Infosys' tax portal: Wake-up call for govt, IT vendors

Infosys' tax portal: A wake-up call for both govt and IT vendors

It is saddening to see the name of an iconic home-grown institution being dragged through the mud due to the glitches in the portal

Twenty-one months may seem excessive for developing an application. Credit: Reuters File Photo

Infosys is caught in the middle of a huge public embarrassment due to the bugs in the new Income Tax e-filing 2.0 portal they developed for the Income Tax Department (ITD). The glitches in the application became apparent immediately after its launch on June 7 this year.

It is not uncommon for a software application to be launched with known bugs. But the bugs in e-filing portal 2.0 broke all limits of acceptance. There were complaints about even basic functionalities like the login and OTP reception. Bombay Chartered Accountants Society wrote an open letter to the finance minister enclosing details of 56 bugs. ICAI made a special presentation before the Finance Minister and representatives from Infosys about the bugs. Scores of other individuals and organisations shared bugs via online platforms bringing more shame to the IT giant.

It is saddening to see the name of an iconic home-grown institution being dragged through the mud due to the glitches in the portal. Is the failure in a software project solely the responsibility of the vendor?

Also read: Infosys says some users continue to face difficulties, working to streamline I-T portal experience

The open bid for a Managed Service Partner to create the new e-filing portal was published by ITD on February 8, 2018. The Cabinet approval for this project came on January 16, 2019, almost a year later. While sharing the news about the Cabinet approval, the then finance minister Piyush Goyal informed that the new portal will be developed in 18 months followed by three months of testing; making it a 21-month project in total.

Twenty-one months may seem excessive for developing an application. But considering the size of this project, that timeline is not that long; it may have been quite inadequate too.

As per the notice inviting bids for this project published by the 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 (Centralised Processing Centre).

The e-filing portal is the one currently in the limelight. It enables income tax filing, arrear demands, grievance management, etc., of individuals, HUF, companies, and non-company entities. Each of these entities further branches out to various subcategories like salaried/self-employed individual, RI/ NRI, domestic/foreign company, firm/LLP/local authority, etc.; each having their specific validations and privileges in the system.

The CPC portal is the non-public facing part of the system. It handles tax processing, tax accounting, records management, data interchange, and digitisation. The public-facing e-filing portal could be smaller compared to the CPC portal that handles the back-office activities performed by the ITD officials.

Tata Consultancy Services was the vendor for the previous e-filing portal, who handled it since 2012. Meanwhile, Infosys has handled the CPC portal for several years since its inception. This familiarity with the CPC portal and its operations might have given Infosys the confidence to agree on such a competitive timeline.

Scope vs deadline

In the case of both e-filing and CPC 2.0 projects, Infosys’ task was not to recreate the existing applications but to transform them. Recreating an application is relatively easy since the exact length and breadth of the project are known beforehand. But transformation projects are different. Instead of definitive requirements, they have aspirational objectives: Like the following broad objectives of this project stated in the press release after the Cabinet approval.

- Faster and accurate outcomes for the taxpayer

- First time right approach

- Enhancing user experience at all stages

- Promoting voluntary tax compliance

Such objectives can mean different things to different people. Unless the requirements are clearly defined beforehand by the client, it may take several months for the vendor to finalise proper solutions. There can be instances where major changes are suggested even days before the launch. It takes us to the question of whether the scope of every aspect of this project was precisely defined by the ITD while assigning the project to Infosys. Or did the scope evolve after the commencement of the project? If so, was Infosys given the proper extension in the timeline to accommodate the changes?

Considering that Infosys had started the work only after the Cabinet approval in January 2019, the project was launched in little less than 18 months; three months less than the original estimate of 21 months. It would be interesting to know whether the testing process of three months was conducted as initially planned.

No project goes live without the sign-off from the project director or equivalent authority at the client’s end. Were the authorities at the ITD, who signed off the portal as fit for public release, aware of all the issues beforehand and decided to release it anyway?

Like any other industry, underquoting of timeline and price to win projects is a prevailing practice in the software industry too. This incident should be a reminder to all IT vendors about setting proper expectations regarding the delivery timeline and scope of projects they undertake. To put it in Infosys co-founder N R Narayana Murthy’s words, “it is better to underpromise and overdeliver than vice versa.”

On the other hand, it is unfair to crucify just the vendor for all the mishaps in the application. Software development requires constant involvement from the client. Government and its authorities shall view IT vendors as partners in building our nation’s IT Infrastructure.

Proper third-party auditing shall be placed for projects to define and control the scope. Timelines should be competitive, but not unrealistic; there is a thin line between both.

Public shaming of companies will lead to a point where capable organisations will hesitate to take up government projects for the fear of loss of reputation.

(The writer is a Business Analyst)

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