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.