital transformation efforts?

It’s central. There are two complementary pieces. We want to make data accessible to everyone who needs it to make the right decisions to serve the taxpayer. Of course, this needs to be done securely and in a way that protects all of this information. And as importantly, we also want to make sure that only people with the need to know have eyes on sensitive taxpayer information even within the IRS. So identity management makes this possible – enabling us to make more data accessible while ensuring tight security and need-to-know controls that protect the taxpayer’s privacy.

The start of our identity journey was trying to find a commercial off-the-shelf piece of technology that would enable us to bring together about 300 business processes residing on 60 or so different legacy case management systems and another 100 tools, spreadsheets, and manual workarounds and put them on one shared platform called enterprise case management.

The requirements part of that reflects the need to bring everyone onto a platform but ensure that they have access only to the information for which they have a legitimate business reason. A key part of the ECM value proposition is the ability for a case to flow from one IRS business process to another seamlessly as the customer journey cross our internal organizational boundaries. So we need to make sure that everyone who is helping the taxpayer resolve issues throughout that customer journey has the access to the case file to do so – but we also need to make sure that the IRS employee only has access to the part of the case file for which they have a business need. This is really important both for privacy overall but also to preserve the integrity of our tax administration especially for Appeals.

Identity management is the guard rails for all of this. Of course, the technology that makes it possible for us to bring in all of this information now in a digital format and get it to the right person and go paperless with our case files. Identity management puts in the protective layer to make certain that we can digitally transform wisely and with great respect for the sensitivity of the information that taxpayers have entrusted to us.