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Glitch in the System

For where’s the state beneath the firmament
That doth excel the bees for government.

Guillaume de Salluste, Divine Weeks and Works [1578]

It’s a comfort to the older generation, that neither twitters nor texts and computes only with difficulty, to be reminded that the federal government has no greater success with the technology than they. We were reminded of it again when the Washington Post reported that Arlington National Cemetery was having trouble keeping track of who was buried where or whether folks were buried at all and, thanks to the poor record keeping, at least four funeral urns had been dug up and thrown away. Although there were many reasons for the problems at the cemetery, part of the blame lay with inadequate computer technology on which cemetery officials had spent more than $5 million for computer upgrades that did not upgrade the cemetery’s record keeping ability. That brought to mind other computer misadventures in the federal government which offer comfort to those who, like the government, find themselves bested by the computer at every turn.

Back in 1997 we learned that the IRS had spent more than $4 billion on what was described as a modern computer system. Arthur Goss, then an assistant Commissioner of Internal Revenue was disappointed in the results and said the system did not work in what he called “the real world.” (As I observed when writing about that some years ago, the notion that there is something called the “real world” and some place else where the IRS lives found ready acceptance among readers.) Mr. Goss went on to say that even though the system would have to be scrapped, the IRS was nonetheless “wholly dependent on them” to collect the $1.4 trillion the government needed to function. In 2000 Charles Rossotti issued what was called “Progress Report IRS Business Systems Modernization Program, the front page of which was a picture

of 36 people laughing and smiling. (The people on the front cover were , presumably IRS employees enthused at how the new system would enhance tax collection since it is unlikely that a randomly selected group of taxpayers would have seemed so happy at the prospect of improved tax collection. In his introduction to the report, Charles Rossotti, the Commissioner of the IRS said that in the following year the project would deliver “real business results” and the program would “continue to mature as we gain experience.” It was to be a slow maturation. In January 2010 the Government Accountability Office said a part of the program that had by then cost $400 million and was supposed to be completed by 2012 would not be fully completed until somewhere between 2018 and 2028. The IRS is not alone in its problems. The FBI, too, has computer problems.

In 2004 it was disclosed since 9/11 the FBI had spent $170 million to improve its system to enable agents to obtain “instant access to FBI databases allowing speedier investigations and better integration of information. . . . “ The system did not live up to expectations and the FBI spent another $2 million to hire an expert to see whether the system could be salvaged. In 2006 the FBI awarded Lockheed Martin the Sentinel information technology contract. According to recent reports, the system has improved the FBI’s e-mail and data base searching but is not running as hoped in other areas. Cost overruns of almost $30 million have been incurred and the project that was to be completed in September of this year is now destined to be completed in 2011. The Secret Service has problems as well.

According to an ABC News report earlier this year, a classified review of that agency’s computers disclosed that the agency’s computers were “fully operational” only 60 percent of the time. Its databases are outdated. According to Joseph Liebermann, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, 60 percent operational capability is worse than “industry and government standards that are around 98 percent generally.” Senator Liebermann said the computer mainframe dates back to the 1980s, a period that probably precedes the time even the most unsophisticated of my readers purchased their most recent computers. It will reportedly cost $187 million to fully update the system. To date the Department of Homeland Security has allocated $33 million and requested an additional $69 million in the most recent budget request. At that rate within a year or two the agency will have a completely up to date system at its disposal. In the meantime it probably spends a lot of time hoping that nothing bad happens.

As I said at the outset, we can all take comfort in the fact that it seems to be as hard for the federal government to keep current in the world of technology as it does the rest of us. It is, however, more of a surprise than a reassurance.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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