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IRS Database System Makes Tax Deadline, Finally

After long delays and multiple false starts, IRS delivers on a new database to speed up returns processing and delivery of refunds, plus improve fraud detection.
CADE 2 almost didn't happen. Following schedule delays and budget overruns to earlier versions of the system, the agency scaled back its plans and extended its timeline for delivery, with plans stretching into the 2020's. As a result, CADE 2 deals only with individual taxes, not business taxes or those related to retirement plans. But the project completion date was accelerated, and daily processing went live in January, in time for this year's tax season.

The agency began moving the processing of simple returns like the 1040EZ form to CADE 2's predecessor system, a relational database developed with help from CSC. When Shulman took on the commissioner job in 2007, he made it a priority to push the project through to completion. "We took the IT portfolio and shut down some other projects," he said. "We put the A-team on it."

In November, 2008, the IRS hired CTO Terry Millholland, a former tech exec with Visa, Boeing and EDS, to oversee its tax systems, including the CADE project. The agency created a new governance plan for the program, headed up by an associate CIO and overseen by multiple oversight boards.

The IRS functioned as systems integrator for CADE 2, rather than contract out that job. Millholland's strategy has been to "get the data right, and the functionality will follow."

That meant creating a data model for 30,000 data elements, then extracting all the structured and unstructured data from the Individual Master File, converting it, and loading into CADE 2. And data integrity had to be such that "it balances to the penny," said Millholland.

In its budget request for fiscal year 2013, the IRS cited phase two of CADE 2 development as among its planned areas of investment. The agency is looking to retire the IMF and rewrite large chunks of machine code in Java. And it plans increased use of analytics tools with CADE 2 to support its compliance efforts. It already applies filters to scour tax returns for inaccuracies or fraud.

IRS watchdogs are keeping an eye on the project. Last September, the IRS agreed to take steps to improve the project's management, after the inspector general complained that the agency wasn't consistently implementing system development practices, that too many risks were undocumented, and that test plans were insufficiently developed.

The agency faces other tech challenges. Increased call volumes have led to a 48% increase in call wait times since 2008, a problem that will likely require new approaches to customer service, self service, and automation. And the IRS is still tweaking its electronic filing systems, which have experienced data transmission problems at times.

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