Letters to the Editor

Outrage and acceptance

I am bothered by the GAO report ("Waste not, want not," FCW, Feb. 21). I've been bothered over recent years regarding same kind of reports. This is apparently the worst. Where is the media? Where is the rage? No wonder we can't cut taxes.

I noted that the Coast Guard gets high marks but can't get an extra dime, while others squander almost as much or more than the entire Coast Guard budget. That is the reward it gets for conscientious management and dedication to duty. Seems to me that if you can't do it right, stop. Billions are being wasted that aren't helping the intended beneficiaries. Find another way. Keep up the good reporting.

Name withheld by request

Just a short note to reinforce your astonishment and outrage at the lack of an outcry by the media et al. for the GAO report findings about the $19 billion overpayments. You consistently and astutely observe and inform your readership of inequities and gaffes, and I for one appreciate your efforts. I have looked forward to reading your column with each succeeding issue. Thank you.

Sadly, Americans have to a large extent lost (in a few cases, perhaps, repressed) the capacity for outrage and that alone is a terribly dangerous cultural signal for the state of the citizenry. Please continue your valuable work in your meaningful and insightful commentaries.

The above may not necessarily reflect the views of my employer or those I interact with on a daily basis. They are purely personal and not to be construed as in any way related to any official policy.

John Folkomer

Chief of Industrial Hygiene

DDSP

New Cumberland, Penn.

The tone of the General Accounting Office report that [concluded nine agencies collectively reported improper payments totaling $19.1 billion in their fiscal 1998 financial statements] merely reflects the tone of their bosses — the Congress — who tell them what to say, what not to say and how to say it. This is where the true heart of the problem lies. As far as your point that were these agencies private firms, their CEOs would be forced to resign: Agency heads can be, or just fired outright.

Name withheld

Health Care Financing Administration

Department of Health and Human Services

Regarding your column in Federal Computer Week, bothered is the wrong word. Outrage is right on! As a supplier of security tools, I get incensed when we have to sharpen our pencil to get the business. Then, because of political bickering, we have to wait and beg to get paid many months after our contract terms call for! In the meantime these bureaucrats throw money down the drain!

Keep up the good work, and in the end, reason can win. You could end up a hero!

Name withheld

Wow. $19 billion sounds like a lot of money, doesn't it? Almost inconceivable. It also represents a mere 2.2 percent of the $870 billion expended.

Is 2.2 percent too much? It depends on two things. First, how much would the system improvements cost? Second, to what extent would the improvements correct the problem? It is not realistic to assume that the percentage could ever be brought down to zero, and even if it could, it would not be cost-effective. For you and I, our household expenditures are small potatoes, and it's easy to make our payments with almost 100 percent accuracy. Large corporations and governments are an entirely different matter and cannot be compared.

A CEO of a large corporation probably doesn't have $19 billion to lose, but that doesn't mean that his accounts payable department doesn't make a certain percentage of improper payments. Do you have any clue what that percentage is? Maybe you should find out before you criticize the government for its 2.2 percent rate. An acceptable rate is a delicate balance between cost and benefit. I am willing to pay a large amount to ensure that more than 97.8 percent of all airplanes arrive at their destinations safely, but I don't want to pay $3 for an apple just to ensure that no rotten ones make onto the shelf.

At this point, it does not appear that you have sufficient data to arrive at a reasonable opinion.

Lisa Connell

National Business Center

Interior Department

Having been there and looked at the raw data, a good portion of the problem is that the financial system keeps track of payments and invoices with 20-plus character alphanumeric strings. A single misstyped character means that a given payment doesn't track back to the invoice that created it.

Unfortunately, we expect GS-4- and GS-5-level employees to be perfect in their keystrokes while at the same time holding them to a performance standard of so many transactions per unit time. That's gonna lead to mistakes.

Worse, when an error occurs, rather than having or taking the time to fix it, they (usually someone not in your department — or even on your base) find the closest match and let it process. Thus, we get hundreds of payments out of a basic contract that generates huge negative balances in one fiscal year while money sits out on amendments in later fiscal years.

There is an agency that is responsible for causing some of this that brags about how good they are. What I believe they are counting are how many transactions get processed versus how many are so fouled up that they can't be processed at all. Not included in their numbers are how many fixes and patches have to be made after the fact to get them processed correctly.

To complicate the entire matter, even if a given department in a given agency wanted to find such mistakes and correct them, any money [the agency may save from doing so] doesn't go back to the department but back to some great fiscal money pot in the sky. Why spend employee resources out of a shrinking budget when you won't see any direct result on your bottom line?

As far as I know, this ain't the way it works in the corporate world. If you save money, you get to use it for purposes that you believe will help the company by funneling its use within your own local department. These comments are my own and should not be construed as the official policy or view of the department, organization or agency that I work for.

Edward Fitch

Air Force

Your article hit the nail right on the head. I've always found that the proper incentives yield excellent results. Perhaps we need some sort of incentive program that rewards any forthcoming, deserving government employee a bonus for reporting and coming up with a solution to combating some of this waste in programs on which he may be working. A very small percentage of the $19.1 billion wasted could reward a deserving problem-solver quite handsomely. I think it would be worth a try. Of course there will need to be safeguards to insure that the problems are not purposely planted for later "discovery."

Bob N.

Retired Aerospace Engineer

Foreign invasion

Sen. Orrin Hatch's (R-Utah) bill to amend Title 8 of the U.S. Code to allow more foreign information technology workers into the United States is the same scenario, but in reverse, in which companies are moving their operations to other countries for cheaper labor and more profit ("High-tech workers needed," FCW, Feb. 21). The result puts U.S. workers out of work and without medical insurance.

There is no shortage of IT candidates in this country. The problem is that companies want to hire foreign workers at a fraction of the salary and benefits paid to U.S. citizens and thus increase their profit margins. Why is this issue never raised by the media?

Houston Hammac

Marshall Space Flight Center

NASA

No end in sight

In your column ("Use P/E ratio to measure stock value," fcw.com, Feb. 25), you mentioned the absence of competing investment opportunities is pushing up the price of stocks and that stocks can't just keep going up. While logically this is certainly true, there's one thing I've wondered about.

More and more people are putting tremendous amounts of money in things like the Thrift Savings Plan and other retirement accounts, IRAs, etc. Historically, this has not really been the case. As long as these people are working, this money is going to continue to flow into these plans to be invested regardless of whether the stock market goes up or down. Professional fund managers, stockbrokers, etc. will move money between investments, but the large inflow of funds is going to continue because people sure aren't going to put it in bank savings accounts.

How is this continuing large influx of funds going to affect overall investments? Is this perhaps part of what's pushing stocks up regardless of the conventional wisdom regarding P/Es? I don't pretend to be too knowledgeable about this sort of thing, but it seems to me if the money keeps flowing in and other investments such as real estate aren't competitive, won't the stocks keep being pushed up overall regardless of what "logically" should happen? Certainly individual stocks will go up or down, but will the continuing trend be up because of this seemingly unstoppable flow?

Gary Bell

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

U.S. citizens exempt from Echelon?

Regarding the Echelon situation ("NSA moves to defuse Echelon controversy," fcw.com, Feb. 29), a line that one of your journalists might like to look at is that Echelon "respects the rights of U.S. persons." Other reports said "U.S. citizens."

Say an American citizen is overseas and Echelon intercepts an e-mail message. How can it decide that the person is a U.S. citizen and therefore no action should be taken? Conversely, for non-U.S. citizens in the United States, how can it identify and extract their e-mail (or does it just ignore U.S. e-mail traffic? Unless they have a copy of an e-mail provider's account lists, how can they identify one account as being targetable — specifically, foreign-based — and another as not?

John McLean

Zurich, Switzerland

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