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The Federal Website is the New Sacred Cow

A few years ago I was involved in some IT grants from the US government. I was in awe… of the incredible corruption I witnessed. It wasn’t “China style” cash bribes, but rather relationship corruption. Political stuff, where knowing someone got you access, and keeping a strong relationship (by whatever means available) got you continued success. I just called it corruption… I’ll explain why.

At one point, shortly before I left that world out of disgust, I reviewed a $600,000 contract renewal for maintenance of a small database that almost no one used (relatively speaking). Not a large, complicated Oracle database. Not a secure, sensitive database. A simple information database (in a 3 or 4G database language) that had simply gone too long without smart management oversight. No one wanted to touch it. Even the IT guy who built it and maintained it didn’t like working with it, but he apparently didn’t have other job prospects that paid this well. The project had no real career-building value. It was not part of any project that would succeed, nor did it enjoy a high profile. It was simply there, and no one wanted to be the person who decided to stop funding it. The renewal proposal was about the same as it was at last renewal, plus a little more, and came to around $600,000.

That’s nearly a million dollars of your tax money, to fund a seriously second rate (I checked) self-taught IT guy working on something like one single Microsoft Access database, which was used successfully by probably a hundred people each year (mostly because those hundred didn’t otherwise know how to find the data in one place). As a taxpayer, I bet you didn’t know you paid for that.

As I thought about asking specifics about why this was nearly $600,000 and whether it was needed or not, another project came across my desk with a higher priority. It was also a database — this one written in scripts for an IBM AS/400 mainframe system. The database was noted to be essential. It contained vendor contact information, going back nearly 20 years. It was large and not a real database, but a set of scripts. The mainframe was being retired, and the proposal was to either re code the information into a new, modern “database” or fund the maintenance of a dedicated legacy AS/400. The recoding project was estimated at tens of thousands of dollars to get started with a requirements review, with no certainty of the actual total costs. The legacy mainframe was budgeted in the $150k range, plus annual maintenance overhead. Not a ton of money, but not insignificant.

As an IT guy I knew the only correct answer was a re coding, and that a re coding should only be considered after a careful review of the data and it’s value. Over a few months time I successfully navigated the politics and gained access to the “essential data” (in other words, I kept my job while the mainframe guy was eventually forced to retire). I loaded the data into Excel and examined it. Of the hundreds and hundreds of vendor contacts, only 11 were current. Eleven.

In short, much to do about nothing. And that process took about 4 months, plus 20 minutes for me to use Excel.

I was told that the $600,000 contract went through, and the project would be re-examined at some future date. I subsequently learned that databases (at that time… late 1990’s) were the Sacred Cows within government agencies. They were difficult to control, acknowledged as valuable, and sensitive — databases could be “corrupted”, could be “tainted”, could be “infiltrated” or “ms-appropriated”. All great scary important government words, which meant dollars could be safely assigned to databases, with little credible challenge. Databases were technology, and technology was sexy. Databases were large (or could be easily made to be large), which meant they provided a basis for justifying new, faster computers every year. Database administrators in the real world commanded large salaries, so self-taught pseudo DBA’s working for the government could get a decent fraction of a high salary by association. Database administration was also dynamic, which meant training budgets could be justified.

I honestly believe that I would have been able to show that the $600,000 database was almost as equally useless as the 11 vendor database, had I been given a chance. But of course I wasn’t given that chance. I was given a grant of my own instead.

In 2009 we enjoy the ramp up of the age of the government web site. We’ve already seen one web site project approved for over $18 million dollars… and it’s a web site to tell the taxpaying American public specifically how the government is spending our tax money.

We’ve seen several independent consumer-facing web sites launched by the government, each with a unique style, on unique technology platforms, published by different agencies. I can only assume each of these has a maintenance contract as well. And is counting “hits” to justify renewal in the next round of funding. I can only expect that pseudo “branding experts” are preparing the language that will be used to justify intangible asset value as well, a new Sacred Cow for a new age. I don’t recall the Federal Register ever having to package itself as a consumer-friendly magazine, but apparently our new government in Washington thinks government-funded webmasters are the solution to satisfying the public’s need for accountability. What a scam.

And the latest scam is this joke of a web site from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), apparently intended to help consumers understand that credit reports that cost $14.95 per month are not actually free. You paid for that web site, and you’ll pay for the maintenance. You’ll pay for a junior web specialist to get Dreamweaver training, you’ll pay for her associate to take an “intro to marketing” course, and you’ll pay for her supervisor to get “how to manage technical creatives” training.¬† Or you’ll pay a web company a few hundred thousand dollars to do it all for you (with a maintenance contract going out a few years). All for the very important purpose of…. what exactly?

Exactly. To translate caveat emptor into modern American English, on a web page that no one will read. Unless it ranks at the top of Google. Which it won’t do unless Google forces it there, since it is so poorly crafted. And even in the #1 spot, would it convert? Look for the call to action. Can’t find it.. wait.. no, I thought that was it but no… oh okay I see it… um, yeah that’s probably it. I’ll have to try before I know for sure. It clicks thru to yet another government website (ftccomplaintassistant.gov). Now where’s the “submit a complaint” call to action? Hmm… let me try and find it.

I’d be surprised if the entire process enjoys a goal success rate of 3%.
And if you think I’m exaggerating, go to the site and follow thru to file a complaint. I decided to file mine against the FTC, for misrepresenting themselves as a non-profit entity protecting the American consumer. I was going to focus my complaint on the concept of personal inurement… the use of a non-profit entity to enrich the lives of those operating it, such as through good paying jobs and job perks. I know it doesn’t apply to government web sites, but I wanted to do it anyway so the complaint would sit for years in someone’s “how do we count this one” pile.

I didn’t get far. The web site’s “file a complaint” form forces virtually all of the complaint fulfillment process back on you, the submitter, via a process filled with pick lists and forms to properly classify and categorize your complaint. Almost everything I wanted to pick was not classified, and required I choose “other”. Even the “credit reporting agencies” or “credit reports” issue was not listed as a popular topic. I bet the drop out rate for that feedback form is in the high 80% range, which would be astonishing for a site catering to already pissed off complainers.

But the FTC’s management doesn’t care about that metric. They care about the ones I was asked to grade via a “user feedback form” commissioned through very much for-profit vendor Forsee Results, which sent me a “random feedback” survey. They wanted to know exactly how satisfied I was with things like¬† the FTC complaint form’s “visual appeal”, “balance of graphics and text”, and “number of clicks it takes”.

Exactly. More spending to justify more spending. Or, in other words, we’re stock piling expensive hay to keep feeding the new sacred cows we outsiders call “web sites”.

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