The Computer-Man's Best Friend

For where's the state beneath the firmament
That doth excel the bees for government.
- Guillaume de Salluste, Divine Weeks and Works [1578]

It's a comfort to the older generation, that neither twitters nor
texts and computes only with difficulty, to be reminded that the federal
government has no greater success with the technology than they. We
were reminded of it again when the Washington Post
reported that Arlington National Cemetery was having trouble keeping
track of who was buried where or whether folks were buried at all and,
thanks to the poor record keeping, at least four funeral urns had been
dug up and thrown away. Although there were many reasons for the
problems at the cemetery, part of the blame lay with inadequate computer
technology on which cemetery officials had spent more than $5 million
for computer upgrades that did not upgrade the cemetery's record keeping
ability. That brought to mind other computer misadventures in the
federal government which offer comfort to those who, like the
government, find themselves bested by the computer at every turn.

Back in 1997 we learned that the IRS had spent more than $4 billion
on what was described as a modern computer system. Arthur Goss, then an
assistant Commissioner of Internal Revenue was disappointed in the
results and said the system did not work in what he called "the real
world." (As I observed
when writing about that some years ago, the notion that there is
something called the "real world" and some place else where the IRS
lives found ready acceptance among readers.) Mr. Goss went on to say
that even though the system would have to be scrapped, the IRS was
nonetheless "wholly dependent on them" to collect the $1.4 trillion the
government needed to function. In 2000 Charles Rossotti issued what was
called "Progress Report IRS Business Systems Modernization Program, the
front page of which was a picture
of 36 people laughing and smiling. (The people on the front cover
were , presumably IRS employees enthused at how the new system would
enhance tax collection since it is unlikely that a randomly selected
group of taxpayers would have seemed so happy at the prospect of
improved tax collection. In his introduction to the report, Charles
Rossotti, the Commissioner of the IRS said that in the following year
the project would deliver "real business results" and the program would
"continue to mature as we gain experience." It was to be a slow
maturation. In January 2010 the Government Accountability Office said a
part of the program that had by then cost $400 million and was supposed
to be completed by 2012 would not be fully completed until somewhere
between 2018 and 2028. The IRS is not alone in its problems. The FBI,
too, has computer problems.

In 2004 it was disclosed since 9/11 the FBI had spent $170 million
to improve its system to enable agents to obtain "instant access to FBI
databases allowing speedier investigations and better integration of
information. . . . " The system did not live up to expectations and the
FBI spent another $2 million to hire an expert to see whether the
system could be salvaged. In 2006 the FBI awarded Lockheed Martin the
Sentinel information technology contract. According to recent reports,
the system has improved the FBI's e-mail and data base searching but is
not running as hoped in other areas. Cost overruns of almost $30
million have been incurred and the project that was to be completed in
September of this year is now destined to be completed in 2011. The
Secret Service has problems as well.

According to an ABC News report
earlier this year, a classified review of that agency's computers
disclosed that the agency's computers were "fully operational" only 60
percent of the time. Its databases are outdated. According to Joseph
Liebermann, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government
Affairs Committee, 60 percent operational capability is worse than
"industry and government standards that are around 98 percent
generally." Senator Liebermann said the computer mainframe dates back
to the 1980s, a period that probably precedes the time even the most
unsophisticated of my readers purchased their most recent computers. It
will reportedly cost $187 million to fully update the system. To date
the Department of Homeland Security has allocated $33 million and
requested an additional $69 million in the most recent budget request.
At that rate within a year or two the agency will have a completely up
to date system at its disposal. In the meantime it probably spends a
lot of time hoping that nothing bad happens.

As I said at the outset, we can all take comfort in the fact that it
seems to be as hard for the federal government to keep current in the
world of technology as it does the rest of us. It is, however, more of a
surprise than a reassurance.

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