Serve Him Well, Faithful Steed

Speaking of Richard, he needs a car in Columbia, so our black Acura sedan has now been relocated to Missouri.  I hope that it serves him as faithfully and reliably as it has served us since we bought it almost 10 years ago.

Your car is like mayonnaise — you either love it, or you hate it, and there is no middle ground.  I hate mayonnaise, but I loved the Black Ack.  I loved its graceful lines and comfortable interior, its simple dashboard and its easy to reach knobs and buttons.  I loved its easy handling, its quick burst of acceleration, and its good gas mileage.  And most of all I loved its reliability.  It had a few dings and dents, but when we turned it over to Richard it had 175,000 miles on it and was still going strong.

I drove that car pretty much every day for years, wrote about it in good times and bad, and got to know it like you get to know an old friend.  I’ll miss not seeing it in the driveway, but I’m glad that Richard is inheriting it — because I know he loves that car, too.  When you pass along an heirloom, you want to make sure that the recipient cares about it as much as you do.

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Richard’s New Beat

Starting this week, Richard is reporting for the Columbia Missourian.  The newspaper’s website has the first two pieces he’s written:  an article on a painting selected to serve as Columbia’s annual commemorative poster and a news story on arrests made in the robbery of a Domino’s delivery driver.

We’re proud of Richard and think it’s cool that he’s been published already, but I’m also glad to see the kind of articles he’s written.  A lifestyles feature story and a “police beat” report on an arrest are bread-and-butter pieces for any professional journalist.  Learn to write those stories well — using the “inverted pyramid” in which the most important facts are put up front, remembering the need to answer the “5 Ws and an H”  (who, what, where, why, when, and how) in your article, checking your quotes and sources, proofreading, and editing so that every unnecessary word hits the cutting room floor — and you can write just about anything.  Just thinking about it makes me want to grab a notepad and sprint to the nearest newsroom.

I won’t post about every article Richard writes, but if you’re interested in following his work, the Missourian has a searchable website that can be found here.

Why Fret About A $2 Million Federal Internship Program?

A few days ago the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an audit report on the Office of the Chief Information Officer’s FY 2011 and 2011 Funding Received For Security Enhancements.  It’s a report by the USDA’s internal watchdog about how one section of the USDA spent part of its budget — a look at how a tiny fraction of the sprawling federal government actually used our tax dollars.  A copy of the report is available here.

The executive summary of the report notes that, in 2010, Congress more than tripled the budget for the CIO, from an $18 million baseline to $62 million, to enhance information technology security for the agency.  In 2011, the budget was set at $40 million, more than double the $18 million baseline, for that same purpose.  The CIO therefore received $64 million in additional money over the two-year period, and it funded 16 projects with that sum.

Of the $64 million, $6.7 million — or more than 10 percent — was spent on projects not proposed to Congress.  For example, $2 million was spent on a two-year internship program that purportedly was intended to “develop and sustain a highly skilled IT security and computer technology workforce.”  The CIO spent $686,000 developing a “networking website” for the program, and another $192,000 for housing.  Only one full-time intern was hired, however.  The audit report also noted that the internship program “did little to further the more pressing objective of improving USDA’s IT security.”  Stripped of the bureaucratese, therefore, the $2 million was wasted.

Some might argue, why should we care?  It’s only a few million dollars in an overall federal budget that now amounts to trillions.  For some of us, however, a few million dollars is still a few million dollars.  We don’t want to see it wasted — particularly when, in our current deficit-spending posture, we have to borrow from somebody else, and pay them interest, as part of the ugly, wasteful bargain.

More importantly, the story of the internship program reveals a deeper truth about the bureaucratic mindset.  Why would anyone charged with enhancing IT security think an internship program was an appropriate use of the money in the first place?  The real answer, I’d wager, is empire building.  Bureaucrats want to have ongoing programs they can administer and people they can supervise; those programs get built into their job descriptions, become part of their goals and objectives for the year, and help them to move up the government wage scale.  We can only imagine how the proponents of the internship program touted their development of the “networking website,” their selection of housing, and their development of the selection process as key performance successes during the year.

This is the fundamental problem.  In a government of bureaucrats looking to build their departments and pad their resumes, the spending of tax dollars is not a significant concern on the radar screen.  That culture needs to change, so that when a mid-level administrator suggests an internship program as a proper way to improve IT security, the suggestion is met with incredulity and promptly quashed.  We need tightwads, not empire builders, in our federal agencies.

The inspector general report on the USDA CIO spending shines a light on one small part of our government, and what it illuminates is a deeply troubling cultural concern.  If we ever hope to get our spending and deficit problems under control, that culture needs to change — now.  Unfortunately, neither President Obama, nor our current Congress, is doing anything to bring about that necessary cultural change.  That is why, I think, many people are considering whether we need change at the top of our government, too.