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Eye Opener: Are old computers slowing down feds?

By Ed O'Keefe

Eye Opener

Happy Friday! Almost one year into the Obama administration and officials seem to have figured out what's wrong with the government: technology.

“Improving the technology our government uses isn’t about having the fanciest bells and whistles on our Web sites -- it’s about how we use the American people’s hard-earned tax dollars to make government work better for them," President Obama said on Thursday at a forum for business and government leaders about modernizing the government.

Obama called federal employees "some of the hardest-working, most dedicated, most competent people I know."

"But all too often, their best efforts are thwarted because the technological revolution that has transformed our society over the past two decades has yet to reach many parts of our government," he added. "Many of these folks will tell you that their kids have better technology in their backpacks and in their bedrooms than they have at the desks at their work."

Obama got an Amen from Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag: “Twenty years ago, people who came to work in the federal government had better technology at work than at home. Now that’s no longer the case."

“The American people deserve better service from their government, and better return for their tax dollars," Orszag said.

Even Orszag's deputy, Jeffrey Zients, echoed those sentiments before the event, calling the public and private tech gap "one of the biggest barriers to efficiency and better customer service to the American people."

"If a company had these antiquated systems, they would have been out of business long ago," Zients said.

Beyond bad technology, business and government leaders discussed streamlining government operations, and some CEOs suggested forcing accountability on federal workers or paying bonuses to government workers.

The government is "extraordinarily constrained" in its ability to offer raises or fire poor performers, said Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel B. Poneman.

In response, Peter Darbee of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. suggested that public workers need to "find a catalyst." He suggested that for federal workers it might be that they're frustrated, "because they're not getting anything done," according to a pool report of the meeting.

Bill McComb of the Liz Claiborne Co. said government departments that save taxpayer money should see those funds go into "a bonus pool."

But White House Cabinet Secretary Christopher P. Lu reminded attendees that the government doesn't provide incentives to agencies that save money.

"The result of saving money is next year, your appropriations go down," Lu said.

Plenty of heavy stuff for top officials to consider, and OMB promised to issue a report on modernization efforts in the near future. Stay tuned.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

Cabinet and Staff News: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton versus Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) on USAID funding. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates headed to Pakistan. Mrs. Obama's chief of staff huddles with her Bush-era predecessors. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke defends the Fed's oversight role. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke travels to Alaska today for trade and Census meetings. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar makes it clear he's staying put. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood discusses consequences for feds who text and drive.

$133 million ad campaign promotes census participation: Some ads will be featured on high-viewership television shows such as the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday and the Super Bowl in early February. But more than half of the budget will go to media outlets that target groups undercounted in previous censuses.

Pentagon steps up talks on ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’: The discussions, centered in a small group assembled by Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are in preparation for a possible Senate hearing on the 1993 law this month.

Perry turns down national education funds: The Texas governor is not applying for up to $700 million in federal stimulus dollars for his state’s education fund.

Judge orders FDA to stop blocking imports of E-Cigarettes from China: A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit brought by two distributors of the so-called e-cigarettes, which are battery-powered tubes that heat liquid nicotine into an inhalable vapor and are meant to simulate the taste of tobacco.

Governments’ go-to vendors get it done: Amid her homemade pickles and jams, Nicole Corey keeps New York City agencies and those of its neighbors supplied with flock-lined latex gloves, safety vests, watches and disposable smocks. Inmates need new open-toe socks? Done. Just $3.65 a dozen.

Possibility of plots prompts more checks for explosives at airports: DHS moved to increase random checks for explosives at American airports after officials cited a heightened concern over possible terror plots against the aviation system.

Panel told of FBI efforts to fight financial crime: The need for tighter federal regulation was the dominant message sent on Thursday to the panel established by Congress to examine the causes of the financial crisis.

First Lady Michelle Obama visits Labor Department: She talks Haiti, shows off her new hairdo and reads to children.

Consumer Protection Agency in doubt: Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd is considering scrapping the idea of creating such an agency.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | January 15, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye Opener  
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Over 20 years ago the Government sought to improve its technology position through the Grace Commission, a panel composed of private sector professionals. They found,among other things, that the procurement system created many of the problems. Procurement focused on hardware costs, rather than the lowest total overall cost, which should include hardware,software, value to the Govt., etc. It took so long to procure that the technology was automatically outdated by the time it was actually installed. Benefits were lost for years because of the slugish system of procurement. The GSA and the Government Operations Comm. were the chief culprits, and I suspect there are similar problems today, twenty years later. Agencies should be given the latitude to procure what they need, with minimum outside interference.

Posted by: clockerby | January 15, 2010 6:58 AM | Report abuse

They also fail to realize that technology ages in dog years
At work we have XP and Office 2003, that's how far behind we are. And I suspect we're better off than most.

Posted by: ronjaboy | January 15, 2010 7:31 AM | Report abuse

With regard to Mr. Daniel B. Poneman's observation, I could not agree more. The Federal Government is a haven for managers who are at much better at playing political games, and thus rising within their respective agencies' hierarchies, than they are at performing the agencies' missions. (Not all, of course; there are many good managers, to be sure.)

And once these power-hungry managers reach the upper levels, it is Impossible to get rid of them. This must be changed. This is especially true of political appointees of the George W. Bush administration who, after actively working to sabotage some agencies' missions (e.g. EPA or OSHA) and have now burrowed into the upmost levels of the civil service. Congress or the President must remedy this, otherwise any technological improvements will not amount to much.

Posted by: alanbreckstewart | January 15, 2010 7:37 AM | Report abuse

Stupid pronouncements about complex problems.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 15, 2010 7:41 AM | Report abuse

Obummer wants control of car companies, banks and now, computers. Imagine what these "slow computers" are going to do for "Health Care Reform."

New computers? If these folks are talking PC's, that isn't the choke-point. How many 8088, 286, 386, 486sx, 486, Pent I, II's are out there? Give me a break. The next thing Obummer will declare is that he demands that an "Alienware" machine be placed on every desk. Since Brian Krebs isn't around to explain, "Alienware" computers are high-end, gaming computers known for their processing and graphics capabilities.

I guess the Obummer staff needs to play Doom or Sim City to figure out how to manage government.

Did you ever think that maybe it's:

1. The people? Untrained idiots are the usual choke-point.

2. Outdated applications? I doubt anybody is running DOS-based programs on a regular basis, but since the push and reliance for COTS (commercial-off-the-shelf software), instead fo specialized programs and applications, the risk of the choke-point rises.

3. Do you really need that new application? For a majority of government work, MS Office 2003 works just fine. Why spend more money?

4. Ever hear of something called "servers."

All I know is, now is the time to buy stock in H/P and Dell.

Posted by: Computer_Forensics_Expert_Computer_Expert_Witness | January 15, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Same here, Ronjaboy, XP (only last year!) and Office 2003. We're lucky, though--another agency we deal with is still on Office 2000.

Posted by: ah___ | January 15, 2010 8:05 AM | Report abuse

To have anyone from OMB criticizing workforce efficiency is a joke. OMB's job is to assure adherence to policy and regulation, not to help improve efficiency. The only other factor that is more influential in assuring inefficiency is congress. As a 20 civil servant I know that the quickest way to get fired or into trouble is to not spend money that a congressman has had earmarked for his home district, no matter how wasteful it is.

Posted by: crete | January 15, 2010 8:07 AM | Report abuse

A comment about government agencies not having an incentive to spend less than budgeted: The ideas for each program and the estimate of funds to support it originate in the agency. Congress then assumes that the agency proposing the program and cost knows those things better than anyone else and approves the program and funding to carry out the program fully.

If those funds are not fully spent, it means that either (a) the agency is thwarting the will of Congress and therefore of the people or (b) they did a terrible job of planning and estimating. In either case the agency should be penalized in some way to make sure neither of those outcomes occurs again. If Congress voted $100 million for a program to feed hungry and impoverished school children, would you like it if a career Federal civil servant decided she would give that money only to states which voted for the President? Or only those states east of the Mississippi?

Of course, there are many cases where Congress abuses this philosophy, especially with its earmarks. But even with that abuse I'd rather have Federal civil servants sticking to the letter of the law than to inject their own personal preferences into the execution of a program.

Posted by: MrBethesda | January 15, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

OMB is THE REASON work has slowed down in my office... they mandated certain across the board specs including removing admin rights from users, took away our up to date, fast laptop/docking stations, and replaced them with MUCH slower computers that result in my wasting approx. 1 hour per pay period for the sloth to boot up & shut down, thus adding to the cost of the new, slower equipment.

That doesn't even include the slow operating response, horrible tech support and service as opposed to our own good in-house support we had until this mandate was imposed.

Posted by: fendertweed | January 15, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

The farther away you are from the problems, the easier the fixes appear to be. Also, a comparison of federal agencies with the private sector should take into account differences in mission, customer base, legal environment, and required stability/sustainability. In my view, it would not hurt if a Federal entrance exam was broadly re-instated for CS applicants.

Posted by: steveandjanereed1 | January 15, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Openoffice would cut costs and be more current than Office 2003.

Posted by: bharshaw | January 15, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

"Obama called federal employees "some of the hardest-working, most dedicated, most competent people I know."
Wow! apparently he doesn't get out very much.
This could be true IF Federal workers were held accountable for their everyday actions...they are not. Just try firing one of them and you'll see. The entire performance evaluation system is a joke, and many supervisors find it easier to let someone languish in their office doing nothing, than try to give factual quarterly appraisals to slackers and face the wrath of the union.

Posted by: nonag | January 15, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Federal employees, stop whining for new toys!

I work at an elite corporate law boutique in New York, and we still have XP and Office 2003, as do most of the people I interact with. (It is rare for me ever to receive an Office 2007 document.) Many IP administrators, including ours, were reluctant to deploy Vista and didn't think 2007 added much, so that's where much of the private sector has stayed.

And to think I'd been wishing I could get a Federal job merely because it would pay more (without even counting benefits) and be 100% more stable than working at a law firm. Now I see that I'd probably get a better tricked-out computer, too.

Posted by: Itzajob | January 15, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

What is it that XP and Office 2003 can't do such that an upgrade is needed?

On the more recent machines, they should quite relatively fast.

Posted by: edlharris | January 15, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I think this is an interesting issue, but may be slightly mischaracterized. I'm a fed, and my computer is a couple years old, but basically ok, so I don't need a new machine. The problem I think comes with the contracting process and software. Our e-mail systems runs less efficiently than G-mail and is much more error prone. Also, as a rule the government doesn't do a good job with technology parojects (the FBIs case management system, unreliable grants systems, the recent census debacle come to mind). I think we need more technology knowhow in goverment offices. It doesn't help that we have an older workforce that isn't very technology savvy. Also this isn't a partisan issue, things ran badly under Bush and continue to be suboptimal under Obama. The problem is structural. I don't think it is even about money, as much as about using existing resources to better effect.

Posted by: poppycock | January 15, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Some of the commenters here assume that this article is simply about Windows and Office. The Government has very large antiquated information processing systems that need transformation. They aren't simply asking for "new toys" as one commenter put it. The solution is beyond upgrading to Windows 7 and Office 2007. If it were that simple, it would have been done already. The use of WinXP and Office 2003 is not of concern. The backbone of the information processing and storage solutions at various agencies needs to be addressed. That is where the government is behind.

Posted by: SteveB5 | January 15, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

I pointed out to the Gore Reinventing Government Task Force in the 1990s that there were no incentives for Gov Execs NOT to spend except for their internal conscience. In fact, they would catch Hell from all above if they didn't spend all they were appropriated. I proposed that much could be saved if these execs were awarded bonuses of up to 1% of the amounts they underspent while STILL accomplishing the appropriation objectives. Of course, nothing came of this -- it might actually work. I have recently proposed the same to my new Congresswoman and now the Dept of Energy Secretary and Budget Director have discovered that an incentive system is needed. Chance of something actually coming out of this? -- pretty low.

Posted by: jdrd58 | January 15, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Old feds are a bigger problem than old computers.

Retire all the federal fossils hired in the 1970s, make it as easy as in the private sector to fire every fed hired since.

And behold how fed productivity will skyrocket!

Posted by: DagnyT | January 15, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

One of the posters mentioned that part of the problem that the Feds have is what some call "antiquated weird iron".

It's true, some agencies are in the same position as Montgomery County MD was in when their traffic signal control system failed. It ran just fine for 50 years and then when it started to fall apart, any replacement parts had to be fabricated by hand from component scrounged from eBay.

One of the main reasons that the Space Shuttle program has to be scrapped is that no replacment parts are available for the late-1970s/early-1980s computers that are the onboard backbone of flight operations. So much is dependent on signal timing that new replacements can't be made to work; they run too fast. So a venerable and versatile spaceframe has to be scrapped as a program. Engineers use this to teach Epic Fail to engineering students.

Some of the jobs the Federal government do require really immense processing capacity, and the data and results ar growing at an ever increasing rate. Just adding storage in some systems takes all of the time and money needed to design and buy replacement systems, and replacements need to be tested and too frequently the proposed replacements are unworkable, and thus we've still got agencies that rely on 30-year-old Cray supercomputers. Beowulf Clusters can pick up a lot of the slack but they have their limitations.

Part of the problem is reliance on contracting, and the government needs to develop a lot more in-house talent and keep it on board.

Posted by: thardman | January 15, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

As usual, the only commenters who know what they're talking about are the federal employees. The rest just make typical ad hominem attacks and repeat the Reagan era cliches about feds.

My science-based agency lacks server capacity, and our ability to save email messages and attachments is severely restricted. Yet those messages are considered official govt. documents and provide useful background on policy decisions. We try to be paperless, but can't even store information electronically!

This agency has a well-deserved good reputation for working well and efficiently. Congress pays us for that efficiency by flat lining the budget for the last 3+ years. We don't have funds to replace or upgrade computers. My laptop has been limping along for over a year with a dead battery - it can only be used when plugged in. Our IT staff told me if it dies, I get a smaller, older, heavier laptop (think 5+ years old, since this one is at least 4 yrs) because we don't have money for new ones.

Some weeks we lose hours of time from network crashes, overloaded servers, and database glitches that the contractor can't seem to correct.

Windows XP is fine. A computer that freezes constantly just working in a Word document is not fine.

Posted by: thingsfallapart | January 15, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Tubes and wires in FAA control towers.

SSA computers running Windows 98.

The Feds storing criminal info in Syquest drives.

The Department of Justice using WordPerfect.

Someone needs AClue 2.0.

Posted by: bs2004 | January 15, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Anyone who has never been in the military knows nothing about the military. Anyone who has never worked for the feds knows nothing about working for the feds. Same goes for a large corporation.

There is only so much money. Money goes in at the top and is handed down as they see fit. The farther you are from the top, the less there is. So, at worker lever you will get a pc purchased on govt contract two years ago, and be thankful. It will be set up so that you cannot change anything. Even though you are required by law to keep and maintain records, you will have negligible server storage space. This is not because it costs a lot of money. It does not. It is because the IT folks don’t want to manage it, and they can’t manage it, and they can’t keep it running, and their equipment and software does not work as advertised, and, more importantly, it takes too long to backup.

Meanwhile, the boss, who has to have help turning on the pc, and barely knows how to do email, will have a real and new pc. They call it LIFE! Actually, the boss may not even use the pc.

You will be in a space 6x8 and will be able to shake hands with the person to the left and right and behind. You will be able to enjoy their conversations and etc. It is called LIFE!

Real story. My pc would drop off the network. Over a period of about six months, they replaced everything in the pc except the HD. They even had the real IT experts come out of their cave and investigate. They had the major corporation which sold us the pc do the work on the pc. Meanwhile, I am required to complete all work. Finally, the local IT guy comes in with an Ethernet cable and says, the only thing I can think of is to replace the cable going from your pc to the wall. He replaces it, problem solved. THEY CALL IT LIFE! Oh, and they call it Murphy life and working for the gummit. Gosh I miss it.

Posted by: pervleft | January 15, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Part of the problem is reliance on contracting, and the government needs to develop a lot more in-house talent and keep it on board.

Posted by: thardman | January 15, 2010 11:59 AM
The government has been neutered for 8 years by the previous administration that did not believe in government or government employees. Contractors to review the work of contractors.

Building expertise in computer technology takes a great deal of will and so far the new administration appears only willing to carry on as business as usual.

By the way private companies have real problems also in computer technology and this is why there is always the search for the silver bullet that will fix everything.

Since the Computer Sciences are now dead in this country with no American willing to enroll in these courses and find themselves without a job there is not much hope for the future. In 2000 the US led in computer technology. Now it is the other nations that understood that it is talented individuals that allows for the computer technology and not simply the latest software release. Software to indicate problems in networks are useless without individuals who understand how to use the software to determine the problem.

Posted by: bsallamack | January 15, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

bsallamack: "The government has been neutered for 8 years by the previous administration that did not believe in government or government employees. Contractors to review the work of contractors."

It's been a lot longer than that - Clinton and (especially) Gore were STRONGLY in favor of contracting everything out.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | January 15, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

MrBethesda: "If those funds are not fully spent, it means that either (a) the agency is thwarting the will of Congress and therefore of the people or (b) they did a terrible job of planning and estimating. In either case the agency should be penalized in some way to make sure neither of those outcomes occurs again."

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Budget estimation begins two years ahead of time - people (Gov't and contractors) are working on early versions of the FY2012 budget now. (Don't worry; large corporations work the same way; you have to.) So, based on today's technology, suppose that I come up with an estimate of $100 million dollars to do something that everybody wants done. But technology improves so that, in 2012, I can get it done for $80 million. Maybe it's a case of some new whizbang Internet application; maybe the price of gasoline has gone down so the mileage rate is lower. The bottom line is that the BEST estimate in the world in 2010 is $100 million, but by the time comes to implement in 2012 it can be done for $80 million. The problem is that there are too many people like MrBethesda - if I can do it better, cheaper, then all that means is that I'm a lousy estimator and need to be "punished." So it's in my best interests to make it cost $100 million - I look good to Congress, to my management, and to idiots like MrBethesda.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | January 15, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

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