Uncle Sam's top tech team choked on game day.
The NFL has Super Bowl Sunday. Horses have the Kentucky Derby. The IRS has Tax Day. But not even 1,500 highly compensated tech employees at the IRS could keep the website running on the most important day of the year.
Although tax season is busy throughout March and April, it all comes down to one day. And this year, on April 17, when millions of taxpayers tried to file their 2017 tax returns on IRS.gov, they were halted by a system-wide computer failure
, receiving the following notice:
"Planned outage: April 17, 2018 – December 31, 9999… We apologize for any inconvenience. Note that your tax payment is due although IRS Direct Pay may not be available."
How could the website go down on the biggest day of the year? It certainly wasn’t for a lack of payroll.
The IRS has an internal army of 1,511 employees costing taxpayers $173 million in compensation costs annually. These employees work in online and information technology and cybersecurity, making the top salaries at the agency. Two out of three IRS tech employees made six-figure salaries while more than 500 employees received bonuses for up to $61,766.
IRS Chief Information Officer Silvana Garza and her two deputy chief information officers, Karen Freeman and Marla Somerville, each made $185,100 in 2017. Additionally, Somerville received a $24,746 bonus, while disclosures show that Freeman received two bonuses totaling $61,766.
At the top of the list is the Director of Online Engagement, Operations Media. James Hammond held the position for five years
before retiring to the private sector in 2017. As the senior executive in charge of the IRS website, Hammond made $240,100 – the highest base salary at the entire agency. Michele Causey was promoted to fill the spot. Ms. Causey left her executive officer position where she made $161,900 last year plus a $4,809 bonus.
The IRS handles plenty of confidential and sensitive information, and agency officials claim cybersecurity is a top priority. Rightly so, the cybersecurity employees at the IRS are highly compensated.
For example, the Associate Chief Information Officer (ACIO) of Cybersecurity Sharon James made $185,100 plus two bonuses totaling $61,766. Robert Cox, deputy ACIO for cybersecurity, received $172,100. Malcolm Sykes, director of cybersecurity operations, made $185,100; Richard Therrien, director of cybersecurity architecture, made $171,614; and Brett Manning, co-director of cybersecurity, made $136,944 plus a $16,497 bonus.
Six other employees with the ACIO title made $185,100 base salaries and received $24,746 bonuses including Linda Gilpin (Enterprise IT Program Management); Mary Hernandez (Enterprise Operations); Verline Shepherd (User and Network Services); Daniel Hamilton; Nancy Sieger; and Robert Ragano (Deputy ACIO of Applications Development).
Of course, program directors brought home the big bucks as well. Paul Mamo, director of online services, pulled in $185,100; Gabrielle James, IT director, made 179,966; Ramona Henby, and director of web applications program management, received $176,633.
But it’s not just leadership that’s well-compensated. In total, 272 server and web applications developers made up to $150,349. More than 700 IT specialists received up to $164,830. Even IT specialist student trainees made up to $63,725.
In addition to payroll and bonuses, IRS employees receive cushy benefit packages at the taxpayers’ expense. On average, these employees are given an average of 43 days of paid time off – 10 federal holidays, 13 sick days, 20 vacation days per year – and the option to telecommute.
The IRS also has a history of questionable payroll practices. In February, a treasury watchdog outed the IRS for doling out $1.7 million in bonuses to employees who had been disciplined by the agency. These 2,000 IRS employees received "high-performing" bonuses despite their record of "serious misconduct such as unauthorized access to tax return information, substance abuse, and sexual misconduct."
There has also been a lack of transparency at the agency. Since 2007, the names of IRS employees were not disclosed. Finally, this year, we received full payroll data allowing our auditors to see who made what at the IRS.
Even with such an expensive in-house tech team, the IRS spent $107 million on outside web and online-based contracts. In 2017, the IRS spent 11 percent more on IT and web-based contracts to support their online operations than the year before. In 2017 alone, Accenture LLP, a technology consulting company, received nearly $26 million while Deloitte Consulting received more than $10 million.
Lawmakers and former government officials blamed the outage on an outdated computer system that has deteriorated after years of budget cuts. In October, a top IRS official even warned
Congress about the increasing potential of a "catastrophic" system failure as he made the case for increased agency funding.
He was right: the system did fail. So, maybe increased funding from congress would help the IRS keep its website running next year. Or maybe the IRS would just hire more of the same – highly compensated employees who choke on game day.