Infosys fiscal portal: a red flag for the government and IT suppliers

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Infosys is caught in the midst of enormous public embarrassment due to bugs in the new electronic income tax 2.0 filing portal they developed for the Income Tax Department (ITD). The app’s issues became apparent immediately after its launch on June 7 of this year.

It is not uncommon for a software application to be launched with known bugs. But the bugs in the e-filing portal 2.0 have exceeded all acceptance limits. There have been complaints about even basic features like OTP connection and reception. The Bombay Chartered Accountants Society wrote an open letter to the Minister of Finance containing details of 56 bugs. ICAI made a special presentation to the Minister of Finance and representatives of Infosys on the bugs. Dozens of other individuals and organizations have shared bugs via online platforms, bringing shame to the IT giant even more.

It’s sad to see the name of an iconic institution in the country dragged through the mud because of portal issues. Is the failure of a software project the sole responsibility of the supplier?

Also read: Infosys Says Some Users Continue to Struggle, Striving to Streamline IT Portal Experience

The open tender for a managed services partner to create the new e-filing portal was released by ITD on February 8, 2018. Cabinet approval for this project came on January 16, 2019, nearly a year later. While sharing the news of the Cabinet approval, then Finance Minister Piyush Goyal informed that the new portal would be developed in 18 months, followed by three months of testing; making it a 21 month project in total.

Twenty-one months may seem like too much to develop an application. But given the size of this project, this timeline is not that long; it was perhaps quite insufficient too.

According to the tender notice for this project published by ITD on February 8, 2018, the scope of the project was to design, develop, operate and maintain two applications: 1) e-filing and 2) CPC (Center of Centralized Processing).

The e-filing portal is the one that is currently in the spotlight. It allows the filing of income tax, arrears claims, grievance handling, etc., of individuals, HUFs, businesses and non-corporate entities. Each of these entities branch out into different sub-categories such as employee / self-employed, RI / NRI, national / foreign company, company / LLP / local authority, etc. ; each having its specific validations and privileges in the system.

The CPC portal is the non-public part of the system. It manages tax processing, tax accounting, case management, data exchange and digitization. The e-filing portal intended for the public could be smaller than the CPC portal which manages the back-office activities carried out by ITD officials.

Tata Consultancy Services was the provider of the old e-filing portal, which had been managing it since 2012. Meanwhile, Infosys has been running the CPC portal for several years since its inception. This familiarity with the CPC portal and its operations could have given Infosys the confidence to agree on such a competitive schedule.

Scope vs delay

In the case of the e-filing and CPC 2.0 projects, Infosys’ task was not to recreate existing applications but to transform them. Recreating an application is relatively easy since the exact length and scope of the project is known in advance. But transformation projects are different. Instead of definitive demands, they have ambitious goals: like the following major goals of this project set out in the press release after Cabinet approval.

– Faster and more precise results for the taxpayer

– Good approach the first time

– Improved user experience at all stages

– Promote voluntary tax compliance

Such goals can mean different things to different people. Unless the requirements are clearly defined in advance by the customer, it may take several months for the vendor to finalize the appropriate solutions. There may be cases where major changes are suggested even a few days before launch. This brings us to the question of whether the scope of every aspect of this project was precisely defined by the ITD when the project was awarded to Infosys. Or did the scope change after the start of the project? If so, has Infosys been given the appropriate extension in the timeline to accommodate the changes?

Considering that Infosys only started work after Cabinet approval in January 2019, the project was launched in just under 18 months; three months less than the initial estimate of 21 months. It would be interesting to know if the three-month testing process went as originally planned.

No project goes live without the approval of the project manager or equivalent authority on the client side. Were the ITD authorities, who approved the portal as suitable for public release, aware of all the issues in advance and decided to release it anyway?

As in any other industry, undercutting the schedule and price to win projects is also a common practice in the software industry. This incident should be a reminder to all IT vendors to set appropriate expectations regarding the delivery schedule and scope of the projects they undertake. In the words of Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy, “it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around.”

On the other hand, it’s unfair to crucify only the seller for all app mishaps. Software development requires constant customer involvement. The government and its authorities must consider IT providers as partners in building the IT infrastructure of our country.

Appropriate third-party audit should be in place for projects to define and control the scope. Timelines should be competitive, but not unrealistic; there is a fine line between the two.

The public shame of companies will lead to a point where relevant organizations will be reluctant to undertake government projects for fear of losing their reputation.

(The author is a business analyst)

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