Technology and Taxes

The New York Times reported this morning that the federal government spends seventy billion dollars a year on technology.  I’m never quite sure what these numbers mean, but I’ve also notice that most states now employ more programmers than bureaucrats.  Our collective governments are investing massive amounts of money apply technology for everything.  Are the governments getting what they want?  Are we, the taxpayer, getting what we want?

Don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely believe that the government needs to spend money on technology for a whole variety of different reasons, and I clearly receive tangible benefits from that investment all of the time.

I love being able to renew my car tabs on-line, for example.  I don’t have to drive to an office and wait in line.  Same for my driver’s license every other renewal.  Our state, Washington, has done a great job of putting a whole host of registrations on line.  I just have to wonder why it is isn’t making government cheaper.

Look at the DMV example closely from the point of the state.  The DMV can’t possibly need all of the people that they formerly required.   Sure they need a technical staff to maintain the web site, but the whole theory of automating this says that most of the work will now be done by the computer.  Theoretically, you don’t need as many people to take in the license applications and checks, review them, send them back if they are wrong, file them if they are right, and to respond in a timely manner to legimate requests for this information.  And if you don’t need all of those people, you don’t need facilities (office space, computers, parking spaces, etc.) for those people.

Furthermore, most state agencies should be able to obtain the same benefits from technology.  These savings should be at least tens of millions of dollars for the motor vehicle department alone, and other departments should see simlar savings.

Is any of this happening?  You would think so as broke as most state governments claim to be, but I don’t see my state taxes going down.  I also don’t see the state bragging about how much money the new systems are saving.  If they were saving us money, you know there would be a hundred politicians trying to take credit for it.  I don’t hear that story from any of them so far.

I tend to suspect that the problem we see is the same thing that happens in business only worse.  The entrenched protect their turf, and we end up paying for both the technology AND the labor the technology is supposed to eliminate.  Eventually, a business has to look at these costs and make appropriate adjustments, but government can get away with ignoring this as long as they can raise taxes.

So why isn’t this happening?  It seems like the obvious question.  You would think at the very least some politician would try to further his career by making this part of his brand.  The theme could be “Getting more out the Resources We Have”.  That seems far more attractive than the brands I see most politicians establish.

As quickly as these guys are to schedule a hearing about anything, you would expect hearings on this subject to go on all of the time.

Here’s a little starter list for the aspiring politician:

What is the goal of each technology investment?  That is, are we  investing to save money or to provide more services?

Are there measurements in place to see if progress is being made towards that goal?

What kind of follow-up system is in place?

The government is giving us more, but we should be getting more for less.  We keep paying more.  These investments are never going to pay off if someone isn’t at least checking out the results and following through.  It’s time for someone to stand up and pretend that they care.


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