The news stories coming out of Washington these days are pretty much all bad — government shutdowns, partisan bickering, and both parties’ leaders acting more like children in a sandbox than statesmen in their august Capitol chambers.
We are tempted to just throw up our hands, curse all the politicians in both parties and say that all governments are just incompetent and a waste.
But it does not have to be this way.
There are some proven ways to make government work better, operate more effectively and save some of our hard earned taxes – all at the same time.
The most obvious tools that are not being used, especially here in South Carolina, are the new digital technology tools. I’m not talking about some futuristic, pie in the sky, new thing that is going to one day get invented and somehow solve our problems.
No, I’m talking about the here and now — software and tools that are on the shelf and could be bought, installed and used tomorrow.
Let me explain. A few years ago, my company was involved with a big, international, not-for-profit technology project. Microsoft was our lead funder. One evening I got to enjoy a very expensive steak dinner with some very good wine in a very nice rooftop restaurant watching a very beautiful sunset over Puget Sound in Seattle, home of Microsoft. My dinner companions (they picked up the check) were the heads of worldwide and U.S. government sales for Microsoft. These guys knew more about governments and technology than just about anyone on the planet.
Over the second bottle of wine, I asked them a very simple question: “For the average state government in the U.S., how much money could they save if they simply installed and used the currently available technology — what they could buy off the shelf today?”
Their answer was shocking. For the next few minutes they debated between themselves whether the number was closer to 10-15 percent or 25-30 percent. So just for argument sake, let’s choose the middle number of 20 percent. Think about that — we could save 20 percent of the cost of state government by just being smart and using the right tools.
So what does this mean in real money and spending here in South Carolina? The 2013-14 General Fund budget is about $7 billion. Now, this is just state generated money and doesn’t include all the federal money and other funds that may have strings attached with certain restrictions on how it is spent. If you add in everything, the total state spending is about $23 billion but this $7 billion is “our money” — funds that we as a state generated and money we can spend any way we want.
The math works out like this: 20 percent of the General Fund of $7 billion is $1,400,000,000. That’s real money. And, even better, it’s “free money,” because it’s existing money we could save to spend on other things we need, or to cut taxes and give the money back to the tax payers.
Well, that’s simple you say. Tell them to “just do it.”
Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy here in the Palmetto State. It should be — but it isn’t. What other states seem to be able to do as a matter of course, we screw up, and screw up big time. Just two current examples:
Hacking scandal — We are all painfully aware of the recent hacking scandal that caused 5.7 million current and former South Carolina taxpayers to have their tax and other personal information stolen. We will spend perhaps as much as $50 million or more over several years to “fix” it. The great irony is that had state government installed a simple dual-password system that costs just $25,000, the hacker likely would not have gotten in. If this had happened in the private sector, the head person (aka, the Governor) would have been out of a job and on the street by sundown.
Child Support Enforcement — In 1988, the federal government passed a very reasonable law that required all states to install a computerized system to ensure that parents paid their child support as required by the courts. This was part of a crackdown on “deadbeat dads.” The feds told the states they had nearly 10 years to get it installed and up and running.
To this day, South Carolina has still not gotten it done. In fact we have paid a total of over $104 million in fines to Washington — simply because of our incompetence.
And it’s not like we in South Carolina had to figure all this stuff out on our own; there are 49 other states with the same issues and they got it right. No other state has lost this much data. No other state has been so incompetent about installing the right computer system to collect child support.
Again, it does not have to be this way.
We elect our governor and other officials to run the government – and they are failing us in so many ways, but especially in the area of technology.
When national or global companies are looking around to decide where to invest their money in new plants and to hire thousands of new employees – what do they think of us if we can’t even figure out how to run the basic technology that everyone else in the world is using effectively?
It just doesn’t compute… and it doesn’t have to be this way.