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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electronically," but notes that "these applications are then manually printed out, re-scanned, and entered into an outdated case management system.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

By Ezra Klein  |  June 8, 2010; 2:33 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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If we could out source the public sector jobs the productivity of both sectors would be the same. What has the government been doing with all our money?

Posted by: obrier2 | June 8, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

When discussing private sector productivity growth in the PC era one has to distinguish between productivity growth in computers and software and productivity growth in everything else.

Even if the Federal Government has up to date computers like the non computer private sector, it will be no more able to keep up with productivity growth in the computer industry than the non computer private sector is.

Orszag should compare the public sector to the private sector other than computers (and accurately measure the quality of microsoftware which is low and declineing and the price charged by a monopolist is not useful in calculated hedonic price indices).

Of course, even after that adjustment, his claim remains basically valid (as quoted, with no numbers, I'd guess it would remain just plain true). I absolutely agree with you that it is time for the Federal government to invest, since if it can eithr spend now or spend later it is better to spend now.

Posted by: rjw88 | June 8, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Not for the first time, I note that it is an excellent thing that I am not in charge of any Federal Government agency. I would not be able to resist the temptation to find the 5% of spending most clearly devoted to information technology and send that to Orszag as my list of the least valuable 5%,

just as an "in your face" expression of outrage at the suggestion that my agencies budget might be cut.

Posted by: rjw88 | June 8, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

I think the case for Public Works Department Projects as like FDR did in Great Depression is straight forward there. In 21st century, those PWD projects are IT Infrastructure for Federal and State government departments.

Orszag, Congress, White House and President do not want to do that. I really feel they all are stupid here not to understand what is so plain and simple to see.

Country like India, so less developed and poor compared to USA is implementing many of these huge IT projects for public good. Nandan Nilekani - founder, the big shot after Narayan Murthi and hugely rich from Infosys - is doing some fabulous work for Indian government - the goal is to get first 110 million Indian poor on government list for food aid and all sorts of government program by giving then electronic identity. Your own newspaper ran a front story about that.

Go force these White House folks to visit Bangalore and talk with Nilekani for his great project.

Yah, anything creative and useful for Public; we do not do that in USA. We are Americans and not only we want to 'starve the beast' but we want to keep this beast in the cave while everyone else in the world zooms ahead.

I agree there is a point with these Tea Party critics. This country's Public IT system is so bogus that we cannot track expired visa and still allow terrorists in the country to effect the tragedies. At state level, one only has to look at the past CA governor Gray Davis's fiasco of Oracle for State Government.

But not that these two stalwarts of IT business - Meg Whitman & Carly Fiorina - are entering politics of CA mean we will have better IT infrastructure. They both will be caught up in the 'cutting saw' to allow any financing of any relevant IT projects.

It was Obama's job to do that. We are still waiting for the Public Works of 21st and we know that with every passing day, that is not going to happen. One more opportunity gone.

Posted by: umesh409 | June 8, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Well, with folks like Vivek Kundra as Chief Information Officer of the US, no wonder we aren't making much progress.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 8, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

IRS Modernization started approximately 1983. Is it done yet, will it ever be done, what did we get for the "billions" spent of taxpayer money. Following "best practices" then got nothing but do it overs, delays, something better coming along and ultimately never achieved improved productivity or customer service. There's more but be careful how you proceed. NEVER accept the "if it's not broken don't fix it" It's all broken.

Posted by: kidvid | June 8, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

'Kevin_Willis' you are right, after reading that report it is clear that lot is 'fishy' there.

In any case when the appointment was first declared, it did not sound impressive. So looks like that is the case indeed.

It is hard to believe that White House did not find any better candidate.

I suspect Obama went here with easy misconceptions - it is IT means there has to be some Indian to run that! I just feel like it was a bone thrown Indian community to get represented in the White House as if there are not many other competent Indian SW folks in America. Quite shameful.

I think it is the fault of Indian Community in America, including myself, who were not so careful in ensuring that Obama picks right talent here. Of course at the end of the day, it is his responsibility. Instead of 'finding asses to kick' Mr. Obama will be lot better to find right candidates to man various Fed posts.

Posted by: umesh409 | June 8, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

How much of the computing problem is to do with security concerns?

Posted by: ideallydc | June 8, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

This discussion seems to imply a unitary IT infrastructure for the federal government, when in fact there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of infrastructures.

Posted by: thehersch | June 8, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

It's hard to see how we could roll back our Word 2003. Maybe we could share computers.

Posted by: technoir | June 8, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

It's not the computers, it's the Byzantine IT bureaucracy. Why does an organization like the PTO or FBI have outdated computer systems? Because they try to follow these top down initiatives, from OMB and CIOs, that tend towards the creation of massive acquisitions and products that implement the complex bureaucratic structures of the organization. These two forces cause systems to collapse under their own gravitational pull, as powerful government program managers kill smaller efforts that threaten their temporary job, rather than provide the simple sort of integration that, say, the washingtonpost did with facebook.

Posted by: staticvars | June 9, 2010 12:42 AM | Report abuse

In other news, the sun rose in the east this morning.

Posted by: ostap666 | June 9, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

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