The government's crummy computers
The news in Peter Orszag's speech this morning is that the White House is "asking each agency to develop a list of their bottom 5 percent performing discretionary programs" in order to make cuts more obvious. On the one hand, reducing inefficient spending is good. On the other hand, reducing aggregate spending is not, at the moment, a good idea. This 5 percent isn't much in the scheme of things, but it's a buy-in to the idea that deficits are too high right now rather than an effort to convince people that the time for countercyclical spending hasn't passed.
So that's not the news in the speech. But it's also a small part of it. The bulk of the address is about the need to modernize the federal government's IT infrastructure, and it's worth reading. Orszag notes, for instance, that "public sector productivity growth matched the private sector’s until about 1987," at which point it began falling rapidly behind. If you've identified this as roughly coinciding with the rise of personal computing and the Internet eras, well, ding-ding-ding.
"At one time," Orszag says, "a federal worker went to the office and had access to the most cutting-edge computer power and programs. Now, he often has more of both in a device clipped to his belt." Oh, snap!
And in a line that almost seems like a criticism of White House rhetoric, Orszag quotes the president bragging that "the Patent Office receives more than 80 percent of patent applications electronically," but notes that "these applications are then manually printed out, re-scanned, and entered into an outdated case management system. The average processing time for a patent is roughly three years."
"Closing the IT gap," he continues, "is perhaps the single most important step we can take in creating a more efficient and responsive government." He goes on to mention a couple of cool IT initiatives the administration is pursuing, but it's not clear that they amount to a top-to-bottom effort to overhaul the federal government's IT infrastructure. That's a pity, because now would be a good time for that effort (we need the spending) and the payoff, as Orszag says, could be immense.
Update: Turns out that I just misread the line that seemed like Orszag was qualifying Obama's embrace of the patent office. In fact, he was echoing it. SUggestion of unexpected independence thus retracted!
Photo credit: By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
June 8, 2010; 2:33 PM ET
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