Which way now, IRS?

No matter how amicable it may look, the departure of IRS chief information officer
Arthur Gross isn't good news. It seems like the result of a chasm between Gross and new
IRS commissioner Charles Rossotti on how systems modernization should proceed.


The two officials' public statements about Gross' departure were all moonlight and
roses. Neither alluded to widely reported differences in opinion. Rossotti has told
Congress he envisions a radical makeover of IRS, including splitting it into four or so
divisions, each responsible for a class of taxes.


So the unanswered question is: Can systems modernization proceed in some meaningful way
while a long debate over the agency's structure ensues in Congress?


Gross had won the confidence of lawmakers over the last year, with his methodical,
almost ascetic work toward a plan to get tax systems modernization back on track. Two
vendors, each representing teams of would-be subcontractors, were planning to bid on the
plan.


To be sure, Rossotti has made public assurances about his commitment to the program.
Who can doubt him? Aside from the fact that he comes from an information technology
background, it is hardly a fresh revelation that costly and outmoded systems are a major
hindrance to the agency's efficiency, quality of service and ability to offer taxpayers
new services.


Yet Rossotti said earlier this month, "Building new computer systems to support
the old business practices and complex organization structure will not work." That
sounds as though establishing the agency's new structure, if there is to be one, will take
precedence over systems modernization.


It's a reasonable position. After all, isn't the point of the Information Technology
Management Reform Act and its philosophical antecedent, the business process
re-engineering movement, to ensure that systems support missions?


Still, if you're Arthur Gross and you've spent 18 months painstakingly putting together
a plan, and a new boss comes in and suddenly that plan is put on hold, you do what
countless others have done.


It's not personal, it's just the way things turn out.


Now it is up to Rossotti to assure lawmakers, IRS' long-suffering employees and the
nation's taxpayers that there will be modernization in their lifetimes.


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