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Fax and spend: one bureaucrat explains how his agency's technology bedevils his life and wastes your money.

Every 25 minutes, the lights go out. I sit at my government desk doing what government desk-sitters do: crunch data on the computer, write memos and reports, edit documents, answer mail from citizens, and make and answer phone calls. I may squirm around during all of this, but I stay in my chair. Then, the lights go out.

It's the sensor's fault. If there's no movement in the room for 25 minutes, the light circuit shuts down. To turn the lights back on, I have to get out of my chair and walk until the sensor tells the electrical system that there's something alive in the room.

The round trip across the room costs the government two minutes of my time every hour. That turns out to be 17 minutes a day, 85 minutes a week, 4,250 minutes or approximately 71 hours per year. The system was installed by the building's owner to save on the power bill. I don't know whether the savings are passed on to the government, but I doubt it. At the rate I am paid (including benefits), the light sensor costs the government about $3,800 in lost labor annually.

To save that time (and Uncle Sam that money), I plan to buy a used basketball at a yard sale. Then, when the lights go out, I'11 throw it at the filing cabinets opposite my desk to trip the sensor. The ball will bounce neatly back under my desk.

The new administration is considering ways to cut at least 100,000 jobs in the civilian federal workforce over the next five years. There's no doubt that some agencies are bloated and, as any thorough desk audit would reveal, could take the hit. But new technologies--light sensors among them--are partly responsible for the bloat. The time I spend trekking across rooms to turn lights back on means less time to cover a given territory of tasks. And that in turn means someone else has to pick up the work I cannot complete.

Light sensors are just the beginning. Have you ever phoned the most technologically advanced offices within any federal agency? Here's what you're likely to hear: Voice Mail Machine #1: "Good day! You have reached the Office of Technological Planning, Management, and Evaluation Systems of the U.S. Department of Blah Blah. If you have a touchtone phone and wish to speak to the computer branch, press one, followed by the pound key, now; if you wish to speak to the telecommunications branch, press two, followed by the pound key .... "

Anyone who has recently called the government can tell you that between the time you pick up the phone and work through three voice mail machines to leave your message, four to five minutes will have elapsed. In that time, you could deliver your message in person.

I make about eight calls a day to federal offices. If all of them are answered by voice mail relays, we're talking about 20 minutes a day or about 83 hours per year. No one will ever know what the government paid to have these diabolical systems installed, but I hope it is less, on an annual basis, than the $4,500 in my labor time (including benefits) which you, dear taxpayers, are shelling out for me not to talk on the phone.

When I'm not on the phone leaving a message, chances are I'm at work on my computer, one that recently hooked into a local area network (LAN) system. It's worse than the lights.

Before LANs, the government supplied me with a 286/12 computer with a 40-megabyte hard disk and a 1,200 baud modem. This technology is about as cutting edge as an Etch-A-Sketch. Nonetheless, when I turned on my antique, I could check the whole machine for viruses and get into a software program in 22 seconds. If I used the modem to dial a mainframe computer to analyze data bases, it took 42 seconds.

With LAN and a new computer, the machine runs through so many loops and synapses that getting into a software program takes not 22 seconds, but 150 seconds. To call up a mainframe computer and log-on to analyze large scale data takes three minutes, an eternity in computer time.

What are the benefits of the LAN system? At present, the only advantage it offers over the old system is to allow me to use a printer located 350 feet from my office (as opposed to the old printer located 10 feet away). This means that retrieving documents now takes five to six minutes, round trip. Most of the documents I write use either official memo paper or departmental letterhead, which, of course, means yet another 700 foot round-trip to change the paper each time I want to print.

Consequently, I now write my letters by hand. It's faster, more charming, and if your letter to the president is about, say, college tuition or university research overhead charges, there's a good chance you'll get a hand-inked response from me.

My only regret is that I won't be sending you this hypothetical letter by fax. Then again, you're probably better off. The fax machine was supposed to make communication nearly instantaneous. Insert the original into the feeder, dial the number, watch the missive get sucked into the electronic maw, pick up the original, and walk away. Easy, right?

Nope. Say you want to send a fax to a government agency on the other side of the Mall, or a national association downtown. Chances are you're not the only one, which means the queue can be up to a few hours long. After your machine tries four times to get through, it quits and belches out a busy signal. Unless you or your secretary check the centrally located (read: down the hall 100 feet, through two doorways, take a right at the corridor) machine every 25 minutes, your fax may be in a holding pattern for hours, maybe even days.

This fax purgatory makes me nostalgic for the days when we sent spandexed bikers careening through L Street traffic or when we used the "red bag," picked up every three hours by an assistant secretary's special messenger. I've clocked the "red bag" against the fax that fails to transmit on the first try. It's a dead heat.

Actually, technology is only part of the problem; we're the rest. Consider the typical government agency's computer generated mailing lists. These are often filled with "deads and duplicates," a category including folks who were last heard from when Truman was veep. Figure in people who have moved so many times that the Mafia couldn't find them, and folks whose names appear twice or thrice, each time with a slightly different spelling or zip code (including ones that put residents of Ohio in Texas). In a typical mass mailing of a free government publication to targeted mailing lists, 10 to 15 percent of the generated labels are "deads and duplicates." Trees, time, staff, postal service: however you count it, it's waste.

The only way to prevent this waste is to strip the D&Ds by hand from each set of labels produced for specific mailings. It takes me the equivalent of a solid weekend at my dining room table to do this for a set of 3,500-4,000 labels. At the rate of four publications a year, that means 64 hours of unnecessary labor at a cost to the government of about $3,200.

I'm one of the people on those mailing lists. As recently as 1991, I was receiving an average of 12 first class mail items a month from my own agency, going out on the third floor and coming back in on the sixth. Half of those were duplicates. I spent something on the order of 40 hours screaming about this to superiors in memos and on the phone. As of this writing, we're down to four items a month from my own agency, but the duplicates remain. The computer does not do this; people do.

A bureaucrat's work must focus on the customers, which is to say the citizens. We don't serve citizens with voice mail relays that announce nothing. We don't serve them when our time is eaten up waiting for electronic connections. We don't serve them by stuffing mailboxes with duplicate publications. And, of course, it's also very difficult to serve them when the lights go out.

Clifford Adelman is a senior associate in the Office of Research, U.S. Department of Education. This article was prepared in his capacity as a private citizen, and no endorsement by the Department should be inferred. Illustration by Bill Holbrook.
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Author:Adelman, Clifford
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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