Five Years Later

The trouble with normal is that it always gets worse.

by / August 11, 2006

9/11 never had a year date field, at least in common parlance, but the now inevitable anniversary stories will remind us that it has been five years next month. The images and emotions are indelibly stamped into our memories, subject to instant recall of that fall day when the Atlantic was breached by a handful of domestic commercial aircrafts.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, we developed a series of talks around the theme of The New Normal. The title was not unique to the Center for Digital Government, but it defined what we were trying to grasp. After one such gathering in Sacramento, Calif., an acquaintance proudly presented her new business card with the word homeland inserted into her title. "Homeland security is the new e-government," she quipped cheerfully, by which she meant the spigot of federal money would open to fund anything that could be shoehorned into the category.

To be clear, the selfless actions of brave men and women done outside of public view is what our times appear to require. The U.S. was spared a subsequent attack while Canada's brush with a homegrown "Al Qaeda-inspired" plot earlier this year suggests that maple leaves sewn on backs is no longer enough to be loved the world over. Other countries have been less fortunate. The UK, Spain, Indonesia and Morocco, among others, were rocked by terrorist attacks.

We have come to accept that some dangerous things are necessarily done under the cover of dark, but the point is, there's a larger universe of official government actions that are best done in the light. Five years later, the spigot of federal homeland security funding has made special circumstances and a growing sense of entitlement the norm.

In addition to the federal government's demonstrated penchant for no-bid contracts, the recent public spat over Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant allocation for urban centers was unseemly. New York's share fell from $207 million to $124 million in fiscal 2006 under a new risk-based formula, described by Congressman Peter King as "a knife in the back to New York," even though the city was allotted more than twice as much as the next largest city under the program. Forty-six urban areas are expected to share $710 million this year -- but they may not want to depend on it.

Just as e-government was displaced by homeland security, the homeland is subject to being overtaken by events. In 2005, Katrina put the Gulf Coast back on the funding map -- at least for a season -- but its rebuilding was 2005's political crisis. This year, immigration has returned with a vengeance, and is about to pay dividends for one or more defense contractors.

Coincidentally on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the DHS is scheduled to announce the winner of an "unusual invitation" to adapt military technologies to building a virtual fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. In May, large defense contractors were given two weeks to develop proposals for what promises to be a $2 billion contract running into the 2010s. It is the damnedest way to fund research and development or technology transfers -- considering the federal government has very little to show for the $425 million it spent on border technologies in the last decade.

Maybe that's par for the course in the new normal. If so, perhaps someone should tell the public servants who remain dedicated to "open and competitive" public procurements that Capitol Hill has been surrendered by their political masters.

And what of the companies that regularly campaign for procurement reform in the name of fair play, reasonable profits and taxpayer value? A deafening silence, perhaps out of concern for being left out -- just in case their "unusual invitation" is in the mail.
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.