July 20, 2020
On July 20, 2020, PIT director of strategy Hana Schank testified before the Government Operations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform at a hearing entitled Federal IT Modernization: How the Coronavirus Exposed Outdated Systems. Below are her prepared remarks.
Lisa Charles lives outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. The 42 year old divorced mother of two typically qualifies for the Earned Income Tax Credit. She works when she can, but spends the bulk of her time tending to her older son’s severe medical problems. His endocrine system does not function properly, and he spends a lot of time in and out of the hospital.
Because Charles was below the filing threshold and had not filed 2018 or 2019 taxes, she was one of an estimated 12 million Americans who had to claim her stimulus check using the IRS’s non-filer portal.
In March, sitting beside her son at the hospital, she filled out the form. She really needed the money because she was behind on rent and facing eviction.
To date, she has not received the stimulus money for her children OR the $2,148 she qualifies for under the EITC.
What Charles didn’t understand is that the non-filer portal prevents its users from claiming the EITC. As a work-around to allow non-filers to claim a stimulus check, the portal files simple tax returns for its users, unbeknownst to Charles and millions of other Americans. So when she attempted to claim the EITC, because she had used the portal, the IRS said she had already filed taxes and couldn’t do so again. To remedy the situation, Charles must mail a 1040 form to the IRS and wait for the agency to work through its backlog and get to her.
In the meantime, Charles’ bills won’t wait.
When it comes to federal IT failures, we are used to hearing stories about websites crashing, or huge cost overruns and delayed launches. But Charles’s story is, more and more, what federal IT disaster stories will sound like.
Unless the federal government changes its approach to technology, badly designed systems layered on top of a badly thought through process ending up in a total failure of service delivery for the people who need it most is our future.
Yes, it is true that the federal government often relies on IT systems that date back to the 1950s, which doesn’t help matters. But two bigger issues created the Catch-22 that Charles and millions of others are caught in. (And it is worth noting that while this example is specific to the IRS and the CARES act, it could be happening with any agency and any new policy at any time.)
The first issue is that these systems were built for a time when people didn’t use computers from home. They are built for phone, mail, fax, or in person contact.
The second issue is that when government implements a policy, that policy implicitly relies on existing IT to be delivered. But the policy creation process doesn’t take delivery into account. Congress is used to enacting policy and having it then be a reality. In today’s world, there is an entire technology component that must be put into place in order to make policy a reality. For something like the CARES act, that money doesn’t exist for the people who need it until they are able to successfully file for and receive it.
That means that policymakers need to think about things like:
- How will people apply for this?
- What systems will this rely on and what is the status of those systems?
- How will people track the progress of their applications, just as they can track a package they ordered online? This transparency into government processes is essential.
Thinking about delivery means thinking about all the different types of people who might file for something, thinking about how they might file, and what might go wrong. Businesses wouldn’t survive without thinking this through. Yet it mostly doesn’t happen in federal IT projects.
So what is the solution?
First, there needs to be a modern technology workforce inside the government, and this starts from the top - there must be a very senior person at each federal agency who has a background in technology, who can bring that experience to bear on policy decisions.
Second, all policy decisions must include a tested delivery plan. That should start here, in Congress.
Finally, I want to touch on cost savings. When IT fails it is expensive. We see cost overruns into the billions of dollars. Bringing senior tech talent in-house, while potentially expensive as a line item, would likely lead to tremendous cost savings as there would be people who could advocate for building the right thing the right way the first time. There would be no need to patch unforeseen holes quickly, as the IRS was forced to do with the CARES act.
Government would get it right, save money, and serve the people the way it is intended.