IRS' Prime can set an example

If ever written, the history of federal information technology projects would not be a testament to good management and efficiency. The list of over-budget, behind-schedule and poorly performing systems is a long one.

So it came as a mild—but welcome—shock when the General Accounting Office approved of the Internal Revenue Service's initial planning for its modernization program. The initial funding plan the IRS laid out for its Prime project, GAO said, was "an appropriate first step." Not a ringing endorsement, but for a group that often excoriates agencies' management of IT projects, the statement comes as close to a compliment as GAO can get.

GAO's comments indicate that the IRS is off to a good start in righting itself after heading up one of the costliest IT failures in government. The IRS abandoned its Tax Systems Modernization program, the precursor to Prime, after spending nearly $3 billion. TSM has become the symbol for wasteful, mismanaged IT projects; members of Congress mention the project as a warning to other agencies to improve the management of their IT projects.

The IRS cut TSM loose two years ago. Now, with new management, solid procurement reform footing and a willingness to learn from past mistakes, the IRS has incorporated into Prime many changes, such as modular development, to begin what finally could be a successful project.

In Prime, a 15-year contract, the IRS has a long way to go to prove it has developed a sound program. And some may point out that IRS officials will be forced to pay particularly close attention to detail because they are under the congressional microscope. But the IRS already can show other agencies that large IT projects by definition needn't be poorly managed. By weaving in many of the suggestions for sound IT project management that have been suggested by top officials and Congress, the IRS has managed to get off on the right foot.

Other agencies involved in or considering developing large IT projects would do well to look to Prime and incorporate many of the IRS' strategies. Perhaps positive GAO reports would then become more common—and less shocking.

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