Saturday, January 22, 2005
The computer is no better than its program.
— E.E. Morison, Men, Machines and Modern Times
Only the most callous would refuse to sympathize with the United States government. It makes it seem more human. That’s because few of my readers have not at one time or another found themselves totally frustrated by the computer and dismayed that the machine on which they squandered hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, insists on demonstrating that it knows more than they and, what’s more, is most reluctant to share its secrets with its owner. We have now been reminded, once again, that whether one spends thousands or billions, the computer can work its black magic on its proprietor.
At the risk of repeating myself I must preface this week’s news with a reminder that it was seven years ago that the IRS confessed that it had spent more than $4 billion on what it described as a modern computer system. The joy that news brought to taxpayers (whose fondest wish is for efficient tax collection) was quickly dispelled by Arthur Gross an Assistant Commissioner of Internal Revenue who said that the system did not work in what he called “the real world.” (The notion that there is something called the “real world” and some place else where the IRS lives found ready acceptance among readers.) Mr. Gross, said that even though the systems were dysfunctional, the IRS was “wholly dependent on them” to collect the $1.4 trillion that the government needed to function. As a result, said Mr. Gross, the system would have to be scrapped. Three years later there was more disappointing news.
A report issued by the U.S. General Accounting office in 2000 disclosed “pervasive” management flaws that included hiring folks to collect our taxes who had criminal records, among whom were 138 people who had been charged with theft, assault and weapons violations prior to beginning their employment with the IRS. According to the report, in fiscal year 1999, some IRS employees enjoyed income enhancements of approximately $1 million. The enhancements were the result of self-help, which is to say the workers stole money from receipts that came in.
Responding to those disclosures and a number of other problems at the agency, Bob Wenzel, then the Deputy IRS Commissioner of Operations said that “many of the solutions to the IRS’ problems can only be found in new or enhanced automated systems” which he said would take years to bring on line. When he said years he apparently meant many years. Now there is even more distressing news. Forget about taxes and think safety. We’ve now been told that the FBI is having the same problem the IRS had. The good news that accompanied the bad is that whereas the IRS threw away more than $4 billion the FBI has only wasted $170 million on the part of the program in question. That is essentially chicken feed. According to reports the FBI is about to scrap a $170 million computer overhaul to develop a case-file system. According to the New York Times the point of the new system was to permit agents to obtain “instant access to FBI databases allowing speedier investigations and better integration of information. . . . “ The overhaul was in response to the need to improve the campaign against terrorism inspired by 9/11. The FBI says, not in so many words that the new program has been a disaster. Not that it’s given up. For a paltry $2 million it has hired an expert to see what went wrong and whether anything is salvageable. Although it’s kind of surprising that among those receiving the $170 million there was not an expert who could answer that kind of question, it’s reassuring that there is, somewhere in the world, an expert who can and the sleuths at the FBI have found him (her) and for only a couple million will have the question answered.
There have been a lot of comments from officialdom about the disclosures of the failure. Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the September 11 commission said: “It’s immensely disappointing to learn of this type of failure.” A senior F.B.I. official who for obvious reasons preferred not to be identified briefed reporters on the debacle (my word not his). He said he’d not gotten what he envisioned from the project which seems like a bit of an understatement when you’re discussing a $170 million mistake. However, he wasn’t all gloom. He went on to say that the FBI “had a better understanding of its computer needs and limitations as a result of the project. “The lesson we have learned from this $170 million” said he, “is invaluable.” Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has a somewhat different take on the whole affair. He said that the case-file system that the $170 million to produce was “a train wreck in slow motion.” He went on to suggest that: “Bringing the F.B.I.’s information technology into the 21st century should not be rocket science.” Of course not. It only spent $170 million. Rocket science as everyone knows, costs a lot more than that.