What federal IT can learn from Inspector Clouseau

Wednesday - 1/8/2014, 2:35pm EST

Commentary by Bob Woods
President of Topside Consulting

As Inspector Clouseau would warn — never assume. In a classic scene with a hotel desk clerk, the inspector motions to a dog by the desk and asks "Does your dog bite?" The inspector, after being bitten says, "I thought you said your dog does not bite." The clerk responds, "That is not my dog, monsieur!" It seems as though the world is full of biting dogs these days.

Bob Woods (file photo)

The fallout of the General Services Administration conference blow up is a prime example of auditing gone wild. While I am all for taking the necessary disciplinary action against the employees involved, creating the bureaucracy that has evolved to manage a function that was serving a useful purpose is parallel to the cure being worse than the disease. The entire tourism, hospitality and conferencing business has taken a hit.

We often look at organizations and wonder why they are burdened with overhead not relevant to the current world in which we live. Often it is found to be the cures for past sins and overreactions to those sins. Politicians are particularly unhappy about surprises that come at inappropriate times and suggest someone is not doing their job. Their reaction usually involves sending in the auditors or investigators to find those to blame.

The lT business is becoming more susceptible to this oversight because our technology is pervasive and almost everyone is dependent on it in one form or the other. It is either a heyday for auditors or their worst nightmare. The fact that a congressional committee or agency oversight group takes on issues as complicated or mundane as cybersecurity or conference attendance shows the breadth and depth of the current witch hunts.

You can only imagine what kind of conference auditors themselves attend. The conference would have to be located in some place no one would ever want to go. Why hasn't Siberia turned into the next Las Vegas? Wait it's rumored caviar is sold there! Besides what happens in Siberia never stays in Siberia. Also no music or entertainment could be allowed. We can't bear the thought of auditors line dancing. Replace the electric slide with the electric chair.

What would the breakout sessions be like? Snooping 101? Developing and Exploiting Moles? Pulling Wings Off Flies on Your Day Off? Misery Doesn't Love Company or Anything Else? Better sign up early. The parking lot will be full.

In times of prosperity, we seem to want to do things in the bigger and better style. When times are tough, we retreat to doing the bare essentials and our moods turn sour. With the slowness of the economy to recover, the government is reduced to making hard choices and fingers are pointed.

Americans are, by our nature, self-reliant and inwardly focused. Look at any major tourist log around the world and you will not find the number of us you would expect. We are not world travelers and we don't appreciate the way the "other half" lives. As a result, we tend to believe we have it better or worse without much real data to reach that conclusion. We assume our government is always to blame when things go badly, and we ourselves deserve the credit if things go well.

As an IT community with a long reach to information, we need to provide more perspective as to what is fact and what is fiction. The Web can move bad information as fast as good information. In the meantime, those of us in a sour mood can use it to accumulate evidence to prove we're entitled to be miserable. If we want our government to be better, we have to start with believing in it, and perhaps, electing those who believe in it as well.

Just keep an eye on the dog that bites. Just because we in the IT business deal in information, it does not give us immunity to its misuse.

Copyright 2013 by Bob Woods. All rights reserved.


Bob Woods is the president of Topside Consulting and a former federal official with the General Services Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs , and the Department of Transportation where he worked in a variety of senior management and technology roles.