IRS Needs to Address Operational Challenges and Opportunities to Improve Management, GAO Says

The IRS relies extensively on IT systems to collect more than $3 trillion in taxes and distribute over $400 billion in refunds annually. In FY 2020, the IRS expects to spend approximately $3.2 billion on IT investments.

The Government Accountability Office testified on several IT problems that could make it harder for the IRS to do its job (e.g., security control deficiencies that could result in unauthorized access to taxpayer data; computer freezes that cause service delays).

GAO also noted that the IRS needed to manage its IT systems better—particularly the oldest ones. Our previous recommendations, most of which the IRS has yet to implement, would address these issues.

Information technology (IT) operational challenges have hampered the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) ability to effectively carry out its responsibilities. For example:

In May 2020, GAO reported that new and continuing deficiencies in information system security controls over financial and tax processing systems included deficiencies related to access controls, segregation of duties, and other areas. These collectively represented a significant deficiency in risks of unauthorized access to, modification of, or disclosure of financial reporting and taxpayer data and disruption of critical operations. GAO made 18 new recommendations to address these deficiencies, bringing the total number of GAO cybersecurity recommendations that IRS has not yet implemented to 132.

A January 2020 GAO report stated that customer service representatives and frontline managers reported frequently experiencing computer problems that adversely affected their ability to serve taxpayers. Specifically, they reported their computers freezing or taking excessive time to reboot. These computer problems could cause phone calls to disconnect before taxpayer issues were resolved, which required taxpayers to call back and wait in the queue again. GAO recommended that IRS address this challenge; IRS now has actions underway to implement GAO’s recommendation.

GAO has also issued several reports identifying numerous opportunities for the IRS to improve the management of its IT investments. IRS has addressed some of the related recommendations but other important ones are not yet implemented. For example:

In June 2018, GAO reported that IRS had not fully implemented key risk management practices for three mission critical systems facing significant risks due to their reliance on legacy programming languages, outdated hardware, and a shortage of human resources with needed skills. For example, for one of the systems, the more than 50-year old Individual Master File, IRS was using assembly language and Computer Business Oriented Language (COBOL)—languages that were both developed in the 1950s. As a result of these and other findings in its report, GAO made 21 recommendations to IRS. As of September 2020, IRS had implemented three of the 21 recommendations.

In June 2016, GAO reported that IRS had established IT investment priorities that supported two types of activities—operations and modernization. While IRS had developed a process for prioritizing operations activities, it did not have such a process for modernization. Accordingly, GAO recommended that IRS develop this process to better assure Congress and other decision makers that the highest priorities are funded. In September 2020, the agency told GAO that it expected to implement this process for the fiscal year 2022 budget cycle.

GAO has made a number of recommendations to IRS to address IT challenges and needed improvements. While IRS has generally agreed with these, it still needs to implement the numerous critical recommendations that remain outstanding.

Read the GAO report

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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