Implementing a major system upgrade in the midst of a global pandemic is no small feat, but the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue (DOR) took it up when it revamped its suite of over a dozen tax systems in one modernized system.
The goal almost achieved is to implement the Pennsylvania Tax Hub (PATH), a system that will merge at least a dozen existing systems, some of them on 40-year-old mainframe equipment. In this way, department heads can more easily reconcile more than $ 40 billion in revenue streams from various taxes in the state’s accounting systems. The ministry is on track to complete the nearly five-year project on time.
âIt was a really big coordination effort,â said John Kaschak, CPA, CGMA, assistant executive secretary of revenue for Pennsylvania. âEverything had to be in sync to make sure we were still able to provide certain services on an ongoing basis while continuing to modernize. This coordination effort was enormous. “
The benefits for both consumers and the agency are enormous. The project gives Pennsylvanians a unified view of the personal and business taxes they owe, while reducing annual mainframe maintenance costs by $ 500,000.
Kaschak and Allison Morgan, the revenue department project manager overseeing the process, present lessons learned and best practices as they embark on modernization projects of this scale.
Get buy-in on shared principles. The first step was to develop guiding principles to target the overall objectives of the project. This included buy-in from DOR staff managing the project.
The ultimate principles the group agreed to were as follows:
- Take advantage of out-of-the-box features.
- The replacement of existing features takes priority over improvements.
- All employees are contributors to the project to some extent.
- DOR will make and support the best decision with the time and information available.
- Decisions must weigh the long-term benefits against the short-term discomfort.
Putting these guiding principles in place allowed the project team and the agency to focus on results without being distracted by the inevitable conflicts or challenges that arise in projects of this size, Morgan said.
Choose the product and supplier carefully. During a previous modernization project, the service used a supplier who had implemented a system designed by a third party. This ended up being problematic as it meant the supplier didn’t have the in-depth product knowledge and flexibility to do it.
Another downside was that the previous project didn’t focus on the end-user experience, a possible regret for the department. So, addressing this most recent project, Kaschak said that they knew they wanted to have a vendor who not only knew but also built the new system. It was also important to be able to see past successes, although the Pennsylvania project was likely to be larger.
Developing a specific RFP attracted quality and knowledgeable suppliers during the bidding process. The agency included requirements for the post-implementation relationship to ensure vendors continue to work with internal support staff to keep things running smoothly.
âWe ended up choosing a vendor that was very successful,â with over 30 implementations in the United States, Kaschak said. “They were always on time and always on budget.”
Adapt to new challenges. With any large-scale modernization project, things go wrong, so flexibility is key. This was certainly the case with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 700 DOR employees were sent home to work remotely in mid-March 2020, posing an unprecedented challenge.
âWhen we closed, we didn’t have enough laptops for everyone to work remotely,â Kaschak said. âSome 200 laptops had to be borrowed from other state offices. Employees were sent home with cheat sheets to connect to the department’s virtual private network.
A delivery of 400 laptops arriving in July and August kept the project on schedule to meet the November 2020 deadline for the third out of five rollouts of the modernization initiative.
Users have been trained remotely for the two completed deployments since telecommuting began, Morgan said.
Additionally, when containment began, there was still a lot of work to do to configure the new system.
âNot only did we have to train these people, but to get there we had to keep configuring the system remotely and also having the system tested by people,â Kaschak said. âBefore you can practice, you have to complete the tests – make sure everything is going as planned. “
It was more complicated than originally conceived, but the flexibility shown by leaders kept the project on track even as the global pandemic disrupted working life in the United States.
Recognize the best results. Although the project is not complete, the department is already seeing the results of its hard work, including greater automation in many processes and greater analysis.
Although Morgan said it was too early to provide detailed measurements of the project’s efficiency improvements, each phase of the project brought additional benefits to taxpayers through improved or new electronic services. One of the benefits is that taxpayers who had never been able to report or make payments online can now make them electronically.
âInternal and external feedback has been very good in terms of improvement,â she said. “There is even more potential, so we always try to remind people that this will continue to improve, we just have a strict schedule, and a lot of our biggest improvements have to wait until those deadlines are met.”
Encourage engagement. Change can be hard for people to embrace, and DOR leaders have insisted that the pain of learning new processes will now lead to a much more efficient and less stressful work environment.
Merging all tax systems into one platform has helped DOR management manage staff and keep employees more engaged in their work, Kaschak said.
âIf it’s all in one system, it’s a lot easier to train and train people, and it’s a lot easier to move people to where you need more resources,â he said. âNow it’s the same system, so now you can train people and say, ‘Well, it could be a different kind of tax, but it all works the same way. “”
Kaschak also said that DOR employees are likely to find that upgrading PATH gives them more career advancement opportunities. Employees can gain the confidence to apply for promotions that they might not have been sure to pursue with old cumbersome systems.
For example, an employee at the call center where he answers phone calls from taxpayers can now have the confidence to apply for a promotion to another team in the department as exposure to the new modern system increases.
“It opens up more opportunities for them,” Kaschak said.
Finance officials who are embarking on large projects can review this project to ensure that developing an initially results-oriented plan will lead to success, he said.
âIt’s a very business-oriented project,â Kaschak said. âThat’s what has contributed to its success from an end-user perspective, both internally and externally, because we have the business side driving it. “
– Joseph radigan is a New York-based financial writer. Sarah ovaska is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek at [email protected].