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Byline: Kimit Muston Local View

I have stumbled upon what should be the new motto for all well-intentioned bureaucrats. I think they should be required once a year to raise their right hands and repeat it, like a Miranda warning, ``it'' being a quote from a recent front page story in the Daily News.

Here's the quote: ``It's insane. It's cumbersome. It's awkward. It's ready to collapse under the weight of the bureaucracy.'' A little music and it could be an opera.

The words are those of an heroic, if anonymous, Los Angeles city employee, speaking about PRIMA - the Procurement Receiving Inventory Management and Accounts payable system - the newest high-tech tool of the inefficient, ineffective and invincible juggernaut that is the Los Angeles City Hall bureaucracy.

Operated by the city's General Services Administration, PRIMA is supposed to take advantage of the economics of scale. Instead of each city department ordering paper clips - and thousands of other items - PRIMA would buy thousands of boxes of paper clips for all the departments at the same time, paying less for each individual clip than the individual departments could on their own.

It must have sounded like a great idea at the time. But the same was probably once said about the Tower of Babel.

Getting supplies now took longer sometimes, because PRIMA often held orders until the demand was high enough to push the unit price down. And isolated departments began running out of paper clips - among other things.

They quickly filed more desperate requests, which PRIMA evaluated according to its own complicated, not to say occasionally arcane, priorities, which caused more delay, more shortages and growing frustration.

Anyone who has ever dealt with a central supply system could have predicted what was going to happen next.

Adapting to the sudden unexplained shortages with laudable initiative, city employees began hoarding paper clips and every other item on their inventory lists, and then bypassing PRIMA entirely by pilfering needed supplies from other offices, spreading the sudden isolated shortages, which then created more havoc, damaged morale and made poor PRIMA even more inefficient than before.

The LAPD, ``served'' by PRIMA and the GSA, now has a severe shortage of yellow crime scene tape. They don't have film for the Polaroid cameras they use to record the bruises on the victims of domestic violence and child abuse.

They don't have accident scene reports to record the details of fender benders. (Try explaining that one to your insurance company: ``No, I could prove it wasn't my fault except the officer at the scene didn't have the right form.'')

The same thing is going on in every other department in the city government. It all sounds silly until you try doing your job without paper clips. Or toilet paper. Or road flares. Or printer ink, or keyboards, or pens - or reorder forms.

Perhaps they should rename the system PRIMA DONA, the new suffix standing for ``Don't bother Ordering Nothing, Anybody!''

Robert Jensen, the assistant head of the GSA, is upbeat about the disaster that is PRIMA. ``We're learning more every day ...'' he says, sounding like a publicity agent for the Titanic.

Central Supply has been the unattainable dream of bureaucrats ever since the Babylonians ran into some language difficulties on their mud brick production line.

In the Soviet Union they called such systems Five Year Plans, and the last one was off by about four years, 11 months and 29 days.

Like every Central Supply system that came before it, PRIMA was doomed to failure because the real motivation behind its creation was not economy; that was merely the justification.

Don't think of such systems as Central Supply, think of them as Central Control: He who controls the paper clip supply thinks he controls the world and everybody in it. And that is the bureaucrat's real elusive goal: control.

I don't like being caught agreeing with Ayn Rand, but, as she pointed out, the perfect supply system has never been designed because the perfect user has never been found - except in Plato's Republic.

We live human beings are cranky, independent creatures who tend to use our initiative whether we're supposed to or not. No high-tech program is foolproof because the computer is not the solution to human nature.

The old purchasing system, where every department ordered what and when it needed, wasn't perfect, which may be why it worked. In other words, a little anarchy may be essential to the maintenance of good order, and good reorder as well.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 27, 2001

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