GAO: IT may save or sour U.S. economy

There's a budget surplus, the economy is strong, unemployment is low, the

nation is at peace. But as the General Accounting Office sees it, the future

looks grim.

The forces able to destroy today's prosperity already are on the horizon,

said David Walker, comptroller general of the United States. There's globalization,

which makes the U.S. economy increasingly vulnerable to other nations' economic

troubles. There's a "demographic tidal wave" that threatens to swamp the

economy with retirees who want more government services. There are diverse

national security threats. And there is expensive, inefficient government

itself.

Information technology offers some hope of heading off disaster. Used properly,

it could be "an effective tool for high-quality, cost-effective government

services. Information technology is at the heart of improving accountability

and performance" in government, he said.

But technology poses some dangers itself, Walker said. Increased computer

use means "significant new information security and privacy threats," he

said.

A GAO audit shows that most large agencies have "significant computer security

weaknesses." From defense to tax collection to air traffic control, government

computer systems are at risk for disruption, he said. And the privacy of

medical records, credit histories and other personal data also is in jeopardy.

Besides security risks, government computer systems pose massive financial

risks. The federal government spends $38 billion a year on IT, and "for

years, federal agencies have struggled with delivering promised system capabilities

on time and within budget," Walker said. Improved management and accountability

for large-scale IT programs is essential, he said.

The current period of peace and prosperity provides Congress a rare opportunity

to try to improve government performance, Walker said. He urged senators

to undertake a comprehensive reassessment of what government does and to

study whether programs are still relevant to what Americans want, need and

can afford.

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