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Beefing Over IT

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So, Megan McArdle threw down yesterday, asking readers why government information technology is so terrible. The best answer that she got has to do with a combination of bureaucratic requirements and antiquated technology. Certainly, those things are factors. But the question itself seems like one of those queries that people throw out there when they're not really bothering to think before asking.

Because the truth is, it's not that the federal government is inherently bad at IT. If the National Security Agency, working with private companies, can create a top-secret digital channel for Obama's Blackberry, clearly government is capable of IT innovations and creativity, especially when a) security is involved and b) the president asks. The IT work that's gone into building telework programs, for example, has been extremely impressive: when 60 percent of an agency's headquarters staff can work away from home and not crash the network, that's a real accomplishment. And behind that accomplishment is the deployment of a LOT of updated technology, a huge amount of training and acculturation for both managers and supervisors, and efforts to bring older workers in line with newer technology.

But it's hard to move a multi-million person organization forward seamlessly. There aren't the resources to give everyone Blackberries, or to license the newest web-design software every time it comes out. Sure, it's absurd that an agency is still writing code in HTML rather than having made it into Dreamweaver, or another alternative. It's not good if agencies are using outdated technology and methods when updated, more efficient options are available. But it really isn't as if the federal government can just afford to upgrade everything instantly.

Beyond the issue of cost, different agencies require very different IT investments. Some service-delivery agencies, like the Social Security Administration or the Thrift Savings Plan need excellent user interfaces. The intelligence and defense agencies need many layers of security and interoperability. Different jobs have different levels of IT competencies required as well. Trying to figure out what everyone needs and get it to them is an enormously complicated task.

That's not to say that government couldn't be a lot better. Follies like the Census Bureau's wasteful handheld contract or the failed Office of Personnel Management retirement calculator contract are a big drain on resources and bad for the government's reputation. Websites crash under strain. Websites are poorly designed (though that's often more a matter of aesthetics or IT) or poorly explained. But given the magnitude of the challenges, it's amazing government IT is in the state it's in. And if President Obama demands that it gets better and makes that a significant priority, the chances that government IT will get better seem substantial. Although now that you mention it, where's that Chief Technology Officer?

Update: Apparently, some of ya'll like hand-coding. Fine with me. What I mean, of course, is, it's absurd for an agency to be stuck with an outdated, inefficient technology if a better, more efficient update is readily available.

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