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Peter Orszag wants an upgrade

By Ed O'Keefe

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Eye Opener

Let there be no doubt: Peter Orszag has declared war on the government's computers.

"At one time, a federal worker went to the office and had access to the most cutting-edge
computer power and programs," Orszag said Tuesday. "Now, he often has more of both in a device clipped to his belt."

The White House budget director and self-professed nerd has said the same before (Maybe he'd like to reenact that classic "Office Space" printer-busting scene?) His basic argument is that government can cut costs and improve its overall performance if it becomes more tech-savvy.

Prompted by Tom Shoop (the dean of federal news reporters), Orszag further clarified his statements on Wednesday on his blog:

Even a relatively old desktop beats the pants off my Blackberry. But today you can make a very good argument that 'cutting-edge computer power and programs' may be best defined as one’s ability to use technology to interact with the world in a rapid, user-friendly way. And on my personal Blackberry, I can track the status of a shipment, buy goods and services, make travel, hotel and restaurant reservations, and collaborate with friends and colleagues – all online pretty much anytime and anywhere. These types of applications – many in the 'cloud' – are the real revolution going on today.
Such innovative uses of technology are scarce to nonexistent within the Federal Government. For example, there is no Federal government equivalent to the over 200,000 applications that have become available to iPhone users in the short time since it has been sold. This kind of rapid development and implementation of useful services is what I really mean by "computing power and programs." It’s the model the Federal government needs to adopt to improve its efficiency, effectiveness, and delivery of services to the American people.

Do you agree? Is technology the key to cutting government costs? Should the government invest more in technology?

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

Question of the Week: A recent report said theDefense Department's pay for performance system for intelligence employees is flawed and a Senate hearing on Wednesday will look at a similar system for other Pentagon workers that is being terminated. As the Obama administration considers a new performance management system for federal workers, do you think there is a role for pay for performance? E-mail your answers to and please include your full name, home town, and employer (if you're a federal worker). We may use your answers in Friday's Washington Post.

Cabinet and Staff News: Vice President Joe Biden's image has been transformed from bumbler to big blanking deal. Defense Secretary Robert Gates accuses the European Union of pushing Turkey toward the East. James Clapper's memo revealed. Ben Bernanke is a measured economic cheerleader. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen with the latest on the Gulf Coast oil spill. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has his own hand sanitizer.

GOP to FCC: You don't rule the Web: Republican appropriators slammed the agency on Wednesday for leaving Congress on the sidelines as it seeks to enforce net neutrality and more heavily regulate Internet providers.

FBI paid money in Van der Sloot sting: Officials say the work on Holloway's disappearance was revived about six weeks ago when the suspect reached out to someone close to the Alabama teenager's mother and requested $250,000 in exchange for information.

FBI probes fatal shooting at Mexican border: It was the second time in eight days that a Mexican was killed on the international border by U.S. authorities.

Feds proposing new round of immigration fee hikes: The cost of the first step toward becoming a U.S. citizen - getting a green card - may be going up, but the price to apply for full-fledged citizenship should remain the same.

GAO again slams U.S. national security agencies: Government auditors have once again excoriated U.S. homeland security and defense agencies, saying in a new report that they “do not always share relevant information with their national security partners.”

Postal Service, 'Toy Story 3' team up: Disney approached the Postal Service about teaming up for an ad last year

U.N. vote on Iran sanctions not a clear-cut win for Obama: The administration's critics say the uncertain result in the Security Council vote stems from U.S. weakness in international diplomacy, while its defenders say Obama inherited a weak hand from Bush.

Filner: VA finds problems but cannot fix them: The department is good at finding waste and inefficiency, but it should act faster to fix these problems, lawmakers said at a Wednesday congressional oversight hearing.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | June 10, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye Opener, Workplace Issues  
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Agree completely. I'm typing this on an XP machine with Office 2003. It has IE 7, which I just got. I will be refreshed in a month but IE 7 stays and they haven't yet admitted what the OS will be.

Posted by: ronjaboy | June 10, 2010 6:55 AM | Report abuse

When IRS started it's IT modernization in c. 1983, the use of "Best Practices" was critical. Can we find any agency with this example or is there a private industry that can be used. The cost and time will be huge to hit this moving target! Much like another problem our plan for IT must be an ongoing modernization with protected budgets and managed accordingly (without political mischief)

Posted by: kidvid | June 10, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse

In a way, I agree.

What the government NEEDS to do is develop a computer OS that works; implement it government-wide.

Windows (I'm using XP) has been revised ad infinitum instead of building from scratch. Nobody, not even Micro$loth, really knows how it works now, it's just patched up and another layer of plaster/paint is slapped on -- for $400 a copy.

Linux is useful, but every geek in the world adds his/her own programme and it bogs needlessly.

Apple's OS works, but Steve Jobs et al. want to make it an exclusive club — true believers only, unless you're a designer, then you can sit in the corner and throw gold when Jobs passes by.

Posted by: rmlwj1 | June 10, 2010 7:31 AM | Report abuse

So you want the latest and greatest?
Just go out and buy and Ipad. All of you personal information will soon be public domain.

Posted by: nonag | June 10, 2010 7:35 AM | Report abuse

Let's start with an upgrade to OMB's budget system - MAX. What a time-consuming, non-intuitive clunker of a system!

The fact is that improving IT isn't a new idea - the Bush Administration spent billions of wasted dollars on "Enterprise Architecture" that went no where. New IT isn't always the answer - especially when the firewalls and other security cause systems to refuse to talk to each other or to slow things down markedly.

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | June 10, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Here's how you upgrade:

Cut government salaries 10% across the board.
Lay off 25% of government workers.
Insist they work 8 hours a day.
Cut vacations to 2 weeks.
Eliminate family leave.
Make 'em pay for their health care.
Eliminate government vehicles used primarily for commuting.
Make 'em pay for their own cell phones, meals and blackberrys.
Freeze all salaries for 5 years.

Then Orszag can have the $$.

Private industry does it all the time.

Posted by: wesatch | June 10, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

I'm using IE 6 here in my agency. Nearly every time I go to a webpage, I get a message that the site no longer supports my browser. A bit old...

Posted by: matt731 | June 10, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Small point, but the Office Space baseball bat scene was of a fax machine, not a printer.

Posted by: connave | June 10, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Lets not rush the government into the cloud. Too much of what is in government computers needs to be kept away from the cloud. Whether it be the entire Social Security payment and records system, or the IRS systems or the various other systems, the data the government worker has at his fingertips, in order to do his job, is too private to allow any of it to leak out into the cloud.

After all, government computers are there to do the governments jobs, not so that government workers can browse the internet or chat with their friends.

Posted by: kamdog | June 10, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

I think Orszag is wrong in thinking that technological devices or technology can improve the work of federal agencies. It is true that technology helps in improving productivity but it also distracts us with flood of unnecessary information. Emails have a tendency to pile up without adding the the understanding or resolving the problems. It was not long ago that many companies practiced "no email" days and asked employees to talk to their colleagues in person or on phone and discuss the problem/s. Recently I also came across research on how contemporary technology is actually disabling us.

Posted by: shripadd | June 10, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Here's how you upgrade:

Cut government salaries 10% across the board.
Lay off 25% of government workers.
Insist they work 8 hours a day.
Cut vacations to 2 weeks.
Eliminate family leave.
Make 'em pay for their health care.
Eliminate government vehicles used primarily for commuting.
Make 'em pay for their own cell phones, meals and blackberrys.
Freeze all salaries for 5 years.

Then Orszag can have the $$.

Private industry does it all the time.

LOL--a little envious of goverment workers huh?

Posted by: eaglechik | June 10, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

What's not to be envious about? Absolute job security, gold-plated benefits, and no need to actually accomplish anything for the country.

Posted by: seraphina21 | June 10, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I think the federal government can't get ahead of the technology curve. Sure, a few specialized groups can afford to throw money at a problem. But the whole federal govt? That takes lots of tech-savvy program managers that can manage major tech upgrades. Not enough of them around. There are too many stories of contractors overpromising and under delivering on IT upgrades. Unless the buyer understands what they are buying, and knows how to write an enforceable contract to get it, the federal government is too likely to get more FAA modernizations that take 15 years to buy obsolete equipment. Sorry there, Mr. Orszag.

Posted by: will4567 | June 10, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

"think the federal government can't get ahead of the technology curve. Sure, a few specialized groups can afford to throw money at a problem. But the whole federal govt? That takes lots of tech-savvy program managers that can manage major tech upgrades"

Upgrading desktops and office automation software does not need "tech-savvy program managers".

Posted by: SaysEye | June 10, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Wow. The director of OMB has learned -- or has at least experienced the fact -- that the government is not as innovative, creative, or efficient as the private sector, especially when it comes to technology. I'm not sure what's more amazing: the fact that he's learned that lesson or the fact that he had to learn it in the first place.

The private sector and the public sector each have their strengths and weaknesses, and we need both of them for the country to function. And as we're seeing in the Gulf, sometimes neither has the answer.

But the idea that the government should somehow emulate the kind of creativity and innovation we see in things like the iPhone's App store is a pipe dream. Big bureaucracies are inefficient. Always have been. Always will be. Anyone who thinks that an organization like the U.S. government, or even one department or agency, can get better by acting more like a private company or by trying to adopt the things that work in the private sector and that make it so dynamic . . . never gonna happen.

That's not to say that it isn't good to want things to be better, or that someone like the OMB director shouldn't encourage federal bureaucrats to do better. But come on. I used to work in the federal government, and every bright idea anyone came up with to improve things was immediately countered by dozens of rules, regulations, and horror stories of previous failed attempts. Apathy is overwhelming. Inertia often impossible to overcome. Accountability minimal. It's like an alternative universe over there.

There are plenty of federal bureaucrats who are masters at negotiating the maze of crap and getting things done, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude for the work they do. But for every master of the game there are at least 10 other bureaucrats whose daily purpose -- whether by design or not -- is to make that maze even more complex and difficult to navigate. Add to that a Congress like ours and a new crop of political manangement every couple of years (with potentially big changeovers every 4-8 years), and it's not exactly a recipe for dynamism and innovation.

Posted by: dcpost1 | June 10, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I think that they should look at what our banks, hospitals, military, insurance agencies, and just about every other major corporation. How often do you hear about these people really getting hacked?

Then, instead of "buying" a copy of Microsoft Windows, or Norton, or whatever, you simply offer them a tax write off equal to the market value of what they gave the government.

You offer people $100,000 tax free, no questions asked, cash rewards if they can hack something, as long as they also provide how to fix it.

Then, what you do, because the main issue with "hacking" is that you don't want them to "modify" or "delete" information. So, what do you do?

You add a simple Limewire type backend file system to it. Make each government computer hold a part of it, and whenever it requests it, it has to check from some 5 random other places and compares.

Ya, I am sure it sounds difficult to many people, but you just offer a $500,000 reward to anyone who can make one, give them 2 years, and enjoy the millions of people who would work on it.

Posted by: GConely | June 11, 2010 12:20 AM | Report abuse

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