MITRE Helps the IRS Tackle Enterprise-Wide Information Technology PlanningSeptember 2012
Topics: Taxation, IT Investment Management, Systems Modernization
Like many complex organizations, the Internal Revenue Service grapples with executing IT system changes without compromising the operation of its wider enterprise. And while the IRS' core mission of administering America's tax laws remains constant, legislative mandates and changes in tax policy create new challenges every year.
Ensuring that the IRS can carry out its mission and achieve strategic goals while simultaneously upgrading systems is both a complex and critical task. This conundrum led IRS officials to turn to MITRE in 2011 to help them plan for upcoming major technology rollouts and agency-wide system releases.
MITRE developed what became known as the 2012 Release Plan in collaboration with the IRS in February 2011; it resulted from an analysis of close to 50 IT projects. MITRE and IRS officials boiled down this information to approximately 40 technology rollouts and upgrades deemed most essential for the IRS to complete over 24 to 36 months. The team placed particular emphasis on projects likely to have the most significant impact on the 2012 tax season.
"There are major projects now ongoing at IRS for modernizing the taxpayer account management system," says Joel Greenbaum, a principal information systems engineer who helped lead the project. These include moving toward more processing using relational databases to make data available to customer service representatives more quickly and to process refunds faster. "All these projects came to a head in 2012."
A Proactive Approach for a Complex Task
"The overall theme of the work is to look ahead and be more proactive instead of reactive," says Keli Hosaka, a senior information systems engineer who works on the project. "The agency was very pleased with our first effort, so they then asked MITRE to merge the related business activities to provide an even more robust plan, called the Integrated Release Plan."
The enhanced release plan provides an integrated view showing detailed project data across approximately 40 essential IT projects. It provided the IRS with a first-ever enterprise view of the impact various system rollouts and associated efforts would have on each other, along with agency operations as a whole.
"With the growing complexity of the projects and the increasing demands being put on the IRS' systems, the agency realized its historical level of planning had to be enhanced," explains Jim Cook. Cook is vice president and director of MITRE's Center for Enterprise Modernization, the federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service and co-sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs. "We organized the plan in a way that was readable and usable," he says. "We looked at planning through the perspective of a project manager. Our plan—in the form of a large wall chart—is now widely used and referred to by the IRS IT organization."
Strategic Thinking with an Enterprise View
Through the ongoing Integrated Release Plan project, MITRE and the IRS are collaborating on an enterprise-wide strategy for the agency to meet business needs through technology initiatives. The project team is currently focusing on integration among business needs, IT objectives, projects, and investment planning.
In preparation for this year's Integrated Release Plan, MITRE worked with the IRS to pull data together from multiple sources and incorporate data related to resource needs, budget, and strategic goals to enable discussion of enterprise-level risks. For example, the IRS used the new data to create Technology Wave Charts, developed by the agency's associate chief information officers.
"The IRS provided us with 'wave charts' showing things it wanted to accomplish in given timeframes in terms of technology, processes, and people issues, such as big data analytics and equipping mobile workers," Hosaka notes. "We worked with the IRS to relate these technology initiatives directly to specific IRS projects—thereby linking these objectives to projects in the IT portfolio."
Making Intelligent Trade-Offs
The wave charts describe the IT projects and their timeframes in various areas, as well those chosen by the IRS IT leadership because they are likely to have the biggest impact on business success. "This allows the IRS to make trade-offs and decide when it's a smart time to pursue a given project," Hosaka explains. This approach also allows the IRS to identify overlaps in investments, which helps it save money and make better staffing decisions.
The IRS and MITRE collaboration helps the agency respond more quickly to changes that have the potential to derail progress on critical projects. "MITRE is the key force behind the manipulation of the data and the assimilation of it in a manner that makes sense," says Kenneth W. Nesbit, Sr., former director of Requirements and Demand Management for the IRS' IT organization, and now the Department of Treasury Associate CIO for Infrastructure Operations. "This provides the IRS leadership with the ability to quickly react to changing needs, budget changes, and legislative issues.
"MITRE works closely with the IRS IT organization to identify the main issues and potential 'hot spots,' or issues that could delay the delivery of key capabilities," he adds. "MITRE also provides thought leadership on how the data should be used. The company is instrumental in the continued success and eventual knowledge transfer of this vital product, which supports IRS leadership."
Transforming IT Planning Capabilities
MITRE and the IRS continue to refine the Integrated Release Plan using data collected during the current tax season. "The idea is that every year it becomes a more robust planning tool," Hosaka says. "We're there as thought leaders and technical integrators. From our standpoint, it's all about delivering on capabilities." Ultimately, the IRS will create its own release plans building on MITRE's original blueprint.
MITRE's Cook agrees. "We worked with them collaboratively because we wanted them to own it. This was a joint planning process." The IRS agrees too. In December 2011, a team of IRS executives and representatives of the MITRE project team were jointly recognized with an IRS Chief Technology Officer Award.
Just as the IRS benefits from the work, this approach can be immediately applied to many other civil agencies we support. Already, the MITRE project team has briefed the benefits of developing an enterprise-wide release plan to our staff who support the VA.
—by Maria S. Lee