For consumers, an extra day to file taxes may have been a life raft. For the IRS, it was far from it. The hardware failure took down a "mission-critical system" that was running on legacy hardware and a computer language dating back to the 1950s, David Powner, director of IT issues at the U.S. GAO, told The Wall Street Journal.
Despite years of warnings, including one as recent as last October to House representatives, that the IRS main system was "outdated" and in need of replacement, modernization or replacement efforts didn't take place — and still don't appear on the horizon, according to the report.
- Churn in federal CIO leadership and short tenures have complicated modernization efforts, according to Powner. By the time incoming technology leadership has settled in, assessed the IT system and created a plan, they often leave before the plan can be implemented.
Is unreliability the only reliable thing about federal IT?
Decades old hardware and software are being pushed to handle growing digital workloads, and the strength of these older systems against cyberattacks and infiltration can be hard to ascertain.
Updating legacy hardware is a costly endeavor for any business, but for government entities, there can be more red tape and barriers to execution. It's a hard and unforgiving job for federal CIOs already facing tight budgets, understaffed departments and shifting leadership.
The White House finally appointed a federal CIO in January after one year of having an acting CIO. But several agencies still have acting CIOs and have been waiting for a more permanent appointment for months. With transient leadership at the top, carrying out comprehensive, long-term digital initiatives can be difficult, at times almost impossible.
For lawmakers, keeping pace with the private sector and apportioning reasonable investments to advanced technologies like artifical intelligence can be hard to justify when so much of federal IT hasn't made the migration to the cloud.
The IRS incident has sparked a nerve with many lawmakers, pushing efforts to reform the system. But reinforcements to federal IT leadership and continuity may be equally important as the technical infrastructure.