Baby steps

Thomas R. Temin

Between the development of the Homeland Security Department and the Office of Management and Budget's hallowed e-government efforts, you could almost forget there's a vast government still plugging away at unglamorous routine.

But some seemingly eternal projects persist. Among them: IRS Business Systems Modernization under the Prime contract. At least publicly, OMB officials have not put much emphasis on the decades-old problem of updating IRS systems. Maybe they only want to be associated with fresher, more predictable things like the 25 Quicksilver projects. There, the scope is smaller and the control greater. Maybe they see IRS as a third rail that will spoil the record.

But new General Accounting Office reports show Congress is still closely following IRS and Prime. They note that three in four of Prime's individual projects are at least 10 percent over budget or 10 percent late. And that the Customer Account Data Engine'the project that embodies the essence of the modernization effort'has been delayed more than a year. Ditto for faster refunds to 1040EZ filers.

On the other hand, GAO reported that IRS has made strides in meeting better management goals for Prime. The latest reports don't beat up on IRS officials as much as in years past.

IRS officials and contractors are generally secretive about projects within the modernization office. Occasionally, they open their kimonos and outsiders can get a glimpse of the intensity with which Computer Science Corp. and the agency go about the daily tasks of modernization. That openness never lasts very long.

Still, much detail is visible through the porthole of the newest GAO report. (To read the report, go to www.gcn.com and type 132 in the GCN.com/window.) The agency is taking smaller bites but getting them done more predictably.

Throughout this ongoing ballet, the agency said it will be able to complete a major fire drill in getting summer refund checks out under the most recent tax law.

It's too soon to declare victory in IRS modernization. But, to borrow a famous phrase, maybe we're witnessing the end of the beginning.

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