Saturday, November 05, 2011

Planning Ahead and the Auditors

This Federal Computer Week piece describes a conflict between Social Security Administration's management and its OIG: the IG wants SSA to plan its online services more thoroughly, more completely and for a longer period.  SSA is resisting.

I remember back in the day, maybe 1981 or so, either GAO or the USDA IG tore ASCS up over the issue of programmable calculators.  For you whippersnappers,  at one time calculators were the hot electronics item.  This was, I think, back in the day when integrated chips were first being made on a large scale, and companies found they could stick a chip in a case with a numeric keypad and a small display and sell it for big bucks (particularly when you consider inflation, probably several hundred by today's values). 

There were a slew of such manufacturers, some in the US, in Japan.  As Moore's law kicked in, the manufacturers hotly competed by adding features and lowering prices.  But that's a side story. Anyway by the late 70's we had programmable calculators costing in the low hundreds.  And a few ASCS employees, mostly CED's, found they could save a lot of time by buying one and  creating a formula for such things as calculating the deficiency payment, cutting the work down to just keying in the data.  These guys (almost all male I think) used available funds and shared their work.

By the time GAO got involved, ASCS had an investment in programmable calculators of  maybe $3 million (all facts herein based on an aging memory) and one person in DC who tried (rather ineffectually IMHO) to coordinate usage, encouraging sharing of programs, etc.  GAO took a look at the situation and issued a bad report.  They wanted DC to assess which county offices needed the calculators, make one national purchase to save money, and provide standard programs to the counties.

I got involved in drafting the response, which pushed back against the idea.  I'm not sure how well the response would stand up over time--whether we mostly argued for a do nothing approach based on inertia, or whether we were more perceptive..  What we (and GAO) didn't know was that the first CED's were about to buy, or  already had bought, personal computers (maybe an Apple II, maybe a Commodore, maybe a Trash 80) to play with and possibly apply to ASCS business.  My perception is that led to a push from the field which combined with leadership from DC, eventuated in the purchase of the IBM System/36.

Anyhow, our response should have pointed to Moore's law and the rapid transformation of the field and our lack of comprehension of what was happening (always hard for bureaucrats to admit we don't know).  In such a situation, it made sense to stay flexible and relatively decentralized. 

That episode was one of my learning experiences, which sometimes counters my tendency to believe, like IG's do, that good bureaucrats located at the center can establish patterns and systems which work best for the field.  The truth is, it all depends.

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