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Meet Barry Johnson, Head of the IRS Statistics of Income Division

1 July 2015 458 views No Comment

Amstat News invited Barry Johnson, head of the IRS Statistics of Income Division, to respond to a few questions so readers could learn more about him and the agency he leads.

Barry Johnson

Barry Johnson

Barry Johnson began his career with the Statistics of Income Division (SOI) of the IRS in 1987 and worked extensively on studies of the federal transfer tax system; the distribution of U.S. personal wealth; and issues related to data quality, data access privacy protection, and the use of administrative data for statistical purposes. Barry is a longtime member of the ASA and was active in committee work for more than a dozen years.

The Statistics of Income Division (SOI) is the nation’s premier source of information about the tax system. Unlike many federal statistical agencies, most SOI data are derived from administrative records (tax returns), rather than surveys. SOI collects data from stratified random samples of these returns and adds to the analytical usefulness of the data, including augmenting information reported on tax returns with supporting information provided by taxpayers in attachments, coding demographic data, and standardizing information to improve consistency and accuracy across records. Data collected by SOI are used to formulate the federal budget, evaluate current and proposed tax laws, and assist in economic studies.

What about this position appealed to you?

I have worked in SOI for much of my professional career and I’ve seen firsthand the important work the division does on behalf of the American public. I’ve also seen how the organization has adapted as technology, data availability, and public expectations have evolved. Like all federal statistical agencies, SOI is again facing a changing environment—tight budgets; new technologies for disseminating and accessing data; and changing customer demands with regard to data content, timeliness, and presentation. I sought this job so I could work with our talented staff to help the organization adapt and thrive in this new environment. SOI will celebrate its 100th birthday next year. My goal is to ensure its health and relevance for at least another 100 years.

Describe the top 2–3 priorities you have for the SOI.

First, I am working with the SOI communications team to redesign our strategy for reaching a wider audience. This includes more engaging written reports, greater use of visualizations and infographics, and an improved web design.

Second, I hope to expand the information value of the statistics the division produces by augmenting our current portfolio of tax return–based statistics with new statistical products and reports that combine data from multiple sources to more completely describe larger sectors of the economy. In doing this, we will need to adopt some Big Data techniques so we can better leverage the millions of administrative records provided annually to the IRS.

Third, I am committed to supporting a robust research program that enables the use of SOI data by qualified researchers outside the federal government who work in partnership with SOI staff.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) for the SOI?

The current budget environment is a challenge to all statistical agencies. The IRS commissioner recently cited statistics highlighting the effects of recent hiring freezes on the age distribution of our staff. Our inability to hire and train new employees increases the risk of losing important institutional knowledge as our experienced staff members reach retirement eligibility. To help mitigate that, we have introduced tools to capture and preserve knowledge for future employees. Still, as our staff levels and budgets decline, we have become more constrained in our ability to meet customer expectations.

What kind of support from the statistical community do you look for?

One of the benefits of my new position is the opportunity to participate in monthly meetings with the leaders of the other major federal statistical agencies. In these meetings, we address current challenges facing the agencies and map out strategies for modernizing and improving the ways we all collect, produce, and disseminate information. I see this collaboration as essential for each of the agencies as we modernize our processes and products. I look forward to learning from the best practices of the other agencies and working collaboratively to tackle the common opportunities and challenges we face.

Prior to your tenure, what do you see as the biggest recent accomplishment of the agency?

SOI did a fantastic job transforming its processes and products to take advantage of the growth in electronic filing of some tax-return data. This was a major change in terms of how samples are drawn, data edited, and products made available to the public. This transformation yielded huge benefits to the public: releasing SOI products more timely, expanding the content of many releases, and, importantly, saving resources that we were able to reinvest in new work.

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