Stepping Into Quicksand

Stepping Into Quicksand

by / October 5, 2004
There's no doubt outsourcing/privatizing is now an accepted strategy in government IT. Cities, counties and states across the country, after taking a hard look at what they want to be responsible for (or not), recognize the logic of paying someone else to worry about a particular IT problem.

It's easier to make that decision when what you pay somebody else costs less than what you'd spend to do it yourself. What doesn't seem to be so easy, judging from a recent rash of bad press, is avoiding the appearance of collusion in IT contracts.

The CIO of San Jose, Calif., resigned in early August after a city audit raised questions about a multimillion dollar IT contract. The audit found that the contract did not conform to city municipal code and alleged that key IT staff, including the CIO, didn't exactly tell the City Council the truth about the winning vendor's involvement in the RFP process.

Florida also is smarting from contracting problems. A report from the state inspector general laid out a series of allegations that IT staff in several state agencies improperly accepted gifts from companies. Two high-profile resignations from one agency, the Department of Children and Families, came amid published news accounts of the two men accepting gifts such as a ticket to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., concert tickets and expensive meals.

To be fair, the inspector general's report also noted that many of the improper gifts have been repaid. But that's not the point. The point is that this sort of thing keeps happening.

It doesn't do anybody any good when an IT contract -- or any contract, for that matter -- gets stuck with the guilty-by-association tag because of shady dealings. Taxpayers will be harsh in their judgment of any sort of contract boondoggle they read about in the paper. They'll not likely remember the part of the story that says those accused of taking improper gifts made the appropriate reimbursements.

When citizens read the newspaper and see sordid details of what appears to be dirty dealing, they get angry. These are the people who pay the taxes that support IT deals. These are the people who vote. These are the people who may well call their legislator's office and complain about "wasteful" technology spending.

Newspapers are duty-bound to uncover questionable behavior by public officials. And of course, newspaper publishers know that juicy news of a seemingly illicit deal sells papers.

That may not always be fair, but that's the way it is. It's up to public-sector officials to make sure newspapers don't have the chance to report this sort of story.
Shane Peterson Associate Editor