ARC's 1st Law: As a "progressive" online discussion grows longer, the probability of a nefarious reference to Karl Rove approaches one

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Government Innovation on Display

Excellent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal today, about the ineffectiveness of the government to solve a basic problem:


The Census Follies
May 1, 2008; Page A16

This is supposed to be the digital age, but over at the Census Bureau they're still partying like it's 1799.

The Constitution requires that the national population be counted every 10 years. This time around, the Census Bureau wanted to do things differently, ditching paper for handheld computers that Census workers could use to collect and transmit data from those who don't fill out the forms sent through the mail.
The problems first emerged in May 2007, when 1,400 handhelds were deployed for a "dress rehearsal." In the field, they proved to be slow and unreliable. The Bush Administration's official explanation is that the Census Bureau didn't get its requirements straight with the contractor, Florida-based Harris Corp. No doubt that's true – the Government Accountability Office warned all the way back in 2005 that Census did not have a good grasp of its technology needs or effective procurement. Even so, we doubt that "slow and unreliable" were part of the original specs in March 2006.

The Census Bureau decided as long ago as 2000 that handheld computers were the future, and spent four years trying to develop one in-house, with little to show for it.
Time out... even in the year 2000, who in the world would think that manufacturing your own handheld computer would be better than getting something off the shelf?

This is just idiotic!
That earlier failure led to the contract with Harris in 2006. As usual in government, no one in particular seems to be taking responsibility for the serial failures – which of course is part of the problem. There is little incentive for getting it right, because no one below the level of a political appointee ever loses a job for getting it wrong. You can even lose your job for getting it right if it means more efficiency.

In the case of the botched handhelds, the result is that the Census will now have to deploy some 600,000 temporary workers to go door to door and get the forms filled out by hand. The handhelds will still be used for "address canvassing," although even at that they can't handle more than 700 addresses at a time. For this great leap backward, taxpayers will pay $3 billion more for the census than originally estimated.

At a recent Senate Commerce hearing, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn put this in perspective: "So we're still going to pay $600, four times what the American [tax]payer should be paying, for something that can be done on a $150 BlackBerry." He added: "A $400 iPhone can do twice as much as the $600 handheld. You could buy iPhones and do all of this."

We would add that FedEx and UPS use handheld computers to track more than 22 million packages, all over the world, each and every day. Their computers work because their business depends on it. So you can know, up to the minute, when your Amazon shipment left Memphis, when it touched down in Parsippany and when it got loaded on the truck for delivery to your house. And yet the Census Bureau, with a decade to plan for it and hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, could not come up with a handheld computer to record the ages, races and addresses of those who don't respond to the mailed census survey.

We wish we could be shocked by this fiasco. But no one who's followed the IRS's decades-long failure to upgrade a computer system built in the 1960s, or the Federal Aviation Administration's reliance on vacuum tubes in the age of global positioning systems, can really pretend to be surprised.

At the Senate hearings last month, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez was all apologies. But in the end, the Census will get the extra $3 billion it now "needs" to make up for a decade-long failure to perform. As happens all too often in Washington, failure will be "punished" with more money to fix what could have been done right the first, or even second, time.

Even Harris Corp., which was given the original $600 million contract for the Census computers, will now rake in at least $1.3 billion for providing one-third as many handhelds, which will do only one-half the work originally intended. Everyone seems to agree that Harris is not to blame, but we can't imagine the company would prosper in the private sector with a similar result.

We keep hearing that the era of big government is back, and all of the presidential candidates are promising that Uncle Sam can and should do so much more for us. Here's a radical idea: Before it takes on more obligations, maybe the government should first have to show that it is capable of doing in remotely competent fashion what the Constitution has obliged it to do for some 220 years.
I for one can't wait for the new innovations in universal health care!

Many on the Left will claim that this is merely the Bush Administration failing to govern effectively. However, it should be noted that unlike of the politician and political appointees at the top, the entrenched bureaucracies actually run the ship and often ignore the strategic directions of the executive (see the Department of State as one example).

And, this story points out that the era of Big Government is alive and well under W. If this is what's pissing off the Moonbat Left - if they think that Bush is cutting too much - I can't imagine what the government will look like if they're in charge:
Hiring leaps in public sector
First-quarter gain most since 2002

By Dennis Cauchon

Federal, state and local governments are hiring new workers at the fastest pace in six years, helping offset job losses in the private sector.

Governments added 76,800 jobs in the first three months of 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

That's the biggest jump in first-quarter hiring since a boom in 2002 that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By contrast, private companies collectively shed 286,000 workers in the first three months of 2008. That job loss has led many economists to declare the country is in a recession.

Job numbers for April, out Friday, will show if the trend is continuing. Some economists say a government hiring binge could soften a recession in the short term.

"Government jobs are an important cushion for the economy when the private sector falters," says North Carolina State University economist Michael Walden.

But the job expansion could later cause financial problems for governments that are spending too much.

"More hiring has nothing to do with good government or economic policy," says economist Kenneth Brown, research director at the Rio Grande Foundation in Albuquerque. "It has everything to do with government being slow to react to economic change."

Government hiring began to boom last year around July 1, when most state and local governments started new fiscal years. Those budgets were based on forecasts established in a strong economy. In each quarter since, the total government workforce has been the most in at least six years.

State and local governments have run deficits for the last nine months, the Commerce Department reports. Tax collections went flat in the middle of 2007, but spending has continued to rise.

The USA has nearly 88,000 units of government, mostly local, that employ 22 million. Hiring has been strong at every level, from new CIA spies to preschool teachers. Some of what's happening:


Your Co-Conspirator,
ARC: St Wendeler

Comments (1)
Dan Kotman said...

Good post. It is a sad state of affairs when government has 10 years to create a plan and still can't figure out how to use computers. Talk about an obsolete way of doing business.