Mashed again

Thomas R. Temin

IRS modernization is turning into the Mr. Bill of IT projects.

Remember Mr. Bill? He was the Play-Doh character of early 'Saturday Night Live' episodes. Week after week, Mr. Bill would get smashed, sliced to pieces, boiled, suffocated, ignited, you name it'always emitting his signature wail, 'Ohh, nooo!' Mr. Bill always came back to life, only to face fresh calamity.

But how many times can the IRS bring its systems modernization back to life? The Prime program, awarded with so much earnest fanfare five years ago, is nearly in shambles, the latest in a series of such efforts dating as far back as Mr. Bill. Three subprojects alone are $100 million over budget.

The current lead contractor, Computer Sciences Corp., is hanging on by a thread. If it retains its grip as the maestro of the modernization, it will be because the IRS has concluded it would be harder to change contractors than to try and straighten things out with CSC.

A bellwether effort is the Customer Account Data Engine, a project to move the IRS' Master File of taxpayer data to a modern relational database management system. CSC awarded the CADE project to Prime team member IBM Corp. The database is two years overdue. The agency won't even predict a delivery date for the first version. And the initial CADE only covers data for 1040 EZ filers.

As GCN's Mary Mosquera has reported, so dire is the situation with the CADE database'a cornerstone of modernization'the agency must decide what other projects to delay so it can apply more horsepower to the project.

Oversight and review panels are jumping all over Prime, issuing reports that spread the blame'to agency players and contractors. Larry Levitan, chairman of the Business Transformation Committee of the IRS Oversight Board, borrowing some pop psychology terminology, told GCN that CSC has become the enabler of IRS' bad behavior.

Prime should become the single top priority not merely for IRS commissioner Mark Everson, but for Treasury Secretary John Snow. Maybe the pair can muster the authority to force change down into the IRS and forge success.

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