A wacky idea

You heard it right. Rep. Jim Lightfoot (R-Iowa) wants the Defense Department to take
over design and contracting for the IRS's Tax Systems Modernization project. This would
cost 2,000 IRS jobs.


TSM is a troubled program, no doubt about it. There's certainly precedent for Agency
A's outsourcing its contracting to Agency B. But Lightfoot's proposal sounds a little
wacky.


Lightfoot last month cited DOD's record of putting together big systems procurements.
He's right. DOD has had its share of successes.


But DOD also is home to financial systems that can't account for $24 billion (and
growing) in disbursements. DOD has been trying for a generation to rationalize and
consolidate its own disparate systems, a goal that remains elusive. Therefore, Lightfoot's
proposal is almost exquisite in its irony of asking DOD to do for IRS what DOD seemingly
can't do for itself.


If Lightfoot wants to impose his brand of "tough love" on IRS, a better place
to send its procurement would be the Federal Computer Acquisition Center at the General
Services Administration. FEDCAC has a top-notch record, without DOD's baggage.


Indeed, after Lightfoot's bombshell, there were rumblings around town about intense
lobbying by defense contractors who are eager for a chunk of the lucrative TSM pie.


Something Lightfoot said was curious. He said his bill would "effectively take the
IRS out of the business of designing and building their own computer system."


This demonstrates once again Congress's propensity for confusing the steps of designing
a system, running a program and conducting a procurement. This same confusion last year
resulted in the FAA's legislative absolution from federal acquisition rules even though
that agency's modernization failure was the result of faulty program management, not of
the procurement system.


The answer to poor system design or execution is for Treasury to put the whole thing on
ice while IRS creates a plan to fix TSM. Such a plan would have to be acceptable to
Congress.


Lightfoot's impatience shows that it's too late for Band-Aid fixes and that IRS is
going to face painful decisions and rolling heads.


But shifting system design and procurement to DOD will only compound the problems.


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