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404 At The State Department

Error messages are an aggravating part of modern life, whether delivered by voice recordings or website redirections. But some failures go beyond aggravation.

Imagine running into the following: “We’re sorry. The United States of America is currently down due to a computer malfunction. Please try again later. We do not yet know how much later. Thank you.”

The wording is fictional, but the problem is real.

The Associated Press reported that the State Department’s database for issuing travel documents suffered a catastrophic, global crash beginning July 19. As a result, potentially millions of people waiting for U.S. passports and visas will have to continue waiting, with no end in sight.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the crash was not restricted to any country or document type, and that the issues created an “extensive backlog” of applications. The system, called the Consular Consolidated Database, reportedly crashed shortly after maintenance was performed. The cause is still unknown, as is the time frame for clearing the backlog the problem created.

While the entire country hasn’t been leveled by a technology failure - yet - federal computer disasters like this one are routine. The high-profile rollout failure of HealthCare.gov was one of the most visible to the public, but it was hardly an isolated case.

The IRS spent two decades and billions of dollars on its “Business Systems Modernization” program. The result is that taxpayers today can finally get their refunds issued electronically in a matter of days. Unfortunately, so can fraudsters. Criminals are running rampant, stealing taxpayer IDs, creating fictitious W-2s and claiming bogus refunds before the real taxpayers have a chance to file their returns. The IRS is quick to talk about how many fraudulent returns it catches; meanwhile, huge numbers get processed, costing the government over $5 billion last year (and putting the real taxpayers through months of hassle to get their returns processed and refunds issued).

Apparently, in the two decades it took to finish the program, nobody at the IRS anticipated that the Service would need to be able to verify basic information on returns before it could reliably issue refunds.

Banks that operated that way would be fined billions of dollars by federal regulators. But nobody, except the occasional designated scapegoat, ever gets fired from the federal bureaucracy for these kinds of screw-ups. Not now. Not ever.

Whose fault is the State Department’s computer crash? Chances are good that we will never know.

This cycle happens over and over in the federal government. Nobody is ultimately responsible for anything, so nobody ever has the authority or incentive to make sure the government operates even close to normal commercial standards. Administrations always blame Congress for failing to appropriate more money for systems modernization. But as fast as Congress authorizes more spending, the bureaucracy finds new ways to waste the additional money.

The Transportation Worker Identification Credential, commonly abbreviated TWIC, faced repeated delays and technical problems as the Department of Homeland Security attempted to roll out the program. As recently as this June, serious questions remained as to whether TWIC’s biometric cards were properly implemented and, if so, whether they provided any real value. A computer glitch recently blacked out air traffic control systems through a large portion of the Southwest; the Federal Aviation Administration promptly tried to assure the public that it was rolling out a fix. Sam.gov, a system for government contractors, took years and $181 million to get anywhere near functional, after a deeply frustrating and inadequate launch. The FBI’s “Virtual Case File” project had to be dumped entirely and started from scratch because the problems were so pervasive.

In fact, research by the Standish Group found that 94 percent of large federal information technology projects in the past decade failed, according to The New York Times. Some were costlier, took longer or worked less effectively than hoped; nearly half failed outright.

Taxpayers are often promised that public officials will make government run like a business. Businesses, however, operate under the discipline of the marketplace; they either get their act together or they fail. Government faces no such discipline, and the outcome of undisciplined spending is plain for everyone in the United States to see. Or outside the United States, for those who can’t get a visa to come here.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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