Making the best of it

The Internal Revenue Service is trying to make lemonade. Agency officials have tacitly acknowledged that the decade-long, multibillion-dollar effort to modernize its technology infrastructure is something of a lemon. But rather than simply scrap or fix the program, IRS officials want to get to the root of the problems.

Earlier this year, agency officials commissioned four studies of the modernization program and various aspects of its information technology operations, with the final results expected later this month. They want to know whether this is a case of one program that has gone bad or an indication of systemic management problems.

Given the federal government's poor track record with modernization programs, this is an effort worth watching. The IRS' project is notable for its size, yet the agency's intentions and subsequent problems are not unique in this market.

Indeed, in one of the four studies, IRS officials have asked research firm Gartner Inc. to compare the agency's modernization effort to similar projects in the private sector.

It could well be — as some observers have said for years — that the cost overruns and milestone misses, however frustrating, simply may be par for the course. The demands of large-scale modernization initiatives seem to exceed the management skills of most organizations and most contractors.

It's still conceivable that IRS officials will be able to keep the program moving forward with some changes in their management strategy. But such a course correction may not be sufficient. Although officials are defining a cohesive, long-term modernization plan, they may be better off breaking up the procurement strategy into more manageable pieces.

Either way, the IRS deserves credit for taking such a methodical and comprehensive approach to this program. Too often, the concept of lessons learned amounts to little more than a handful of generalities that don't have much impact on future work. To see agency officials take the idea so literally makes for a refreshing change. n

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