Glut of computers in government wastes billions of dollars


WASHINGTON -- The government's top medical research center bought a $200 million computer system four years ago to help "researchers pushing the frontiers of biomedical research."

But, "we're not using it," said National Institutes of Health biologist Alasdair Steven.

The NIH Division of Computer Research bought the six IBM mainframes in 1988 without consulting the scientists. They wanted personal computers and mini-computers which they find better suited to their cancer, AIDS and other health research, so NIH shelled out added millions for the right computers.

NIH since has sold one of the mainframes, is peddling a second and tries to keep the remaining four busy with routine administrative chores for other federal agencies, such as maintaining payroll and personnel records. Much of the computers' capacity goes unused.

NIH is not the only government agency wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on computers.

The Farmers Home Administration invested $500 million five years ago in a system to manage mortgage loans at the county level. But computer screens at the regional office in Sherman County, Kansas, remain black. Instead, officials there and across the nation use boxes of color-coded files to track loans.

"It's not our fault," explains loan technician Kathy Kidder. The Agriculture Department, still struggling to do what commercial banks do routinely, has yet to devise software that works.

Across the federal landscape, the story is much the same:

Government offices are littered with unused, antique and ill-conceived computer systems. They are the bad bargains of a See COMPUTER, buying spree that has cost $150 billion in the past 10 years alone.

Moreover, while much of Washington is cutting back, computer outlays are growing fast. They topped $25 billion for hardware and software last year, an increase of more than 10 percent over the year before.

The real price is far higher. Some examples:

* Tens of billions in debts due the government are uncollectible, experts say, because of slow, inaccurate computers.

* The Pentagon has $40 billion of spare parts it doesn't need, in part because Army computers can't talk to Navy computers.

* The Agency for International Development (AID), with seven different computer systems to track its property, cannot account for thousands of its motor vehicles around the world.

"Uncle Sam is the laughingstock of the private sector when it comes to buying computers," said former AT&T; computer executive Steven Broadbent, who until January was the Treasury Department's top computer authority.

"What takes one year for the private sector to do, we're taking four to five years to do, and the half-life of this stuff is about a year," concluded former Internal Revenue Service commissioner Fred T. Goldberg Jr. The process is "designed to fail," he said.

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way.

Computers were supposed to speed and improve governance, give Americans better service and their leaders a bigger, clearer picture on which to base decisions. Instead, small-scale and typically incompatible computer systems are choking government.

Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs operates at least 150 different systems. The Justice Department operates 150; AID 100; and Housing and Urban Development at least 75.

The General Accounting Office puts much of the blame on distracted top managers, who allow even small units within their agencies to build unique systems.

The General Services Administration, which is meant to oversee all major purchases by federal offices, doesn't have the political clout to resist unwise computer purchases.

Some agencies bought computers to solve management problems. That never works, said Henry Philcox, the IRS' chief computer specialist.

"If you start with a mess and simply add technology, you end up with an automated mess," he said.

Other agencies bought computers for very specialized purposes. These systems often cannot communicate with other computers, even in the same agency. They have one virtue that civil servants sometimes appreciate, however: When it comes to turf protection, incompatible computers serve as "a fire wall protecting your agency from outsiders," said a congressional investigator.

One frustrating result: "There's no missing data in government; it's just never in usable form," complains Thomas Temin, editor of Government Computer News, a trade weekly.

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