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When Bad IT Attacks. Again. And Again.

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, July 22 2010

We were been perhaps premature in awarding our quote of the day earlier. Because this, spoken by Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack in a piece on the Shirley Sherrod affair by Glenn Thrush and Ben Smith, is a very, very strong contender:

She sent an e-mail to me which I did not get,' [Vilsack] said. 'We did not discover it until after the fact.'

Whether computer error or human error is to blame in the uninformed firing of a long-time federal employee isn't entirely clear (one wonders whether the process of "discovery" would have included Vilsack or his staff simply checking an inbox). But it's worth pointing out that if it was the former, it wasn't to be entirely unexpected. Bad IT infrastructure is sort of an accepted fact throughout Washington, but rarely does such a fine political point get out on it as it does in the Obama administration's bumbling response to the tape of Sherrod floated by Andrew Breitbart. And when it comes to Tom Vilsack, and the United States Department of Agriculture, as you'll see, they knew that they had a problem with tech.

Yesterday, you might remember, we pulled out some choice tech bits from Jonathan Alter's "The Promise," on the first year of the Obama presidency. Here's one that didn't make the cut, but seems particularly relevant this afternoon. Alter talks about how Obama set to transform the USDA into a government force focused on supporting eaters, rather than ag industry interests. But that transformation has not been without its technological obstacles:

Since its founding in the Lincoln administration, the USDA had always been focused on (or pandering to) farmers. Now it was to have another central mission. Unfortunately for Vilsack, the USDA computers seemed to be from the Lincoln administration too. When he asked how many employees worked in the department, nobody knew; the place lacked the software to keep track.

GAO should probably do a study on how many bad decisions get made, or good decisions go unmade, because someone in the federal government lacked access to the electronic information that they need, or the equipment that matches the scope of their mission. But the result would probably be too terrifying, too depressing, from threats to the U.S. missed to the immense aggregated frustration of people in government attempting to do their jobs and being stymied by their machines. If you'll forgive the self-link, I'll point you to a profile that I recently wrote for the American Prospect on Carl Malamud, a long-time information activist who has worked closely on occasion with the Obama administration and past governments, too:

Obama "would do his job a lot better if he did improve that infrastructure," Malamud says. "But I don't think that's something that he gets. I don't think that's something that Rahm Emanuel gets. If you look at the [chief information officer] and [chief technology officer] of the United States sitting there with a Dell computer and a 15-inch monitor, you think to yourself, 'Why in the hell does our CIO not have, like, three 30-inch monitors?'"

Mistakes happen because of bad IT. Dumb decisions get made because of outmoded technologies. Washington seems to perpetually ignore that reality, year after year, perhaps out of some sort of elitism about worrying about the mechanics of government. There's been some hope that Obama would get it, thought as Malamud points out, that understanding hasn't necessarily even trickled down through the White House's own offices yet. That's one of the goals of the IT Dashboard that U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra is keeping track of on his 15-inch Dell monitor. It's also worth keeping in mind that as we talk about how difficult it is to attract innovators to government, or to keep them there, as we did recently with former White House and State Department staffer Katie Jacobs Stanton, one factor is how frustrating it is for forward-thinking, fast-moving people to function in an environment where electronic mail is still considered a technology yet-to-be-mastered.