Reflections on the Impact of Nina Olson as National Taxpayer Advocate by Jack Manhire

Jack Manhire is currently the Assistant Vice President for Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, and the Assistant Dean and Chief of Staff of the School of Innovation at Texas A&M University. He has held previous and courtesy positions at Texas A&M’s School of Law and the Bush School of Government & Public Service, along with faculty fellowships at the Colleges of Medicine and Architecture. He has also held positions at the IRS and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Nina Olson: Tax Administration Innovator

There have been so many great reflections on the impact of Nina Olson as National Taxpayer Advocate on this blog, I wanted to add one from someone who worked directly for her at the Taxpayer Advocate Service. I had the honor for working for Nina first as one of her Attorney-Advisors, and then as the Director of Technical Analysis and Guidance for TAS.

For some, Nina can come across as an intimidating boss; one who demands perfection and is personally involved in almost every aspect of TAS operations. But this is not a criticism. In fact, Nina’s leadership style mirrors many of our country’s greatest innovators (e.g., Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, etc.).

Working for her, I soon learned that what one might see as “demanding perfection” is actually a relentless dedication to the mission of TAS; a mission that she created singe-handedly. Her “hands on” involvement reflects her tenacious perseverance to the mission, and reflects her demand that the flames of that mission not merely stay lit, but rise and spread through the inspired dedication of her employees.

These are necessary attributes of a successful innovator, and also those of an entrepreneurial builder. Recall that the very first Annual Report to Congress (what we called the “ARC”), was every word written by Nina herself. This is because she wanted to ensure that she set the tone and example for future ARCs. She had the foresight to treat the annual report requirement as not a statutory chore, but an opportunity to innovate from within the IRS for the taxpayers to whom she has dedicated so much of her life.

And that entrepreneurial spirit never left. While future ARCs benefitted from a robust research and legal staff, every single theme, opinion, and suggestion was from first to last Nina’s project. I know this sounds amazing given that many of the annual reports were pushing 1,000 pages, but it is true and further testifies to Nina’s immense intellectual capacity.

And so, from my current chair, I see Nina as one of the great American innovators. Her vision and tireless effort produced innovations within the IRS, within the tax code, and within our public understanding of taxpayer rights that will inform future policy. There was a great deal to learn from Nina, and my own career ambitions at the time stunted some of those opportunities. But Nina was always there, not only to drive the message, mission, and vision personally, but also to care for her people and give them every opportunity to develop and succeed.

It is unlikely we will see another public policy and tax administration innovator such as Nina Olson any time soon. Her legacy is just too great to duplicate; and much of that legacy has only recently taken root. The next 10 to 20 years will reveal the far-reaching impact of her vision and tireless work.

Stay purple!