Bob Evans digs up 10 recent examples of how some of your tax money is being spent. By his reckoning, there are some good, some bad, and some very, very ugly.
Ugly No. 1: Hey--anybody out there ever hear of this thing called "spyware"? Let me give you the latest: It's just been learned that this spyware stuff can hurt the performance of your computer and pose a security risk! But, as they say on late-night TV ads, "Wait--there's more!" For you real insiders, did you know that spyware is--get this--a "growing problem"? Yes, taxpayers, this insight was released for your benefit just last week by the FTC. But don't blame it for being what some impatient types might call late to the party--after all, the FTC convened a conference on this spyware menace 11 months ago and has spent the past year culling through the proceedings to bring you the deep insights mentioned above. Good thing, I guess, that this spyware threat is serious, because otherwise the FTC wouldn't have put the preparation of the report on the super-expedited fast-track with an 11-month turnaround. Feel safer knowing the FTC's gotcher back on spyware? Maybe SAIC designed the system to get the report out....
Ugly No. 2: Picture today's astonishing world of telecommunications: wireless photo swaps, audio downloads, movie clips, reservations, stock purchases, and remarkably low prices for monthly plans. Now think back to what it was like just five years ago, or even three years ago. Could you have guessed what today's technologies and applications would be like? And then try to peer tow to three years into the future, when even more-dramatic innovations will be overhauling most of today's notions of what "cutting edge" means in this market. What force on heaven or Earth could possibly inhibit this ongoing revolution? Yes, it's the U.S. Congress, as reported by my colleague Paul Kapustka of TechWeb'sAdvanced IP Pipeline: "While acknowledging that most industry and government telecom insiders agree that the current statutes are ineffective for the digital world of 2005, [legislative aide Jason] Mahler said conflicts between new Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Joe Barton, R-Texas, his counterpart at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will require time to resolve, stalling any Congresswide agreement." Actually, if it weren't so maddening, this situation could actually be both productive and funny; what better way for two such luminaries to do as little harm as possible than to keep them antler-locked for another couple of years? In the meantime, entrepreneurs, businesses, forward-looking organizations, and fearless consumers will keep this remarkable telecommunications revolution going strong. And then the dear senators, after resolving their pissing match somewhere late in this decade, can reveal the secret plan they've been hatching for four years: turning over all rights to VoIP to AT&T as a regulated monopoly.
Ugly No. 3: OK, you go before your board of directors and tell them the following: You've spent $170 million on an extremely strategic IT project, but it doesn't work; you don't know how much more money will be needed to make it work; you don't know when, even if unlimited resources are applied, it will work; you admit that ultimately the entire boondoggle might have to be tossed out and an entirely new project started; and the outsourcer doing much of the work denies any responsibility and says that starting from scratch would push deployment out at least three years. With such a track record, would you be expecting to keep your job? Well, over at the FBI, that's what the story is, and various officials with some say in the matter are calling the project "inadequate," "outdated," and "a catastrophic failure." The upshot is that the FBI has a 30,000 new desktops for agents and support personnel connected by a high-speed, high-security network, but has nothing to push through that network. The case files and related information that were to be the centerpiece of the project are still locked in their silos, inaccessible to the agents who have a clear need to be able to access and act upon them in real time. Meanwhile, Science Applications International Corp., the designer of the system, says the blame lies not with it but rather with FBI turnover and change requests from the bureau. Whichever way the finger of blame ends up pointing, this is a spectacular IT disaster that cannot be allowed to be repeated.
These and other public-sector IT initiatives are wicked challenges, and in some of the cases where they don't work there's at least an element of private-sector complicity (thank you, SAIC). But is it possible to consider that just as giant corporations with far-flung and disparate business units are undergoing wrenching change to simplify their internal operations, optimize interactions with customers, and present to the outside world a single face, perhaps it's time for the federal government to begin thinking that way as well? Maybe some consistent standards in project evaluation, scheduling, and management would help; maybe some best (or even just good) practices could be promulgated; maybe some of the terribly wasteful latency could be wrung out of timetables and budgets. For myself, I can get by another 25 or so years without another Stone Age advisory from the FTC on cyberthreats, but some of these other badly run efforts are crying out for some private-sector expertise. As legendary business-technology sage Casey Stengel once put it, "Can't anybody here play this game?"
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