U.S. suffers from government's outmoded computers Some agencies' situations termed 'really pathetic'

December 08, 1996|By Ralph Vartabedian | Ralph Vartabedian,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- After pumping $300 billion into computer systems in the last two decades, the federal government has compiled a record of failure that has jeopardized the United States' welfare, eroded public safety and squandered untold billions of dollars.

While most of America is rushing headlong into 21st century information technology, much of the government is operating with computers designed and built when Studebaker was making cars. The government's 1960s-era computer systems -- as well as those from the 1970s and 1980s -- are generally antiquated, unreliable, inefficient, error-prone and expensive.

At a time when many Americans communicate by e-mail, government agencies fly magnetic tapes around the country. At a time when microprocessor designs are updated every six months, the government uses computers with vacuum tubes. At a time when corporations can deliver a product overnight to a customer across the United States, the government can take six months to execute a simple administrative task.

Every taxpayer pays a share of the price for the government's outdated technology. But some individuals, such as Cathy Sandez of Fontana, Calif., are random victims.

Sandez, who has multiple sclerosis, was denied the Social Security disability benefits she was owed for four years because the agency's computer had misplaced her earnings records. As a result, she lost her home and car and accumulated $60,000 in medical debts.

The agency's computers are unable to match $234 billion in wages to the individuals who earned them, according to an internal agency report obtained by the Los Angeles Times. And the Social Security Administration is widely regarded as one of the best federal agencies in information technology and computer modernization.

Areas of excellence do exist in federal agencies.

In battle management at the Pentagon, aerodynamic simulation at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and nuclear bomb design at federal labs, the government has demonstrated that it can develop leading-edge systems.

But on balance the government's record is poor, particularly in business systems that affect the public.

Services that the public expects to receive are not delivered or are performed incompetently. Government agencies depend on clerks to perform administrative tasks that private businesses have automated.

At the extreme, public safety is jeopardized. At least three airliner accidents might have been prevented had the Federal Aviation Administration not fallen behind schedule in planned modernization of air traffic control equipment, experts say.

In the broadest sense, the failures have undermined the federal government's role as a provider of public services.

"A lot of the cause of the public's lack of confidence in the government is the inability of the government to perform," said Steven Kelman, a Harvard University professor on leave who is spearheading the Clinton administration's reform efforts as administrator for federal procurement policy.

He says the movement to reduce the federal government -- to reassign some tasks to states and others to the private sector -- reflects the public's frustration in its day-to-day contacts with the government.

Kelman says that, judged by his own contacts with the Internal Revenue Service and the State Department's passport office, some agencies' ability to operate in the modern era is "really pathetic."

Why so much has gone so wrong for so long could fill an encyclopedia.

Some federal agencies have attempted computer modernizations so complex that they have taken as long as 15 years to complete. The systems are obsolete from the moment they are turned on.

Others have embarked on multimillion-dollar modernization efforts so poorly planned that they are destined to fail, according to General Accounting Office experts. Then, when they start over again, they are even further behind technologically.

The government has been hampered by cumbersome procurement regulations. By the time agencies seeking new computers jump through the necessary hoops, the computers are not so new anymore.

Political appointees come and go; they focus on short-term goals and pay scant attention to technology modernization. That job is left to the career civil service, but the best career executives in technology flee the government for higher pay and fewer frustrations in the private sector.

The Social Security Administration shows the extremes of information technology success and failure throughout the federal government.

The agency has won plaudits in recent years for its customer-friendly operations and for its online data retrieval system. In an examination of the quality of toll-free customer service operations, Social Security recently ranked first, outperforming L. L. Bean, the catalog shopping company.

But under the surface, agency critics say, it is concealing some serious problems. Indeed, the SSA recently disclosed to the Times that a software glitch had resulted in 700,000 retirees' being shortchanged $850 million.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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