IRS: IT plan back on track

Two months after Internal Revenue Service officials announced a fresh round of delays and cost overruns in the epic modernization program, agency and industry officials say they are confident they have a plan for making it a success.

As part of a 45-point plan, the IRS is reducing the number of projects that make up the Business Systems Modernization program.

"We've made a lot of good progress," Todd Grams, the IRS' chief information officer, told Federal Computer Week. "Each action plan item has — in gory detail — who's responsible for delivering what, by what date and how it interacts with other parts of the action plan."

The plan took shape late last year after agency officials reviewed a series of independent studies of its information technology operations.

IRS Commissioner Mark Everson ordered the reports from the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University, META Group Inc. and others partly because many pieces of the modernization program are far behind schedule and well over budget.

One project that has long raised red flags is the Customer Account Data Engine (CADE), which stores all taxpayer information gathered by the agency.

The IRS' lead contractor on the modernization program, Computer Sciences Corp., is now ready for a robust test of CADE. The test, led by the agency, will be a significant demonstration of success, said Jim Sheaffer, general manager of the Prime Alliance team led by CSC.

The agency's goal is not just to get CADE back on track, but to improve its overall IT management, Grams said. That is also the primary goal of the action plan.

Officials have learned not to pursue so many projects at one time, Grams said. "We simply bit off more than we could chew over the last four to five years," Sheaffer said.

Officials also realize that getting the business people at the agency more involved is not just helpful, but essential. "It can't continue to be pushed by the IT side of the house," he said. "The business units need to own this, want it and push to get it."

Another IRS goal is to keep learning. For example, SEI, which submitted a report on CADE, will be returning to provide regular reviews of the program. "It's simply too big not to do a regular checkup," Grams said.

That approach should head off problems ideally before they occur, but at least before they become major setbacks, said Steven Palmquist, chief engineer for civil programs in SEI's acquisition support program. One of the keys to this is "whether the program itself — its program structure and management philosophy — is flexible enough to be responsive," he said.

Because agency employees and contractors are so busy with delivering the modernization, IRS officials may bring in a third-party consultant to see why some pieces of the modernization are working and others aren't, and to determine ways to carry out improvements, Grams said.

That type of "step back" review is something that could benefit agencies governmentwide, said Dave McClure, vice president of e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government. But as with the ongoing technical review, agency executives must make it clear to employees that this is not simply a "gotcha" exercise, but something aimed at improving performance, he said.

Engineering a better plan

There are three priority areas in the Internal Revenue Service's action plan for improving its Business Systems Modernization program, plus several ideas for keeping up performance in the future.

The priority areas are:

* Reducing the number of projects in the modernization portfolio so resources are not spread too thin.

* Getting the business units more involved in initiatives — specifically by getting them to assume responsibility for developing and delivering solutions that will improve services.

* Generating a "noticeable improvement" in the contract's performance.

For the future, the IRS plans to:

* Bring the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute in as a regular reviewer of the Customer Account Data Engine, the system at the heart of the modernization. The engine is behind schedule and over budget.

* Consider bringing in another third-party group to continually monitor the modernization as a whole and determine ways to improve the management of the program while agency employees and contractors focus on delivering solutions.

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