Latest posts by Jesse Hathaway (see all)
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When you’re cleaning out your closet, don’t toss out that pile of outdated computer parts and accessories; the federal government might need it!
A recent report published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) — a nonpartisan government agency providing auditing, evaluation, and investigative services for Congress — found federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of the Treasury, are spending increasingly large amounts of taxpayer money maintaining information technology (IT) computer systems from the 1950s and 1960s.
For example, instead of updating file systems and keeping up with advances in efficiency by improving hardware and software, the Treasury Department maintains the nerve center of the U.S. tax system, the Individual Master File, using hardware and software first developed when Dwight Eisenhower was president.
The Master File, described by the report as “the authoritative data source for individual taxpayer accounts where accounts are updated, taxes are assessed, and refunds are generated during the tax filing period,” runs on hand-crafted code.
The GAO also found the Department of Defense uses 8-inch floppy disks, storage technology invented in 1967 and made obsolete in the 1980s by the 3.5-inch floppy, to maintain the American nuclear missile arsenal. In the report, GAO helpfully provides an illustration of these precursor technologies, because none have been likely to have been seen by the public for decades. According to GAO, over 75 percent of the federal government’s total information technology spending budget went to maintaining obsolete systems. This amount is increasing, the audit finds, crowding out programs to purchase new and more efficient systems.
As time goes on, the problem only gets worse. GAO writes federal government computer systems are getting older and more obsolete, meaning the few people who know how to do bare-metal coding for the government are very expensive to hire, which means taxpayers have to cough up more money.
”OMB staff in the Office of E-Government and Information Technology have recognized the upward trend of IT O&M spending and identified several contributing factors, including the support of O&M activities requires maintaining legacy hardware, which costs more over time, and costs are increased in maintaining applications and systems that use older programming languages, since programmers knowledgeable in these older languages are becoming increasingly rare and thus more expensive,” GAO wrote.
Unfortunately for taxpayers, government waste like this will always be a problem, and lawmakers are unlikely to do anything about it.
Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, says everyone loves talking about government waste, but no one seems willing to do anything about it.”Waste, fraud, and abuse squander public resources,” de Rugy wrote in a Mercatus Center study about federal spending. ”Policymakers on both sides of the aisle recognize that the American people have little tolerance for waste, fraud, and abuse. In fact, it is hard, if not impossible, to find a policymaker who don’t tell their constituents that they’ll work to eliminate government waste.”
Instead of just talking about it, lawmakers should begin demanding federal agencies ensure taxpayer money is spent on getting the best bang for their buck. Instead of pumping ever-increasing amounts of money into outdated systems that require software archeologists to navigate, federal agencies should be required to get tough on waste. If they don’t, lawmakers need to get tough on agencies when it’s time to renew agency appropriations.