Time for Overdue Review of Government IT

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Most citizens of this country labor under the delusion that their government has at the very least a basic grasp of how to use information technology. After all, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) seems to do a pretty good job of tracking everybody who owes the government money.

But when it comes to using IT to protect the interests of the citizenry, you have to wonder what's really happening. Yesterday the inspector general for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) testified before Congress that part of the reason that the SEC failed to discover the $65 billion Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme is that there is no database for tracking tips and complaints and no ability to access outside databases. From a technology perspective, that means the SEC has been living in what amounts to a digital hole in the ground.

Unfortunately, the SEC is probably not alone in terms of government agencies failing to make use of information technology in the best interests of the citizenry. More often than not, the adoption of IT is usually confined to archiving records. The idea that any of those records should actually be analyzed appears to be lost in the bureaucratic maze that passes for good government.

Of course, the new administration is all in favor of e-Government initiatives that make more information available online to the public. But what is the point of making information available when it's just a bunch of data, or worse yet, the data doesn't even exist? Odds are good that a massive industry will soon develop around analyzing the data that the government makes available via these e-government initiatives.

The trouble is, far too much of the data that needs to be analyzed is buried in stacks of paper. In fact, it's somewhere between ironic and hypocritical to listen to government officials berate the health care industry for being inefficient when it comes to IT.

If the new CIO for the U.S. Government, Vivek Kundra, really wants this position to be viewed as something more than just a ceremonial bully pulpit, he needs to implement an across the board review of how IT is used within the government. Because if the rest of the government is anything like the SEC, then we're in a lot more trouble than anybody realizes.