Everybody in Washington, D.C. is running to catch up with the latest dustup over metadata or data mining, or whatever we are supposed to call it. One after another, we seem to have finally entered the twilight zone of scandals. The director of the FBI appears clueless and a high school dropout with a security clearance is calling the tunes.
But less you think Uncle Sam has became all knowing and all powerful, I call your attention to GAO-13-524. It’s sort of scorecard on troubled information technology (IT) projects in the federal government. Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, sent it over to me. I think he wants to caution me about being too optimistic about what new computer systems can do when it comes to food safety.
Indeed, while metadata and data mining might leave us all with the impression that our federal government is the Master of the computing universe, nothing could be further from the truth. If the total dollars lost through abandoned computer projects within the federal government were ever reported, it would be staggering.
I remember several years back, CBS’s 60 Minutes did a segment on how a failed computer upgrade at the FBI could not even produce email accounts or internet access for field agents. We trust they’ve moved on and cleared all that up.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) scorecard tracks 162 “at risk” IT investments currently in the federal government. Thirty (30) of these have been put through an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) TechStat Accountability Sessions or just TechStat for short.
The GAO report calls for more review sessions for the government’s troubled projects. Since it began in January 2010 through April 2013, 79 of these TechStats have focused on 55 troubled IT investments involving 23 federal agencies. USDA has 15 at-risk IT investments, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s assigned department, Health and Human Services (HHS), has 16.
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has placed much hope in a system it calls the Public Health Information System (PHIS). It’s been described as a user-friendly, web-based application that will allow FSIS to collect, consolidate and analyze data. We heard rumblings from meat inspectors that PHIS is not working out to be all the it could be.
I am not sure when mere data becomes metadata, but we’ve been told the goal is to have PHIS make suggestions to meat inspectors each day on what they might want to accomplish. They call that “informed decision making.”
Nor am I really sure how the meat inspectors are using PHIS today or just how useful it is. I do know one of the GAO recommendations is directed at Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. GAO says the Secretary “should address weaknesses in agency and bureau-led TechStat processes and management outlined in this report.”
Others with troubled IT projects got the same message.
To sum up, thanks to those 18 federal agencies in Washington D.C. that are often referred to as “the intelligence community” Uncle Sam has metadata on you and I. When it comes to making their computers work the way they want them to, I am sure the National Security Agency has a blank check to make it happen and USDA must play by the rules and live within budget.
For my money, I’d sooner meat inspectors arriving at a new plant were able to call up the latest non-compliance or detention information than have some NSA contractor getting paid for knowing I was late returning library books last week.
Probably the best news for the public is that agencies that work on food safety are willing to put themselves “at risk” of failure in order to improve the systems they need to do their jobs. It’s good to see they’ve been taking GAO’s advice and OMB’s help. Making big changes on a budget is never easy.
That’s the world in which food safety agencies live, now and probably forever.© Food Safety News