IRS Dispatches Software Police

Year 2000 Approaches

IRS Dispatches Software Police

By Neil Munro

Can top government officials trust agency-supplied data that shows progress in wiping out the year 2000 flaw in government computers?

John Eisele photo

IRS CIO Arthur Gross

"The answer is that we don't know and we don't trust the data," said Arthur Gross, the chief information officer for the Internal Revenue Service, which faces a year 2000 repair bill of $850 million.

The widespread year 2000 software flaw, which threatens to tangle tax collection and tax returns in 2000, exists because software often only labels data with the last two digits of each calendar year. Thus data from 2001 would be labeled with "01" - and could be mistakenly interpreted by the computer as data from 1901.

Gross' skepticism is justified, industry and academic experts said. "The word you get in the field is that everything is going great and that we are on schedule, but he needs some independent way to verify that," said Bob Cohen, vice president for communications at the industry-funded Information Technology Association of America, based in Arlington, Va.

The IRS is taking steps to verify that the data its officials report are accurate and that planned fixes at IRS offices throughout the United States actually work and are in use, Gross said.

For example, Gross said his office has teamed with the IRS' Inspector General to a create an internal "year 2000 police force" that will perform spot checks on internal reports that show progress in fixing the year 2000 problem.

To help with certification, Gross said he is using contractors from Science Applications International Corp., San Diego; Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md.; and SRA International Inc., Arlington, Va.

Gross declined to say when these measures would increase his confidence in the agency's status reports. "There's no magic date here. A continuous diligence is required by the IRS," he said in an interview this week.

Members of Congress, who share the same suspicions, will continue to press government officials for proof that they have good data, as well as the ability to ensure that only repaired software is used by the far-flung offices of the federal agencies, said one congressional staff member.

Thus the General Accounting Office reviewed agencies' reports before their progress was publicly graded by Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the technology panel of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. On Sept. 15, Horn and other Republican legislators gave a D- grade to the Department of the Treasury, which includes the IRS.

But the IRS would get a B- grade if Horn's criteria were used to gauge the agency's progress up to Oct. 17, said Bob Allbicker, the IRS' deputy CIO for systems development.

The IRS has one of the largest year 2000 headaches in the government. To handle the 200 million tax returns delivered every year containing total payments of $1.4 trillion, the IRS runs tax-processing software on 80 powerful mainframe computers.

Besides its 80 mainframes, the IRS also must fix the software used in 2,000 minicomputers, 120,000 desktop computers and 127,000 communications devices - a total of 70 million lines of software code and 95,000 discrete high-tech components, according to Gross.

"Much of that infrastructure is not year 2000 compliant, which means we need to replace it or upgrade it" at a cost of roughly $400 million, Gross said.

Checking Year 2000 Repairs
IRS officials are:

  • Using outside contractors and the IRS Inspector General's office to verify IRS data on year 2000 fixes

  • Field-testing repaired software

  • Hiring industry to perform end-to-end testing of all software
Agencies that focus solely on their mainframes "are making a strategic error. ... They must focus on the infrastructure" of desktop computers and communications devices that deliver data and decisions to the mainframes, he said.

To fix its problem, the IRS is using 550 IRS employees and 250 contractor-supplied experts. "It's absolutely a massive effort," which is estimated to cost $850 million, Gross said. Before 1996, the IRS estimated the repair cost at roughly $20 million.

So far, the IRS has completed 52 percent of its software repair work, but has only completed 22 percent of needed tests and has only deployed 4 percent of software scheduled for repair.

To chart the agency's progress, Gross has color-coded work on each of the 95,000 components: Green-coded work is within 5 percent of their schedules, amber-coded work is up to 15 percent behind, while red-coded work is more than 15 percent behind schedule, he said.

So far, 85 percent of the agency's work programs are coded green, while 14 percent are amber and only 1 percent is red, said Gross. "But I'm skeptical," he said.

"Not just the IRS, but every company needs an internal certification program, a year 2000 police if you will, to verify that the software is operating as advertised," said Cohen.

Too many top executives are led astray by middle managers "who fail to report on the true status of the situation, or who might put a more positive spin on the situation," said Cohen.

A 1996 survey of 173 executives showed a wide gap between corporate chief information officers and their middle managers in terms of estimating year 2000 repair costs, said Leon Kappelman, an associate professor at the University of North Texas, Denton, Texas. Middle managers pegged the repair costs 50 percent higher than the CIOs, said Kappelman, who helped organize the study for the Chicago-based Society for Information Management.

Another measure being taken by Gross is a modification to the General Accounting Office's five-step year 2000 repair manual. The modification adds an extra step intended to verify that planned fixes at IRS offices throughout the United States actually work and are in use, he said.

The checks will "certify that renovations have been made and have been made properly," he said. This certification will be completed after the agency has completed end-to-end testing of its repaired software, due to start in January 1999, he said.

In the near term, the IRS is using outside contractors to perform "regression testing" in which all software, including software that did not need a year 2000 fix, is checked to ensure that it does not fall victim to the year 2000 problem, said Gross. Also, the IRS is developing contingency plans to mitigate any problems that are not corrected in time, he said.

One question that remains unanswered is Gross' political clout inside the IRS, which is needed to ensure that the repaired software is used by the IRS' satellite offices, said the congressional staff member.

To get that clout, the staffer said, Gross will need top-level support, especially from Charles Rossotti, now chairman of American Management Systems, Fairfax, Va., who has been nominated as the next IRS commissioner by President Bill Clinton.

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