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United States Government IT Technology

Who's Controlling Our Vital Information Systems? 116

HangingChad writes "Gary Lyndaker talks about Janine Wedel's Shadow Elite; about how our information infrastructure is increasingly being sold off to the low bidder. Contracting in state and federal government is rampant, leaving more and more of our nation's vital information in the hands of contractors, many of whom have their own agenda and set of rules. From the article: 'Over 25 years, as an information systems developer, manager, and administrator in both state and private organizations, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that we are putting our state's operations at risk and compromising the trust of the people of our state by outsourcing core government functions.' I've seen the same thing in my years in government IT, ironically much of it as a contractor. My opinion is this is a dangerous trend that needs to be reversed. We're being fleeced while being put at risk."
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Who's Controlling Our Vital Information Systems?

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  • by adosch ( 1397357 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @10:17AM (#30869396)
    Unfortunately this is the way our American gov't operates: Bottom-line management style approach to everything with only the lowest budget in mind. It's really no different than people in society who try to live and act like rockstar's on a McDonald's budget. FTFA, IT, in particular, is in shambles because the mass employee attrition related to budget woes. So maybe you get the "diamond-in-the-rough" person who picked up the in's and out's of the infrastructure and singlely-handed administers the whole network themselves, you'd be ignorant to think he's going to stick any long when anything remotely better in the private sector surfaces again. Just like any place, Gov't IT creates their own single point of failure because they 1) Won't purchase what you need to succeed because they are under the esteemed impression that they pay you to come up with enterprise solutions out of thin-air, and 2) charge the gov't 1.5x the salary than they are paying the contractors to do it. You don't build tenure and stability that way, folks.
  • by wheelema ( 46997 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @10:21AM (#30869412)

    Budget strapped State/County/Municipal I.T. organizations do not employ the best and brightest and their budgeting process is simplified by off loading functionality at a constant fixed cost. It is with this in mind that outsourcing firms market services to them. Once that contract is signed... usually with language that gives the contractor significant leeway and discretion to torque their service model so as to maximize profitability... the problem is off of everyone's mind. I.T. management is free to focus elsewhere, the contractor is free to find new worlds to conquer, and no one gives a damn if the process delivers what was promised until it's too late.

    Then it's off to Court you go where only the public loses. :(

  • Hard vs. Easy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hey! ( 33014 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @10:24AM (#30869446) Homepage Journal

    Hard: building a top notch IT organization.

    Easy: paying somebody to hide the problems, firing them when the problems can't be ignored, then hiring another contractor who does exactly the same thing.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 23, 2010 @10:26AM (#30869454)

    ...without due diligence and a complete lack of knowledge of what is necessary, does that mean it's absolved of all blame when something goes wrong? If the government makes a series of stupid decisions with regard to contractors, it doesn't mean they will suddenly be able to do the work better themselves, any more than f I chose a restaurant poorly, it means I'll suddenly be able to make delicious meals at home.

    And before anyone can say "businesses are only in it for the money" -- sure, that is almost always true, but the government doesn't even have *that* incentive. Seriously, why would a government worker try to stay within a budget when they can cry for more tax revenue, and why would they bother trying something new that might work better or be cheaper when there is no reward and they have a captive audience? Government workers are not paragons of virtue compared to those in the private sector, they are the same type of people with a bigger budget and less accountability. Until you can actually sit down and list the requirements for a particular project and then align the incentives with the results you want, you are going to have crap outcomes, whether you outsource a service or bring it in-house.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 23, 2010 @10:34AM (#30869510)

    And good riddance.

    The contractors do a great job, pay well and don't leave the taxpayers on the hook for an underfunded pension plan.

    And no amount of union screaming will stop it. At the federal, state and local levels, government is INSOLVENT.

    So I expect to see more of this. And I for one welcome it.

  • An alternative (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 23, 2010 @10:38AM (#30869540)

    Firstly, the notion of hiring private companies to do something (or simply letting them continue to do it, e.g. shopworkers and car repairers) rather than a government doing the same, is a basic politlcal and philosophical question where no "proofs" as to what is best can be found. Both of the alternatives could be argued to have both advantages and disadvantages, and lead to slightly different situations. So the only thing people can do is make rather empty claims and point to empirical studies which may or may not apply universally. Which pretty much means that whoever shouts loudest to put their ideas in people's minds wins.

    Secondly, if you are inclined towards private companies filling government functions but have a problem with poor standards, the nearest solution would be to have higher standards when you judge contracts.

    Of course, higher standards leads to problems in itself. For example, if you are barring companies that haven't been in business for at least 10 years, you would in many cases basically lay the groundwork for competing monopolies (no 'new entrants' would threaten the established companies). Which may or may not be worth it.

  • by haus ( 129916 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @10:43AM (#30869572) Homepage Journal

    I have spent over a dozen years working on various federal government systems. I have seen things that would make your head spin.

    But I see no evidence that if contractors were phased of of the Missouri IT systems that things would necessarily get better. Sure the author mentions the grade of 'A' from Governing Magazine, but this is not a heavy hitting name in the IT world, I would not be surprised if a good part of this 'A' grade is because the state has been aggressive with outsourcing of IT.

    Outsourcing it s not an excuse for management to not be involved in these process. It does not matter if work is being done by employees or contractors, it must be managed, a failure to do so will lead to bad situations. What we have here appears to be an inability to manage, changing the color of the badges for those doing the work is not likely to resolve this.

  • by thetoadwarrior ( 1268702 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @10:56AM (#30869644) Homepage
    The government has always gone for the lowest bidder and then people say their stuff is shit. But if they started paying more then they'd be accused of wasting tax payer money.

    Sure there is still government waste but until people realise that the government should spend a premium for some stuff while people vote out those who just waste money.
  • by silverspringer ( 1728092 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @10:59AM (#30869670)

    The bottom line is that the operation of a country's IT infrastructure is a thankless job. There is (literally) no financial incentive to do a good job. There is almost no incentive whatsoever to do a good job; some might argue that reputation and respect are valid incentives but there's not much of that in the government IT world. Build a system where success isn't recognized and you're sure to have failure overall. Why would anyone work for no (significant) money, no respect, no long term benefits, no challenge even (it's not like government systems are cutting edge)?

    Pointing the fingers at contractors is simply extraneous information. Good teams do good work no matter who they work for.

    Fixing the problems is a non-trivial task. Hell, identifying all the problems is a non-trivial task. The only trivial task is the too common announcement of "oh my god, the world is falling, our country won't survive this apocalyptic disaster that's brewing in our infrastructure".

    The reason this crazy system works at all is that it's a distributed system. Failure in one section doesn't lead to failure in other sections. Just like most natural systems (think of the way a river flows, often in separate channels) our infrastructure adapts to problems as needed.

    It's interesting that people predict massive problems despite there never being any massive problems. For example, name a single infrastructure event that impacted the daily lives of every American. Katrina, which wiped out a big section of the country for several weeks didn't impact the Northeast, Northwest, etc. in the least (aside from non-stop news coverage). FAA flight control screw ups are probably the most significant failures and note that it's a centralized system.

    Government systems need to be operated as distributed systems, managed by many different people, because that is the primary security control protecting us from catastrophic failure. Government or contractor management has nothing to do with this, both options can do well, both can do poorly.

  • Radical idea? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 23, 2010 @10:59AM (#30869676)

    Here is a radical idea that meshes with the US Constitution: maybe the government should NOT be in all this business in the first place? Then it wouldn't be an issue.

  • by wilby ( 141905 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @11:08AM (#30869728)

    The original poster wrote- "My opinion is this is a dangerous trend that needs to be reversed. We're being fleeced while being put at risk."

    The problem is government. Government and mismanagement have gone together for at least the last 50+ years. To think that government employees would perform better than contractors is pure fantasy.

  • Re:Radical idea? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by causality ( 777677 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @11:23AM (#30869806)

    Here is a radical idea that meshes with the US Constitution

    That seems to be the definition of "radical" these days. I guess that also makes you a right-wing extremist or an anarcho-libertarian. Isn't that what they call anyone who wants a minimal federal government that derives all of its authority and purpose from a literal, strict reading of the Constitution?

  • Re:Radical idea? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by causality ( 777677 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @12:16PM (#30870120)

    I guess that also makes you a right-wing extremist or an anarcho-libertarian. Isn't that what they call anyone who wants a minimal federal government that derives all of its authority and purpose from a literal, strict reading of the Constitution?

    The Libertarians would also sell off our roads to the Chinese despite the Constitution calling for federal regulation of them, so you'll need to find some other name for people wanting a literal reading of the Constitution (like "strict constructionist")

    My whole point was that the labels were not being used correctly. You are merely reiterating my point. It sometimes surprises me that people can feel such a need to do this that the redundancy of it does not deter them.

    Having said that, it's my personal belief that the truest Libertarians were the Founding Fathers. Today's Libertarian Party as a political organization can either follow in those footsteps or it can fail to do so, but that does not concern me as an individual. Although, I personally do not know of anyone identifying themselves as Libertarian who advocates having the government take actions that are blatantly illegal under the Constitution. That would be like people who refer to themselves as (i.e.) Christian and then do things that clearly contradict the tenets of Christianity. They can say whatever they want, but they are still engaging in hypocrisy.

    If there are self-described "Libertarians" who want to sell public roads to China, they certainly do not represent all Libertarians. Most Libertarian thinkers I have ever heard from are quite the opposite; they believe many of today's problems are caused by the government exceeding its authority and engaging in behaviors that are either unconstitutional or questionably constitutional.

    Like any other philosophy that would radically and favorably alter the status quo if correctly understood and implemented, Libertarianism should be easy to understand but the waters have been muddied on purpose. There is no such confusion of terms with the statists who want an even more dictatorial government that is even more involved in the daily lives of its citizens. Libertarianism is a very simple idea: your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose. Until and unless you strike my nose, where and how you swing your fist is none of the government's concern, not even if they think they know what's best for you.

    This is not a rejection of all law enforcement or all regulation. It's a clarification of the purpose thereof. The confusion comes from the assumption that everyone who has any degree of Libertarian thought is a radical, extremist Libertarian who desires an anarco-capitalist society. The purpose of that is to cause people to dismiss the philosophy as absurd without actually examining it. Unfortunately average people won't put apparent absurdity to the test and find out if it is actual absurdity before choosing to dismiss new ideas. If you practice looking deeply into things, you will find that influential people and monied interests are keenly aware of this fact. One mechanism they use to protect their status quo is the gross misrepresentation of any ideas that would change it if implemented.

  • by 1s44c ( 552956 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @12:17PM (#30870126)

    Guess what, this is exactly how the military has been run for decades. What makes a contractor any better or worse at managing information than the government itself?

    It's not contractors you want to worry about. It's large amounts of your data ended up in India being worked on by people paid pennies. It's easy to bribe people if their monthly pay is about what you spent on lunch today.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 23, 2010 @12:34PM (#30870248)
    Regarding... Bottom-line management style approach to everything with only the lowest budget in mind.

    You're just kidding, right? I actually wish there was some truth to that but it's just patently false.

    Govt "management style" includes petty power plays to protect their little fiefdoms at all costs including inpenetrable and unaccountable bureaucracy with endless and meaningless rules. The more rules you make, the more powerful you are.

    They measure their personal success in terms of the size of their budget- it has nothing to do with what you actually accomplish. The more you spend the more important you are. And you never, never want to end the year with any budget unspent because that will present a problem in getting more budget the next year. To extend your power the goal is to ask for way more budget than you could possible need then add some to that. Appearances of holding down costs are made as some of the budget requests are cut but the game has been played and the end result is anything but cost conscious.

    In choosing the winning bid the contractor with the highest bid often wins. This is because they are with the in crowd having developed a reputation with govt bureaucrats. The bureaucrats are not interested in cost but in the safest, least risky route where they protect their power by doing business with a known quantity like contractors they've worked with before. If things go bad the bureaucrats protect themselves with finger pointing and the contractors are impersonal and handy. But if the sly contractor accepts the finger pointing and actually helps his client politically, he'll be on track to win future bids. The contractors learn to game the system and become experts by learning how to craft winning bids. Crafting winning bids becomes more important than performing on contracts won. One strategy is to make a lot of high bids knowing you will lose many but one will pass. Sometimes the contractors actually get busy with contracts won but they are still asked to put in a bid on a bureaucrat's meaningless pet project anyway. Since they are already busy they just submit an outrageously high bid in an effort to lose the bid so they don't get overextended... Then they actually win it. That's when the contractor hires a bunch of inexperienced people and starts throwing warm bodies at and ever increasing and unmanageable bunch of projects.

    I know this from personal experience having learned how to game the system. I made a lot of money with winning IT bids and networkings with other contractors, comparing notes and laughing at and ridiculing our govt clients. This experience goes way back to when I was a teenager working for my Dad who was a construction contractor. I particularly remember one govt contract to put a roof on a 2 car garage. We were given a printed manual explaining how to do the job that was over 100 pages. The man hours spent to prepare this manual were obviously greater than the man hours to actually do the job. We were told to use this tapered, specially machined insulation which served no practicle purpose but was incredibly expensive. For the gravel on top of the roof we were forced to use expensive indoor flowerpot gravel instead of the typical industrial roofing gravel. It was great for me as a teenager because the govt required that my Dad pay me and all unskilled labor an outrageously high hourly rate way more than would even be paid to a journeyman carpenter in the real world. Curiously the journeyman rates were only a dollar an hour more. Probably had something to do with supporting a political agenda to redistribute the wealth to unionized labor like the "workers of the world unite" slogan from SIEU and the failed Soviet system.

    After a few years of this my moral conscious finally kicked in to rescue my soul so I got out of the govt contract system. Now I make less but I live better.
  • by haus ( 129916 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @01:03PM (#30870476) Homepage Journal

    Seriously, right now we are spending record peacetime levels on defense...

    Peacetime??? We have admitted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This does not count the military efforts in Pakistan and Yeman. This is far from any definition of Peacetime.

    Unfortunately it seems that a vast amount of our military spending is for equipment not well suited for the types of demands that we have placed upon or military.

  • Re:Radical idea? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by raddan ( 519638 ) * on Saturday January 23, 2010 @01:19PM (#30870610)
    Like any good programmer, I myself have Libertarian learnings. I mean-- who doesn't like the idea that a simple and elegant system of governance will produce the best outcome? It's a principle that has served me well in my years of building reliable software.

    But there are a couple blind spots in the Libertarian philosophy. One is that, even in cases where government intervention is undesirable, merely having their presence ads a great deal of stability. E.g., fundamental science research would be largely stagnant without organizations such as the NSF, NIH, NIST, and NASA (among many others). Becoming an expert (i.e., PhD) in something like physics or computer science takes a great deal of time and personal sacrifice. Making it risky as well would largely kill those fields; and having experts of that kind are a matter of national importance. These organizations keep the flow of money steady so that, for the most part, when you get your degree, you can find employment. Likewise, we really want a stable, enduring organization to ensure that we have roads, bridges, railways, etc. The presence and overall reliability of these things means that commerce can move ahead unimpeded. The cost of maintaining, e.g., the route from California's orchards to Massachusetts' supermarkets is largely externalized from the cost of growing and selling produce.

    And that brings me to the other blind spot: global competition. Sadly, we cannot be a nation unto itself anymore. We are a player in a global marketplace-- there's no going back. When you have to compete against nations like China, which artificially manipulates its currency value to stay competitive, which engages in human rights abuses to keep labor costs low, which ignores costly pollution controls (at the expense of the rest of the world) to keep their products cheap-- you cannot compete unless you have a big player that can even the odds a little. Modern statehood is a very complicated thing, and I think that most Libertarians really are living in the past to some degree, evidenced largely by their frequent calls to "Constitutionality". Hey, the world's changed in the last 230 years! It's a good document, but it was also expected to be a living document.

    As you suggest, we should indeed clarify the purpose of regulation. E.g., as we've now discovered, the Glass-Steagall act was an essential bit of market regulation-- it kept the markets from being so volatile that people lost their trust in the system. If putting your money into a bank is the same thing as putting your money on a gambling table, well, you're going to put your money under your mattress instead. Given that a safe lending system is a major source of entrepreneurship and upward mobility, having lending dry up is a major problem for an economy that wants to keep growing. We just need to make sure that "re-examining" our legislation is not the same thing as throwing it all out. I'd gladly switch to a simple flat tax if there was some assurance that wealthy people and corporations actually paid up. As it is, those people and their companies use the national infrastructure that is paid for with the hard work of the rest of us.
  • Re:Radical idea? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by causality ( 777677 ) on Saturday January 23, 2010 @03:38PM (#30871774)
    My own beliefs are also strongly influenced by Libertarian philosophy, though I am not inclined to derive any aspect of my identity from simplistic labels. Thus, I don't call myself a Libertarian because I reserve the right to differ from their stated positions.

    I recognize three roles that are legitimate purposes of government. Any legitimate authority government has derives from its service of these three things: defense, law enforcement, and public works. Anything else is an overextension and is likely to be blatant tyranny.

    Defense consists of the just use of the military to offer armed resistance to national enemies. I strongly agree with Thomas Paine who said "not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder". An example of the legitimate use of defense would be a foreign army aggressively invading Ameican soil. I don't personally recognize as valid the use of flimsy excuses to justify the use of force to interfere with other sovereign nations.

    The correct purpose of law enforcement is to prevent one citizen from using force or fraud to deprive any other citizens of their life, their freedom, or their property. It is not valid to use this power to micromanage the lives of people based on some idea of what's good for them. That includes the carrot-and-stick methods of income taxation. I believe that consenting adults should be allowed to do whatever they want, so long as their actions do not impact unwilling participants. So if someone wants to sit at home and smoke crack all day, that is unfortunate and I hope they obtain a higher concept of themselves, but it is not my job to tell them how they should live. However, if they rob other people to pay for their crack habit the government has an obligation to lock them up because they are using force to deprive another person of property. The reason why they did so is immaterial.

    Public works usually includes things like roads and bridges. I have no problem with this also including the funding of scientific research, because everyone benefits from those advances just like everyone benefits from well-maintained roads. Additionally, much "pure research" is not expected to generate a profit in the foreseeable future so by its very nature it would not do well in the marketplace.

    Wealthy people and corporations do not pay up much under the current "progressive" income tax system. The real private wealth in this country is largely held by old-money families. It is inherited and it is invested and otherwise it is unearned income. There are many methods of avoiding even the capital gains tax. The only reason to have an income tax is because it lets you use carrot-and-stick methods to financially reward and punish certain behaviors in order to manipulate people. Otherwise, an income tax is the least efficient and most easily cheated form of taxation in existence.

    Corporations do not really pay taxes. Yes, they have a tax rate and yes they send a check to the government to pay that tax. But they rightly consider taxes as a cost of doing business, and as such, it is one factor determining how much they charge for goods and services. If you raise the corporate income tax, the corporation will charge more to its customers to compensate. Its competitors will have to absorb the same cost so competition will not eliminate this. When you pay for goods, about 22% of what you pay is a hidden, embedded cost that comes directly from the income tax on the corporation. For services, it's slightly higher. Corporations don't pay taxes so much as they pass them on and act as collection agents for the government.

    The Fair Tax would throw out the income tax entirely, eliminate the IRS, and replace them with a national sales tax. This sales tax has a built-in rebate to guarantee it does not apply to the basic necessities of life, reducing its impact on poor people. As a consumption tax, it does not punish the earning of
  • Re:Radical idea? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by GameboyRMH ( 1153867 ) <> on Saturday January 23, 2010 @06:08PM (#30873010) Journal

    Great post! I can totally agree, although I wouldn't call myself a libertarian (and a lot of libertarians wouldn't call you a libertarian).

    Like any good programmer, I myself have Libertarian learnings. I mean-- who doesn't like the idea that a simple and elegant system of governance will produce the best outcome?

    It's just too bad that you started it off by equating people with code :-\

    I nearly stopped reading there.

Where it is a duty to worship the sun it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat. -- Christopher Morley