Why spending cuts can be good, and opinion on other top government stories of the past week.

Johanna Ambrosio, Tech Journalist

November 1, 2005

5 Min Read

As with most weeks, the one just past has had its share of tidings both good and bad. A recount of some of the major news stories:

- The Navy started blocking commercial e-mail from the likes of Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, AOL, and others, siting a security threat as its impetus. Both military and civilian employees are affected. The Marines have had a similar ban in place since 1999. While I understand the threat from Trojans and other types of malware that are rife on these types of services, it's too bad that people who live on base and who have no other Internet access won't be able to let off some steam by visiting the (appropriate) content on some of these commercial services. (You'd also think that if military security measures can't keep spyware et al in check, the rest of us don't stand a chance.) So hey, if you see a military person in a Starbucks or another hot spot waiting for a turn to check e-mail, do your patriotic duty and let him or her sit at your table.

- Here's hoping Dublin's efforts to use underground sensors will indeed help mitigate the increased traffic that the California city is expecting due to the opening of an Ikea outlet. The idea is to use underground sensors and on-street video cameras to link back to computers in Traffic Central, which can then decide whether streets need to be widened or if lights ought to be re-timed. If it works there, my vote would be, in order: New Jersey, Massachusetts, the Beltway, and New York, all of which can use some serious help in the traffic department.

- Speaking of Massachusetts, some state politicians have felt the need to get involved in the battle over which document format the state ought to be using. Just because there aren't enough other issues going on, what with budget deficits, the Big Dig, the equal-marriage amendment, and the like. I wish they'd leave IT decisions to the IT people and keep technology out of the political fray.

- On a related note: this story--recommendations by a panel about what the federal government needs to do to get a secure electronic health-information exchange off the ground--got me thinking about all the various, and seemingly contradictory, major initiatives going on at the same time at the federal level. Do we want to focus on health-care, or do we want security and/or better analytic capabilities throughout the government? It seems to me that we can't have it all, or at least not at the same time. Most citizens think of the federal government like they do the Wizard of Oz--as all-seeing and all-powerful. But of course it's not. And just like any other multi-billion-dollar organization, the government needs to set priorities and focus if anything is to be accomplished. It's no wonder that there's so much inefficiency and confusion, when the marching orders about what's important change after every Presidential and mid-term election. How about we create an inter-agency IT commission to decide what technology is really important to the citizens of this country--and that shouldn't change no matter who's in office--and then focus on the two most important things until they're done? With guidance and oversight from the GAO and elsewhere, planning and budgets can be set for personnel and equipment needs, and the entire focus of all the agencies can be brought to bear. When those are done, the IT commission can decide on two or three more projects. In the meantime, each agency has its own list of shorter-term goals that are more operational and less broad-reaching. It's a balancing act, of course, just like with everything else in life, but it seems to me we could be doing a better job at setting priorities.

- After several years of decent growth, government IT spending is about to hit a wall, according to two studies done by the Government Electronics & Information Technology Industries Association. The economy is doing better, but the budget deficit, the war in Iraq, hurricane relief efforts and other factors are conspiring to hold spending down. The first study said to expect military spending cuts for research, development, test, and evaluation, with totals dropping from around $69 billion for fiscal year 2005 to about $60 billion (in constant fiscal 2006 dollars) by 2011. The second talked about total government IT spending which, though up in current dollars, also represents a slowdown. Although this might be cause for dismay in some quarters, particularly the vendors, this can be a great opportunity to put in place some government-wide best practices regarding budgeting, acquisition, project triage (see the above paragraph), and other IT matters. Smart agencies will see this as a great excuse for doing some new thinking around some very old problems.

- Although the government has its own salary structure, it's interesting to note that IT salaries as a whole are on the rise. According to Robert Half, the recruiting firm, IT salaries will increase an average in 3% in 2006 compared with a 0.5% average increase in 2005. Money is never at the top of one's list for choosing government service as a career, of course, but perhaps a policy of keeping pace with raises in the private sector--particularly for top-performing employees--could help stem the turnover in some of the more troubled agencies.

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About the Author(s)

Johanna Ambrosio

Tech Journalist

Johanna Ambrosio is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in business and technology. She has been a reporter and an editor in the computer industry for over 25 years, covering virtually every technology topic, starting with 'office automation' in the 1980s, as well as management issues including ROI and how to attract and retain talent. Her work has appeared online and in print, in publications including Application Development Trends, Government Computer News, Crain's New York Business, Investor's Business Daily, InformationWEEK, and the Metrowest Daily News. She formerly worked at Computerworld, for which she held various positions, including online director. She holds a B.S. in technical writing from Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y., now the Tandon School of Engineering of New York University. She lives with her husband in a Boston suburb. Johanna's samples of her work are at https://www.clippings.me/jambrosio.

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