The IRS is in the midst of streamlining its sprawling case management system into a single, digital system but the program has struggled to meet user expectations and accessibility requirements mandated by law.
Digitizing the remaining paper processes and integrating all of those systems into a single application is a sizable effort: The current environment includes more than 60 different IT systems for case management, which “widely vary in complexity, size and customization,” according to an inspector general report.
While the office has been making progress toward its goals, program leaders have yet to finalize key plans and frameworks for moving forward and the first product releases were marred by a failure to prepare IRS staff for the changes and a lack of accessibility tools for differently abled users—a violation of Section 508 regulations.
The latest effort to streamline and digitize the case management system began in April 2020 with a $45 million contract to deploy a solution iteratively over several years. Around that time, IRS leadership created the Enterprise Digitalization and Case Management Office, an elevation and replacement for the Enterprise Case Management program office established in 2015.
IRS employees told the IG they were frustrated with the first product deployment—Release 1.0 in September 2020—citing “poor communication regarding changes in expected functionality of the initial release and inadequate training,” the report states.
Per agile best practices, the ECM team held user interviews in April 2019 to “help determine and prioritize requirements.”
“End users came away … with the expectation that the initial release of the ECM tool would include the ability to access, read and update datasets,” the IG wrote. However, “Release 1.1 functionality could not read or edit data as originally expected, and the change in functionality was not communicated to end users prior to the release. Despite multiple updates, as of April 2021, the system still requires end users to use workarounds for retrieving and updating data.”
Users also said early training options were limited to nonexistent, though the program has already improved in this area.
By April 2021, users in the first deployment wave told their managers they “were much happier with the ECM product than they had been previously and have had more positive responses,” the IG reported. “They said they believe this is due to the shift to a paperless system and end users becoming more comfortable with the software.”
The second deployment—Release 1.1—also “contained significant Section 508 defects,” according to the IG. Prior to deploying that release, the office “identified 153 total internal defects, of which 76—50%—were for Section 508 compliance.”
Despite these known defects, the program office opted to move ahead with Release 1.1 “in order to meet deployment deadlines.”
“ECM management stated that defects were prioritized by the number of impacted users and that [end-user] management advised that they did not have any end users with disabilities,” the report states. “However, in November 2020, the ECM program reported that internal Section 508 defects were not being worked due to teams not having the capacity to work them and that there was no plan to address the defects prior to deployment of Release 1.1.”
Program officials told the IG they have “taken actions to significantly reduce the number of Section 508 compliance defects in the current ECM release and subsequent releases,” the report states. The agency as a whole is also “standing up an Accessibility Advocate function to work with the existing Information Technology Information Resources Accessibility Program.”
The report notes that while IRS developed a Sequencing Plan to prioritize and map deployments, the team has not fully developed its Scaled Agile Framework, or SAFe, that will shift from a waterfall to an iterative approach.
“The ECM program stated that it is implementing a combination of two SAFe configurations, trying to strike a balance between implementing the recommended roles and configurations while minimizing unnecessary overhead,” the report states, though program leads have yet to finalize and implement those configurations.
The report also offers some additional improvements identified by a program contractor:
- The program benefits are defined only in broad terms and lack specificity.
- The ECM program has yet to finalize a roadmap to achieve its goals between calendar year 2020 and the end of calendar year 2022.
- The ECM program has yet to implement all necessary characteristics of a high-performing agile program.
The IG made four recommendations and IRS officials agreed with all four.
“The IRS plans to document its current Scaled Agile Framework implementation and perform a competency assessment for the associated core competencies, establish metrics, involve end users in development and take actions to reduce Section 508 compliance defects,” the report states.
These recommendations will be taken into consideration with the forthcoming Release 2.0, which is on track to deploy within the year.