Why The Government Doesn't Get Technology

from the well,-one-of-many-reasons dept

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 The technology the government gives them is so out of date, in many cases they don’t understand the technology because they don’t know the technology.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. That may seem like a typical “cobbler’s children have no shoes” issue, but the implication for those making our laws is tremendous:

I think this “two computer problem” is a symptom of a much larger issue. For those of you that are unfamiliar with Moore’s law, it’s general principal is that technology gets twice as good every 18 months. So if it takes government about 18 months to do anything expensive (by expensive I mean: something that costs more than a few thousand dollars) with technology, we’ve built in that government must be at least one cycle behind the private sector when it comes to Moore’s law. Compounding this is the sunk-cost fallacy: In order to stay just one cycle behind the rest of society, government would have to begin the purchasing process again as soon as new computers hit desks. But they won’t do that, because “you just got a new computer!”

Thus, a great gap has built up, not just with the pace of work, but in the access to technology. But the thing that makes this frightening is that Moore’s law isn’t linear, it’s exponential. With every cycle of Moore’s law, the difference between two points on the curve doubles. Being one cycle behind the curve 18 months from now is twice as bad as it is today.

This is a big problem. Understanding where innovation is heading is a difficult enough business when you’re deeply immersed in today’s technologies. But it’s ridiculously more difficult when you’re basing your understanding of where technology will be tomorrow… on a knowledge of technology that is, in all reality, multiple generations out of date.

You can understand, of course, how things got this way. There are budgets and spending limitations that the government has to deal with — and since it’s such a massive bureaucracy, things take time and have to be checked, double checked, triple checked, sent out for bid, quadruple checked, etc. But it really does show a symptom of how things get to be this way with politicians making bad laws that show an ignorance of technology. They don’t use it. They don’t comprehend what it means. At best, they think it’s just a tool, like a hammer, rather than something much more powerful than that.

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Comments on “Why The Government Doesn't Get Technology”

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btrussell (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“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.”

They do, personally.

You don’t think bribe money goes into the pool do you? It goes into one pocket.

At least they are seeing how hard it is to do anything on MS and maybe they will quit allowing them to be preloaded on PCs unless ordered by the customer.

Anonymous Coward says:

Really that different from big corps?

I wonder how much of this is directly related to the “Government is evil and must be strangled to the point of ineffectual buffoonery” movement we’ve been riding the last 20 years or so.

Also, the security nut in me is horrified that we have government workers doing “real work” on laptops they bring in from home.

Having said that, bureaucracy is bureaucracy no matter where you find it. Outside of the lengthy procurement process (which does seem insane) the situation isn’t all that much different from most big corporations I’ve worked at or with over the years. The techies manage to stay relatively current with hardware refreshes every 18-24 months, and bring in their own gear (when they are allowed to do so) to cope with deficiencies in their “official” gear. The non-tech positions typically make due with the hand-me-down hardware the techies were upgraded from on the last cycle.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re:

In the office, yes, but surely outside of the office, they have family (kids and probably grandkids as most of them aren’t young). Unless there are Amish congresscritters, I find it incredibly hard to believe that there isn’t a home PC/Laptop …

The thing you have to understand is that most people are bog stupid when it comes to computers. They (usually) know how to turn it on, how to double-click an icon on the desktop, how to let Windows pop up a box asking what to do when they insert a disc, how to read and answer email and how to use the Favorites menu in their browser.

Beyond that, any software you see installed, was probably put there by either the company that sold them the system, or a “computer whiz” (AKA their kids).

Think I’m kidding? Ask any average computer owner how fast their CPU is. Or what resolution their desktop is set to. Go in and rename their Desktop directory so that none of their icons show up and watch them bang their head in frustration over their ‘broken’ computer.

Every person with a digital camera will have at least three copies of every photo, saved in different directories. Not that any of them could tell you where the files actually are on the hard drive.

People fill their system up with crap until the thing takes 15 minutes to boot and over a minute to open a window, then they throw it out, buy a new one and start the cycle again from scratch.

I knew a family that had a dual-core system which they only ever used for browsing the net and playing online Flash-based games. One day they had a new system. When I asked what happened to the ‘old’ one, they said they got rid of it because it was too slow! Gee, maybe it had something to do with the three instant messenger clients, four different malware cleaner type program and the dozen add-on toolbars that were installed and running on the system. The system tray literally took up about a third of the task bar!

I see people throw out perfectly good computers all the time, whose only problem is that they’re loaded full of crap.

For some reason, otherwise intelligent people shut off their brains when it comes to computers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

seems to be perfectly acceptable to him for the entertainment industries to continuously line the pockets of politicians to get the legislation in that they want. legislation that will allow any website to be closed on an accusation. of course, he would never think about stopping other news outlets from reporting FACTS that contradicted what he wanted reported. or any success stories about independent artists that didn’t belong to his or any other studio.

another case of dont do what i do, do as i tell you! the man is a megalomaniac!

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

They aren’t required to understand it.
They use archaic systems to arrive at any decision, this is to help them keep their actions from the light of day.
If they all had, even last years computers they would have to explain why they are voting for things that have an obvious flaw in them.

They aren’t all technologically inept as they would have us think, they use twitter and other tools – but they do not want the public having easy access to bills and things.

They have staffers and lobbyists who explain it all to them, and they can “honestly” say they only went with what they were told – it is never their fault for not knowing how all of this tech works. (Mind you a 5 yr old can work an iPad but these functioning members of society stare blankly.)

They are not lowly employees paid tiny amounts, they can have the tech but we have yet to push them to have it. It is partially our fault for ignoring the responsibility of voting and making our voices heard. They “clueless” about tech act works so well for the generation of voters who feel the same way about it. We might smile about how our grandparents respond to tech, but imagine them having the power to turn all the tech off just because they want to.

We deserve better, and we need to demand it.

Richard (profile) says:

Moore's Law

Moore’s law has pretty much run out in the raw hardware realm – until and unless a radical new fab technology becomes mainstream.

(You have to remember that Moore’s law was an economic law – based on investment cycles actually the fundamental technology in use didn’t change much throughout it’s entire run.)

However software and applications have been so far outpaced by hardware in the last 20 -30 years that they still have probably 15 yesars of rapid innovation to go.

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

Re: Moore's Law

Actually, Moore’s law is that the number of transistors on a chip will double every 18 months – still true today – not that the speed/capability of systems will follow that curve. Our software is quickly sucking up the enhanced capabilities of the hardware, so we don’t notice the improvement. IE, all that additional capacity is going to help power our animated paper clips…

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re: Moore's Law

Actually, Moore’s law is that the number of transistors on a chip will double every 18 months – still true today – not that the speed/capability of systems will follow that curve.

Actual figures suggest a 2 year doubling rather than 18 months. However the real point is that up to about 2004 increases in density were matched by switching speed increases. Since then however clock rates have stagnated – and so we have multi- core processors instead. Power (supply and dissipation) is also a problem – no point in having more transistors on a chip if you can’t let them actually switch because they will fry!

I also note that both hard drives and flash memory seem to have stagnated – the price “sweet spot” is much the same today as in 2009.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Moore's Law

Hard drives have gone up in price due to flooding in…I think it was Indonesia…basically, where most of the world’s hard drive factories were. It’ll be at least a year before prices mellow out again.
Case in point – A year ago, I bought two 2TB hard drives for ?110 each. Couple of weeks ago, the same hard drive set me back about ?160.

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

Out of date gear

Even back in the 80’s when I was selling computer gear to NASA, Ford Aerospace, Stanford Research Institute, the USGS, 3-Com, and other low-tech organizations in the Silicon Valley, I used to tell my customers that even if it is the bleeding edge when they order it, it will be obsolete when delivered – in less than a week… That is even more true today. FWIW, we knew about Moore’s law back then, when Moore was still running Intel.

In my new position (Senior Systems Engineer) at a tier-one mobile phone manufacturer, all new staff (engineering and others) are issued a new, current, top-of-the-line 17″ x86 laptop, docking bay, 24″ desktop monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc. Since I got mine when I started 2 weeks ago, I don’t know what the replacement policy is, but I expect that if I need a newer set of gear, I’d probably get it PDQ. You’d think that the organization that sucks up such a large percentage of our earnings would have similar policies?

tracker1 (profile) says:

Re: Out of date gear

It would be nice if they simply phrased the laws/spending in terms of an annual budgetary amount of say $1500:year:employee for “miscellaneous technology” that could be “saved” from one year to the next, so a $2k setup could be refreshed every other year, and telephones/etc upgraded. The problem is, no government agency is typically allowed to “save” spending from one year to the next.. so after they approve a new phone system, you have to scramble to justify having the same $$ budget the next year. There’s also the fact that the procurement system is so convoluted that those willing to jump through the hoops will have inflated pricing.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Core competency has been outsourced

The extremely foolish “drown government in a bathtub” philosophy espoused by Grover Norquist and other inferior, very stupid people has resulted in a massive transfer of expertise to the private sector…which sells it back to government at rates an order of magnitude greater than government could pay for it directly. (And frankly, does a very poor job of it: see, for a very recent example, Stratfor, a supposed security company that’s been found to have security so pitifully weak that bored script kiddies penetrated it.)

There are isolated pockets of competent, qualified, experienced people, but they’re few and far between. Most of them have realized by now that they can make far more money leaving their government jobs, going to work in the private sector, and heading back to the same desk in the same office (or its equivalent). This isn’t just true in IT; it’s true in science, engineering, medicine, statistics and many other fields. Thirty years ago, it wasn’t that hard to find people working in government agencies who Got It; now it’s rare.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s worse than that.

About 2-3 years ago I was working on a contract to refresh a government office with “new” computers. At the time, they were all using WinNT 4.x on ancient P2s. The upgrade they ordered was for P4 Celerons with Win2k, at the end of the life cycle for both platforms.

The reason for that is when they started the whole procurement round a couple years before they were the best options. Normally that’s the way it works in government procurement. By the time of upgrades they are not a couple years behind in keeping up with Moore’s Law, they are at least a couple generations of basic architecture platforms behind. Procurement works so slow that by the time they actually start being delivered new PC’s they are already a platform behind from the outset.

Vendors are also in absolute glee when government offices come to them because they all quote current market prices on current hardware, but they all know it is a year to two years from initial bid to actually having to deliver. They ship the equipment ordered, but in two years equipment costs on already middle of the road and low end hardware government budgets allow for have dropped to the point of being nearly free to them. Allowing an unbelievable profit margin on every single contract, even if they underbid it a little under the actual build cost at time of the initial bid.

Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile) says:


Not surprising since Congress still has the little toy train for the Sens/Reps to ride into and out of the Capitol Building. I’ve also been hitting a couple state capitol buildings. I recall one tour guide nearly bragging that they just recently updated the voting buttons at the senators seats to show their yay/nay up on an electronic scoreboard and that they just got rid of the little light bulbs up there. They didn’t use a wireless solution.

I wouldn’t say this is widespread. My mom works for the USDA and was assigned a laptop that seemed pretty top of the line. They also can work from home on the laptop logging into their network via internet connection. Along with the government issued Blackberry’s before the whole smartphone idea took off I would say that is a decent level of tech integration/adoption. I would suspect some departments just lack proper management for procurement and integration.

Michael Long (profile) says:

So… 18 months behind plus 18 months procurement… that’s 36 months, or 2 years.

So a three year old computer can’t access the current, modern internet, as it exists today? No Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Wikipedia, or TechDirt? Can’t download the current version of Firefox or Chrome?

Sorry, but I think the article is focusing on the wrong issue. It’s not how fast or how many cores are sitting on your desk. And it’s not if it’s owner totally understands technology and the internet.

It’s not that our public “servants” don’t understand… it’s that too many lobbyists and corporations are paying them to do their bidding, and not ours.

Lamar Smith may or may not understand the internet. But you can be sure that he completely and totally understands who’s making his campaign contributions…

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Re: Re:

So a three year old computer can’t access the current, modern internet, as it exists today? No Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Wikipedia, or TechDirt? Can’t download the current version of Firefox or Chrome?

It’s often said that musicians have the worst stereo gear — and it’s often true. Similarly, some of the people who have the most IT experience and savvy often have the oldest and most cobbled-together systems. It’s a mistake to confuse that for lack of clue.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Absolutely agreed. This article is pointless because it does not take a brand new computer to understand several decades old technology.
The only people that need today’s technology are the people that are developing tomorrow’s technology. I do a lot of development on a netbook that is about as powerful as a decade old desktop. The benefit is that I can take my work with me easier.
I also would like to argue that the “techies” that are using personal Macbooks at work are doing so to make a statement, not to actually get more work done.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re:

So a three year old computer can’t access the current, modern internet, as it exists today? No Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Wikipedia, or TechDirt? Can’t download the current version of Firefox or Chrome?

My current system is older than that, and I still use the net daily. True, I can’t download the current version of Firefox or Chrome (at least not without a hack), but most sites still work fine. I also have no problem with email, or viewing most online videos, playing offline videos and DVDs, burning discs, using USB drives, etc.

I can no longer run the latest software, but I manage to make do.

btrussell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Glad I re-read comments before posting.
I don’t see the need for a top gaming rig to do office work either.

My old PC, @ 7 years old, is 1/10th of this one, in almost every way, but it runs all the latest software dual booting with Linux and XP SP3.
It also ran MS 7 quite well in virtual box.

It was by no means top of the line when new.

Tor (profile) says:

I can certainly see how this could be a practical problem at the workplace, but would our politicians really be that much better policymakers if they had more up-to-date hardware? I doubt that.

If you had to choose a person to decide IT policy and the decision was between a knowledgeable computer hacker (in the good sense of the word) arriving via time machine to our current time from 1995 and a politician of today who doesn’t know that much about computers but have all this fancy modern IT equipment, who would you pick?

Mr. Bad Example (profile) says:

The Rest of the Story

As Paul Harvey once would say-it goes much farther than this. Not only is the hardware 18 months behind, but so is the software…in fact, often the software is even further removed from state of the art, as it takes not only the budget cycle to procure new software, but also overcoming the objections of the current IT manager (who understands the current software and may not be up to date on something new), the department management (who remembers that time back in 19xx when some buggy software loaded on the mainframe brought the entire department’s computers to a halt for days), and the company that sold the original software to the government (and has been getting fatter and fatter selling updates to them).
This is why the state of California has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a computer system at the Economic Development Department (Unemployment, for those not living in the Golden State) that still doesn’t work. It’s why a software vendor can sell software to a multi-school district that the company knows will be out of date a year down the road (because it’s THEIR new software that’s going to make the current program out of date) for a couple of million dollars, and then when there’s one feature that they were obscure (intentionally) on that’s not there, they try to extort another couple hundred grand for it, and BTW, that’ll take us 6 months.
This last example, BTW, is another reason the big software publishers want SOPA/PIPA passed…they don’t want what happened in that case, which is that a part-time student worker majoring in computer science went home over the weekend, wrote a small program from open-source code, tested it on the office computers on Monday morning, and on Monday afternoon the software makers were informed they wouldn’t be getting their $500,000…he got rewarded with a full-time job in those days…under SOPA, he’d end up getting prosecuted for saving the government money.

Ninja (profile) says:

Ah how I know this. Even after the ‘new’ computers arrive it takes aeons for you to actually transfer the property and get your hands into the new hardware (internal bureaucracy). Then you’ll need a few more aeons to get it properly configured (because it’s 64 bits so old drivers don’t work anymore).

18 months? Pffft, keep dreaming. That’s the lucky scenario for the ones that work for the Govt.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

It’s not so much the ignorance of current Internet and Web technology on the part of congresscritters that bothers me as much as the pride some of them take in it.

I guess they’re as ignorant about how their cars work these days, too, given how many computers run them.

The ones who take pride in their self-stated ignorance seem to think their constituents are as ignorant as they are which, I’d waver, is decreasing at a rapid rate.

There does seem to be an enormous ignorance about what search engines do, what other tools do and what people use the Internet and Web for as a communications tool. Far better and faster than snail mail more efficient. SOPA/PIPA threaten most if not all of that even if it’s collateral damage.

Without these tools Open Source software wouldn’t be at the place is is not, maybe not widely available and as reliable as it is now.

The Original Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

I've seen this in action

During my 28 years in the military, I saw this first hand, and it wasn’t because the military side of DOD isn’t tech-savvy. It’s the procurement process and crony capitalism.

I’ve seen UNIX-based client/server systems deployed that were obsolete before they were turned on, “tactical” computers that were small, already obsolete, x86 systems in hardened cases the size of foot lockers running a proprietary command line OS, and many others.

The tactical systems only ran on 110/120v so if the users weren’t around a generator or in a building in North America, they were useless.

The UNIX client/server systems came from EDS and we could tell from the accompanying documentation that the procurement and “development” process had taken years.

It’s only be recently that off-the-shelf systems have been authorized for procurement and as the post says, even those are out of date when they arrive on the desktops.

Your tax dollars at work…

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Understanding Technology Versus Understanding People

For background on government, read G. A. Campbell, _The Civil Service in Britain_, 1955, (“A Detailed Explanation of the System of the Civil Service and of the Way in which the Administrative Work of the Government is Divided Among its Departments”). Campbell, who had worked in the movie-making sections of the Royal Post Office, and the Ministry of Information, took early retirement in 1953, in order to go into commercial television. This book is one of those very fine ones, which Englishmen can write, and Americans generally cannot. Even after more than fifty years, it remains fresh and valid, and, with some qualifications, equally applicable to American government.

One of the points Campbell makes (in the chapter on “Common Services”) is that the system of requisitioning supplies is almost deliberately unwieldy, so that a civil servant may just decide to go out and buy whatever he needs, with his own money, and that this is a commendable savings to the tax-payer. Schools and colleges operate on the same basic system as the government of course. It is a very common thing for a first-grade teacher to purchase, with her own money, the requisite quantities of milk, orange juice, cookies, etc. for the class’s morning snack.

Nowadays, computers are a special case, because they tend to hold the employer’s data, and to have security issues. If it were merely a matter of money, it would undoubtedly be a good thing for people to bring in their own computers. As it is, the remedies are probably to be found in things like virtual terminal software, designed so that the actual data, in digital form, does not actually leave the server. All the client gets is a “dithered bitmap,” which doesn’t OCR very well. This is not infallible, but it does mean that someone like Bradley Manning cannot easily harvest thousands of documents.

Unless you are doing something very graphical, like video games, old computers are perfectly adequate. I’m writing this on a computer I bought back in 2004, which might have a fair market value of fifty dollars. Come to that, the computer is sitting on a desk which I bought back in 1986, for thirty-five dollars, inclusive of delivery, from my then-landlady. Businessmen sometimes tend to fall into the opposite error, of worshiping newness and spiffiness for the sake of newness and spiffiness. They have to have the latest and newest computer, along with the most expensive office furniture, or they don’t feel valued. It’s a bit like a little girl’s delight in having a new dress, of velvet or satin, with abundant lace trim. She knows daddy loves her because daddy brought her home a present on returning from a business trip.

The main error someone like Lamar Smith fell into was an inability to read the people involved, people like us. He thought he was being conciliatory, when he was being the opposite. For example, he was not accustomed to the idea that Wikipedia is a volunteer organization, and was not accustomed to the idea that the Wikipedians might be prepared to stage a protest blackout (is that still on for the day after tomorrow, by the way?). Companies don’t behave that way– they try to become dependent on government money, and are thereafter afraid of losing it. Someone like Lamar Smith has no experience dealing with a borderline-anarchy. In the film version of Howard Fast’s _April Morning_, there is an amusing exchange, as the British are retreating from Concord on April 19, 1775:

British Lieutenant (hunched down in edginess): “Sir, we _must_ surrender!”
British Major (infuriated): “Surrender to _whom_, you idiot? They have no leader!”

That is the nature of the internet– there is no one empowered to compromise, no one with whom Lamar Smith can deal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Add another ‘issue’ to the article, and this entire situation will get substantially worse (yes, it can and will get worse). Imagine all the h/w procurement has been occurring where the entire IT field has pretty much been a continuation of the x86 / Windows win32 API software environment.

Now, assume that’s going to change (i.e.; MS Windows 8; Android, and iOS5)with the next generation of hardware (Oops, it’s already here). What are governments going to do if there’s no ‘bridge’ for using win32api based custom applications software in these new operating environments?

Oh, fun times.

Anonymous Coward says:


You have all missed the elephant. The real problem is bribery. The power to decide what gets bought and when, has been most carefully centralized. A tiny number of individuals actually take the decision and everybody else gets no actual say. (There might be “inclusiveness theater” going on.) Then the vendors bribe those few individuals. The decision makers deliberately choose obsolete equipment at a high price, because that is what is most profitable to the vendors. If you want to know who is doing the bribing, then find out who is being paid the money. If you want to know who is getting bribed, that is the real decision makers.

Anonymous Coward says:

There is a flew in the idea

I think they pass budget for a computer, but not precise configuration of a computer.

Many government bodies but computers from IBM, HP, etc. 18-months after the quotation released, the “active” model should have been changed.

So I’d guess it’s not that they can’t buy new equipment, they just feel the process is too troublesome that, it’s just more convenient to buy a computer themselves.

But think about it, personal computer (i.e.: not under administration of IT staffs in the department) should not be used for handling sensitive data. Did they violating some rule or what?

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: How to Fix the Flaw, to Anonymous Coward #52

A moderately safe way to proceed is something like the following. You have a data server, which holds large numbers of confidential records, let’s say records of medical treatment and billing, prescription records, etc. Then you have an application program server. Programmers write programs to analyze the data, which are “checked in” to the application server, where they can be run. There are rules about what kinds of data the programs can display to a user interface, such as a window. A “window driver” on the application server produced bitmaps, which get sent to a personal computer, so that the personal computer never has ASCII data of the information being displayed. There will be a “dummy” data set of made-up cases, or “sanitized” cases, for testing purposes. A programmer can write or modify a program, upload it to the application server, and run it against the dummy data set, as many times as he needs to, but he has to apply to higher authority to allow a particular version of the program to work on real data applying to real, named people. In this system, you don’t spend money on more powerful desktop or laptop computers– you spend money on a server cluster instead. The desktop computer is only operating as a “dumb terminal,” and that doesn’t demand much of a computer. Granted, someone could use a screensaver program, but that presents no more of a threat than someone using a camera to photograph the screen of a terminal.

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