The Government Accountability Office on Thursday released the findings of a review of the Internal Revenue Service’s major IT investments, citing well-known shortcomings in the tax collection agency’s aging technology infrastructure and recommending steps to make better use of the billions IRS spends on IT each year.
GAO – the Federal government’s premiere watchdog organization – looked at nine IRS IT projects in both the development phase and those in the operations and maintenance phase, through fiscal years 2016 and 2017.
“The four selected investments in the development phase that GAO reviewed spent less than planned, but most were behind schedule and delivered less scope than planned,” GAO said in its report.
Despite being under budget, none of the four IT projects – which include enterprise case management, a customer account data engine, a return review program, and Affordable Care Act administration – were delivering the full functionality promised by each program.
Among five currently operational programs reviewed by GAO, three were notably criticized for their IT-related shortcomings.
“Three investments GAO reviewed in the operations and maintenance phase that are legacy investments – Individual Master File (IMF), Integrated Data Retrieval System (IDRS), and Mainframes and Servers Services and Support (MSSS) – are facing significant risks due to their reliance on legacy programming languages, outdated hardware, and a shortage of human resources with critical skills,” GAO said.
The first two – IMF and IDRS – were flagged for their use of Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL), an outdated programming language developed in the 1950s. GAO noted that use of COBOL “exposes these investments to a rise in procurement and operating costs, and a decrease in staff available with the proper skill sets,” as the number of IT professionals with a grasp on it dwindles.
The Individual Master File – a persistent thorn in GAO’s side – has been constantly called out for the aging technology it uses, and how reliant tax collection remains on the outdated technology. Following this year’s Tax Day outage, Congress nearly unanimously approved sweeping legislation to modernize IRS services and promote the role of IRS CIO.
MSSS, the other operational technology GAO flagged, “relies on a significant amount of outdated hardware exposing the investment to rising warranty and maintenance fees, as well as equipment failures,” GAO said. The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently won $20 million from the Technology Modernization Fund to accelerate its mainframe migration, a notable investment that speaks toward a government priority in shifting from aging mainframe infrastructure.
“IRS relies extensively on IT investments to annually collect more than $3 trillion in taxes, distribute more than $400 billion in refunds, and carry out its mission of providing service to America’s taxpayers in meeting their tax obligations,” GAO said, while noting the $2.7 and $2.6 billion spent by IRS in FY2016 and FY2017, respectively, on IT investments.
GAO questioned the implementation of guidance both it and the Office of Management and Budget provided to IRS, saying failure to implement could impact IRS’ ability to perform its mission. GAO recommended IRS “perform operational analyses consistent with guidance, implement key risk management practices, and fully implement key IT workforce planning practices.”
“IRS did not agree or disagree with the recommendations, but said it would provide a plan for addressing each recommendation,” GAO said.