Thursday, November 19, 2009

Criticism of recovery.gov

A Facebook friend of mine recently repeated the meme that the Obama administration had spent $19 million on the recovery.gov website, and that the erroneous information that has shown up there is all Obama's fault. He also cited examples from Oklahoma and Arizona of spending attributed to nonexistent congressional districts.

In fact, the data is provided by the states, who actually spend the money, not the feds. The feds just compile the statistics. Now, I grant you that it's not that hard to write software to audit the data for validity, and it should have been done. I also find it extremely humorous that the two states he cited as examples of fishy spending are controlled by the GOP, not by Democrats.

Nobody has spent $19 million yet. The GSA awarded a contract in July for $9.5 million to build a new version of the website, substituting crappy and expensive Microsoft SharePoint for the current open source Drupal-based website. There are options for up to $9 million in additional payments through 2014 for upgrades and ongoing maintenance. I don't know if those amounts include the salaries of the staff who process the data from the states. My friend also claimed that the website could have been provided by GoDaddy for $200 a year. It is not possible to run a website with the volume and interactivity requirements of recovery.gov for $200 a year. However, using open source server software, commodity hardware, and a standard web application framework, it could probably be done very well for less than $1 million, plus annual maintenance.

IMHO as a software professional, the decision to use M$ is stupid and wasteful, but GSA procurement rules favor M$ almost to the exclusion of anything else. It is next to impossible for a federal employee to purchase a Mac or a Linux PC.

The GSA rules and the GSA decision makers predate the Obama administration, so sticking Obama with the blame for this is a stretch, even for my friend. Let's remember that the GSA writes rules subject to legislative oversight. The Dems have only controlled Congress since January, and given all the crises that were inherited after 14 years of Republican misrule in Congress and 8 years in the White House, I somehow doubt that hardware and software purchasing rules have risen to the top of the priority list. I agree, though. These Newt Gingrich-era rules need to be changed, and quickly.

Will the $19 million ultimately be spent? Absolutely. That's how every bureaucracy works. Allocated budget that is unspent is lost. There are no rewards for parsimony in a bureaucracy. That is just as true in corporations, too. Private enterprise does no better than government in this area.

That's just my opinion. I could be wrong.

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