Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why Government Tech Sux, and Why the Government Doesn't Get Technology

Coming out of the long holiday weekend, I've just got a short post tonight drawing attention to an interesting article on Techdirt, which describes a problem I face every day in my government job:
There's been lots of talk in the past few months about the sheer ignorance of those in goverment on technology issues -- in some cases where elected officials are gleefully, willfully ignorant. Some of them are just out of touch (or old, old-fashioned and have no desire to be in touch). Others, however, do seem to want to keep up on the latest technology. But there's a problem there. The technology the government gives them is so out of date, in many cases they don't understand the technology because they don't know the technology. Now, to be fair, there actually are some government staffers who are really clued in, and who understand all of this stuff deeply. In fact, I recently met some federal government IT staffers, who were quite well informed. But those tend to be the kind of "tech native" folks who would follow technology no matter what, even if their jobs didn't depend on it. Those are the tech natives, the early adopters, etc. 

But the problem is in the much larger group outside of the "tech native" people. It's in the group of folks who want to know about and understand technology, but don't follow it closely. And the big problem here is that the government makes it exceedingly difficult to get new technology in front of these people. Clay Johnson recently had a great post about how this became clear, quite graphically, among techies in the federal government. They'd have two computers on their desks -- an ancient one that the government gave them (with a screensaver showing, because it wasn't actually being used) and a late model Macbook... that they had bought personally to bring into the office to actually do some work. He found out that just the process of buying an official new computer through the government procurement system required at least an 18-month wait.
I have the same problem. A large portion of my job involves analyzing huge, complex data sets - 100GB+ data sets with hundred of millions or billions of records, and to accomplish this task, the government hands me .... a standard issue Dell Latitude E6410.

Dear government: there's a reason that the private sector builds computers costing several $10,000s or even millions to do the kind of analyses that you're asking me to do on an entry-level laptop. Even when I can coax my Dell E6410 into running that kind of analysis (and sometimes I can't, so a requested analysis just doesn't get done), it takes several hours or even days to run such an analysis, during which the Dell cannot be used to do any other task, even something as simple as checking email.

So, similarly to the employees mentioned in the Techdirt article, my work-around is to run most of my actual analysis on my telework days, when I have access to my rather speedy desktop computer, which can run these analyses 30-50 times faster than my government-issued laptop. I'm probably breaking a few IT policies by doing so, but by refusing to buy me the equipment I need to do my job, the government has given me a difficult choice:
  1. Do all my work on my government laptop and waste EPIC amounts of my time. As a highly trained and skilled financial, statistical, and economic analyst, my time is not cheap, and wasting epic amounts of my time translates directly into wasting epic amounts of taxpayer money.
  2. Do as much of my actual number crunching on my personal desktop computer as possible. I can't work as efficiently as I'd like; I'm causing wear on my personal property in service to the government that I'm not being compensated for; and I'm probably breaking several IT policies - but at least I'm getting the work done in as financially responsible a manner as possible, and it prevents me from ripping my hair out in frustration.
Given the choice between these 2 crappy options, I chose door #2.

But, what if I weren't kind enough to donate my personal resources to the government, or, more likely, didn't have a super-fast desktop computer available to run these analyses on?

The government would be wasting tons of money paying me to sit around waiting for my computer to finish running analyses - money that it could stop wasting simply by paying $3-4,000 for a halfway decent computer to run the kinds of analyses I am required to do as part of my job.

That investment would pay for itself in less than 2 months, because of all the money the government would save in the form of my time.

And I have several coworkers who are all in the same situation - but none of them have fast desktop computers to use instead of their government-issued laptops, and/or they don't telework.

Sigh. Government procurement, especially with tech - always penny-wise, pound-foolish.


  1. The government really needs a way to buy one computer. IT procurement seems to be in the hands of people who think it's better to buy a thousand systems at a time. If you screw up a thousand-computer purchase, your career is ruined, so let's take a year to get it right. They missed the idea that different people are doing different things, and ought to have different machines, so let's buy one now, and see how it works out.

    1. Joe,

      Ah, if only it could be done, but in spite of all the myths about government spending and waste, it's almost impossible to get ANYTHING purchased by the government for the direct use of its employees.

      Unfortunately, the solution in my agency is that we often pay outside contractors to run analyses for us - which costs 2-10x as much as it would cost to run in-house - simply because we have no budget for equipment or personnel. But, money spent on contractors doesn't count as "overhead" like spending money on equipment or personnel does, so it makes the organization look lean and efficient on paper, though in reality it's wasting huge sums of money and generating vast inefficiencies.

      If the ideas about cutting government staff continue to gain traction, it's only going to get worse - more outsourcing, more bloated contractor billing, fewer (but more frustrated) government employees, and worse value and service to the American people. And then the people who passed the cuts will look around and blame the few remaining government employees for the problems they created.

      Sigh ... I don't know how long I'm gonna make it in this ridiculous system.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat

  2. My favorite note here was walking by the logisitics office and seeing a pile of printer cartridges...11 boxes, 9 different types, all HP. I know what the different offices do, and only one or two printers in the building have anything approaching specialized printing. The large map printer uses a different technology, so there is no reason we couldn't all use one or two different models.

    Heck< if people are worried about the start-up costs...all the printers are inventoried, simply look at the lists and exchange printers between facilities to match up demand. Simply reducing the demand to have an inventory of a number of different models...and being able to order a large quantity of a single type...would save quite a bit...but it'll never happen.