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By Joel Klebanoff

Investigating Costs

Give the FBI an "A" for perseverance. On March 17, 2006, The Washington Post reported that the FBI is planning to spend $425 million to build a computerized case-management system. This comes just a little over a year after it abandoned a previous attempt to build a similar system. The FBI sunk $170 million into the earlier effort before arresting its development. Pun intended.

According to the article, that initial failure "has left agents still working largely on paper." That's likely led to a lot of uproarious laughter among the bad guys, many of whom must be rather good at developing and deploying software, judging by all of the spyware that's stealing bank and credit card information and by all of the other evil software doing other nefarious things. Wait. Maybe that's part of the FBI's plan. If so, it's devilishly clever. Don't you get it? The bad guys will laugh so hard that they won't have enough strength left to do their evil deeds. Then again, the FBI might not want to count on that as its sole crime prevention strategy.

Of course, the FBI isn't the only organization in the world that has trouble bringing systems in on budget. About three years ago, Canada implemented a gun registry. It was originally expected to cost Canadian taxpayers about $2 million after the expenses were offset by revenue from registration fees. Despite the fact that the program has now been up and running for a couple of years, not all of the numbers are in, but it's fairly certain that the original number was off by more than $1 billion, and some people think it will turn out to be as high as $2 billion when the accounting is complete. No, the "b" in billion is not a typo. True, that's for the whole gun registry program, not just the system to run it, so it's not really comparable to the FBI's case-management system cost overruns. And those are Canadian dollars, not U.S. dollars, but it's still a pretty safe bet that, even after considering the exchange rate, the Canadian Firearms Centre beat the FBI in the over-budget race, although I'm not suggesting that any country should be proud to be the winner of that competition.

They were very different systems, so it may not be a fair comparison, but at least Canada got the gun registry system running, unlike the FBI's first attempt at a case-management system. What's more, the bulk of Canada's cost overruns are already spent. The ongoing expenditures, while considerably more than originally contemplated, are not terribly high in the context of a federal budget, so, regardless of your opinion of gun registries in general, cost is probably not much of a factor in deciding whether it should be kept going. However, the gun registry was established by the Liberal Party when it was in power, and we recently elected the Conservative Party to a minority government in this country. If the Conservatives can convince some members from other parties to go along with them, they'll probably scrap the gun registry, eliminating our ability to brag about having a functioning system. Go figure.

It shouldn't be surprising that Canada is willing to spend that much money on a program intended to improve public order. (Whether the gun registry will meet that objective is not an argument I want to get into here.) After all, the phrase in the Canadian constitution that holds a position roughly parallel to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in the American Declaration of Independence is "peace, order and good government."

To be honest, if such a thing were possible, I'd rather carry a passport declaring me to be a citizen of the world than a citizen of any one country, but, that having been said, I've lived in Canada all my life, and I think it's one of the better countries around. You probably feel the same way about whatever country you live in. (I'm referring here to my belief that Canada is one of the better countries in the world, not to my preference for world citizenship.)

Despite my great respect for Canada, the difference in the Canadian and American national slogans says a lot about the difference between our two countries. When you hear, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," the first thought that's likely to come to mind is, "What a great country! Let's go out, shoot off some fireworks, and celebrate living in the best of all possible nations!" When you hear, "peace, order and good government," the first thought that's likely to come to mind is, "Oh yeah, that reminds me, I'm supposed to pick up a litre of milk on the way home from work today." (Yes, we do pick up litres of milk, not quarts or liters.) Don't get me wrong. Peace, order and good government are all noble goals, and I'm proud that Canada usually tries to achieve them. Nevertheless, they don't exactly make for inspiring verbiage. But I digress.

Obviously, it's not only governments that experience cost overruns. The difference is that when a company goes as far over budget as the FBI or the Canadian Firearms Centre did, the company risks turning a new chapter in its history. In the U.S. it's called Chapter 11, or in more severe cases, Chapter 7, the two chapters of the American Bankruptcy Code relevant to corporations. In Canada, we have sections of the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act and the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act to deal with companies that make those sorts of mistakes. If you live elsewhere, fill in the names of your own bankruptcy laws here. In contrast, when government agencies go excessively over budget, they don't go bankrupt, they just reach deeper into the taxpayers' pockets. And if the current taxpayers can't afford it, no problem, the government will borrow the cash and take it from your kids' pockets when their time comes to be taxpayers.

What's particularly disconcerting is that the system development failures and cost overruns that I mentioned above are for programs that are supposed to be helping the good guys to maintain law and order. Knowing how proficient the bad guys seem to be at employing technology, maybe there's a way we can turn this thing around.

I don't know if you played Red Rover where and when you were a kid, but the game went like this: The neighborhood children divided themselves into two equal teams, let's call them Team A and Team B, each of which formed a line facing the other. Team A shouted, "Red Rover, Red Rover, let so-and-so come over." So-and-so was someone on Team B. That kid ran into Team A's line and tried to break through it. If the runner failed, he or she joined Team A. A child who did break through the line would not only get to go back to Team B, but he or she would also choose someone on Team A to take back to join Team B as well. The game ended when one team ceased to exist. I liked Red Rover because, while I was still always the last kid to be chosen for a team, I was quite confident that mine would be the first name called when the game began—then again, that was only because I was the one judged least likely to be able to break through the line. And it got kind of tiring being the only one to be called to run back and forth between the lines. But I'm digressing again.

So here's my plan: The good guys (the FBI, along with other government agencies and officials involved in crime prevention and law enforcement) should challenge the bad guys to a game of Red Rover. Come on, who's going to pass up the chance to play a rousing game of Red Rover? As an added inducement to get the bad guys to join in, the good guys should offer to let the bad guys have the first turn at shouting out a name. On each of their turns, the bad guys will probably call for a senior government official, but, what the heck; most of the public is sufficiently cynical to think that many government officials are already on the bad guy side of the ledger, so one or two more going over to the forces of evil isn't going to make a huge difference. Besides, many of the officials are slippery enough to get through any line no matter how tight.

Whenever it's the good guys' turn, they call out the name of one of the bad guys' system developers. Keep in mind that the good guys are backed by the government, which has access to tanks and missiles. We put a few of those in the good guys' backfield. There shouldn’t be much need to call on those weapons because the bad guys' developers are probably all pasty-faced nerds who spend their entire waking hours in front of a computer screen, sustaining themselves with pizzas that someone slides under their doors. There's no way they're going to break through the good guys' line.

Once the good guys have captured all of the bad guys' system developers, the good guys use the tanks and missiles in their backfield to declare an end to the game. They then put the developers to work creating all of the law enforcement systems that the good guys haven't been able to build cost-effectively to date. Problem solved.

I know there are still a few holes in my plan, but I figure if we set up a government commission and give it $100 million or so to work with, it should be able to iron out my scheme's wrinkles within a couple of election cycles. If the first commission can't do it, then maybe the next one or the one after that will succeed. What the hell, it'll still be cheaper than the government agencies' current system-development techniques.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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