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.

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Giving Taxpayers The Bird

The United States Department of Agriculture — the same entity that proved unable to answer the question a farmer posed to President Obama recently — is paying western farmers and ranchers millions of dollars to protect a bird that is not on the endangered species list because there are too many of them.

The bird is the sage grouse.  In the last two years, the USDA will have paid $112 million to farmers and ranchers in 11 western states to implement practices to preserve the bird’s habitat.  Yet, the sage grouse — which is found in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, South Dakota, North Dakota, Utah, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and California — is too numerous to be included on the endangered species list.  Indeed, 10 of the 11 states where the bird is found allow it to be hunted.

I’m all in favor of sensible environmental protection programs, but the key word is “sensible.”  With our current budget issues, paying millions of dollars to farmers and ranchers to try to preserve the habitats of birds that aren’t endangered is not a prudent use of federal funds — particularly when about 40 percent of every dollar spent on the program must be borrowed.  I recognize that $112 million is a mere drop in the federal budget, but we need to pay attention to every penny if we are going to bring our enormous budget problems under control.

We’re From The Government, And We’re Here To Help You

There’s a reason most Americans think the line “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help you” is funny.  It’s because we’ve all experienced the run-around at some governmental agency, where we’ve been told to move from one line to another for inexplicable reasons or we’ve been unable to get a simple answer to a simple question.

The point is well made by a story about President Obama’s recent response to a farmer’s question at a town hall meeting in Illinois.  The farmer asked about some impending regulations about dust, runoff, and noise that he had heard about, and the President — after gently encouraging the farmer to not believe everything he heard — confidently told the farmer to “Call USDA” because they would be able to answer his questions.

An enterprising reporter took the President’s advice.  The resulting story is a classic example of governmental run-around that catalogs every call the reporter made and every non-responsive response the reporter received.  Through nine phones calls over two days, the reporter is bounced from the USDA to the Illinois Department of Agriculture to the Illinois Farm Bureau, back to the Illinois Department of Agriculture and then to various departments within that agency.  Everyone steers the reporter to someone else.

The reporter ends up at the media relations department at USDA headquarters in Washington, where he receives a statement that is a classic of both bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo and the CYA mentality found in many governmental entities:  “Secretary Vilsack continues to work closely with members of the Cabinet to help them engage with the agricultural community to ensure that we are separating fact from fiction on regulations because the administration is committed to providing greater certainty for farmers and ranchers. Because the question that was posed did not fall within USDA jurisdiction, it does not provide a fair representation of USDA’s robust efforts to get the right information to our producers throughout the country.”

This story is all-too-familiar to anyone who has had to wrestle with governmental bureaucracies.  It’s one reason why many people take no comfort in confident statements that more governmental programs and more regulations will solve our problems.  And, it leaves the ultimate issue open:  Who’s going to answer the poor farmer’s question?