Federal Manager's Daily Report

Every filing season is a crush for the IRS but this year’s had the added challenge of changes due to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed in December – and increasing e-file returns via integrations with vendors such as TurboTax and H&R Block, along with continued declines in operating budget and personnel. It all culminated on Tax Day when the IRS’s processing systems crashed. The error displayed on its website summed it up: “Planed Outage: April 17, 2018 – December 9999.”

Multiple explanations have followed, from the agency’s announced “hardware issue” to IRS secretary Stevne Mnuchin’s “high-volume technical issue,” but the underlying issues can be found in most agencies  – delivering IT solutions is hard, but doing so in a heavily regulated environment often dealing with sensitive information and with budgets subject to an appropriations process is much harder.

The result can be stove-piped solutions, vendor lock-in, abandoned applications, or wasted resources (such as $1 billion the Air Force spent on its Expeditionary Combat Support System before scraping it in 2012).

Another high-profile failure took place in 2013 when HealthCare.gov ground to a halt as users tried to register for health insurance under the ACA. Some 50 contractors had reportedly contributed to the project at that point. A bottleneck due to an over-abundance of front end code was one explanation at the time but again, an unstable collection of systems up against a complex and evolving requirements process took its toll.

An effort to triage HealthCare.gov led to the creation of the federal government’s own digital services agency within GSA. 18F saw an immediate need for cloud solutions and its first product was Cloud.gov – a secure, fully compliant Platform as a Service (PaaS) that agencies can use to more rapidly deliver services.

Cloud.gov allows your development team to focus on products that serve your agency’s mission, without needing to manage the underlying server infrastructure. And cloud.gov’s built-in compliance support helps customers create the documentation and continuing assurance necessary for federal services to comply with FISMA regulations and agency-specific “Authority to Operate” (ATO) requirements.
Source: Cloud.gov | Email cloud-gov-inquiries@gsa.gov to schedule a call to find out what they can do for you

While it’s unclear specifcially how Cloud.gov may have helped the IRS avoid future breakdowns like the one that happened on Tax Day, more generally Cloud.gov can help agencies “reduce friction at every stage,” said 18F’s Bret Mogilefsky in comments after a recent talk, whether that be procurement, provisioning, development, deployment, testing, documentation or otherwise.

Cloud.gov can help facilitate the requirements process and the underlying architecture it provides – based on the entirely open source Cloud Foundry Application Runtime – could, with broader adoption begin to introduce standardization and stability into federal government IT in a way that more effectively manages compliance and interoperability.

The potential is there to elevate trust among smaller teams and agency components charged with developing or maintaining different systems who might resist trusting each other’s code or have difficulty adapting to one another’s solutions, something 18F’s Peter Burkholder emphasizes, and a problem he witnessed while developing IT in the banking sector.

As for the IRS, the first step in its “inevitable” upgrade, “is to design a new infrastructure and start migrating over aspects of the network that can be migrated, and upgrading or isolating aspects that cannot,” notes Wayne Lloyd, Federal CTO of RedSeal which provides network mapping and security scanning tools.

“Once they’ve built a physical, cloud or hybrid infrastructure, at the very least they’ll be able to guarantee it’s secure,” says Lloyd, adding he believes that the agency needs to focus on “digital resilience.”

OMB is increasingly pushing agencies to adopt open source solutions, and in 2016 launched a pilot project requiring at least 20 percent of custom developed code to be released as open source – partly to strengthen and help maintain it by tapping a community of developers. OMB memo M-16-21 further asks agencies to make any code they develop available throughout the federal government in order to encourage its reuse.

“Open source solutions give agencies access to a broad community of developers and the latest advancements in technology, which can help alleviate the issues of stagnated or out-dated systems while increasing flexibility as agency missions evolve over time,” says Henry Sowell, chief information security officer at Hortonworks Federal. “Enterprise open source also allows government agencies to reduce the risk of vendor lock-in and the vulnerabilities of un-supported software,” he adds.

Asking why the IRS processing system crashed at the worst possible moment is like asking why a sick patient’s heart failed – how far back in the chain of causality do you want to go? Until the underlying conditions are addressed perhaps it doesn’t really matter.