Something's gotta give

Over the past four years, we've certainly gotten a government that costs less. 

But does it actually work any better?

 Consider the beleaguered IRS, the agency everyone loves to hate. It's scrambling to
get its systems ready to handle dates in 2000. Worse, its once-ambitious systems
modernization program seems on indefinite hold.

 What went wrong?

 Recently in the New York Times, Arthur Gross, the tax agency's chief information
officer, was quoted as saying he doubts the agency has the "intellectual
capital" to accomplish Tax Systems Modernization. 

It looked as if the CIO was calling his own people a bunch of dummies who can't get an
important job done.

 But Gross was quoted out of context. What was missing is his charge that the agency
has been so severely downsized by Congress that it is losing its ability to respond. 

Faced with the ongoing threat of layoffs, many have left voluntarily.

 The federal brain drain isn't confined to IRS. Often with buyouts, the wrong people
take you up on your offer. Many private 
sector corporations have learned this bitter lesson.

 At a recent conference in Washington on year 2000 issues, a programmer from a large
Defense agency lamented the fact that at his location alone, 200 people have signed up to

Human resources, he said, is the biggest concern of his agency's program managers.

 "The expertise is leaving-they're just going," he said.

 Congress and the administration know but won't admit that trimming the bureaucracy
doesn't appreciably affect the budget deficit. But the cuts leave their mark.

 IRS is a programming-intensive agency. Few realize how extensively code must be
modified each time there's a change in tax policy or law. 

Without the intellectual capital needed to do this and other urgent tasks, the agency is
at risk of slipping into chaos. How costly will it be then to hire contractors to get
things under control because there are no employees to do it?

 When deadlines are fixed and resources insufficient, something has to give. That
something is quality of the work. 

When it comes to such critical systems as those that run tax programs, poor quality will
be the most expensive option.


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