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Government competence
Posted by: McQ on Monday, May 05, 2008

An oxymoron?

You decide:
Hundreds of employee laptops are unaccounted for at the U.S. Department of State, which conducts delicate, often secret, diplomatic relations with foreign countries, an internal audit has found.

As many as 400 of the unaccounted for laptops belong to the department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program, according to officials familiar with the findings.

The program provides counterterrorism training and equipment, including laptops, to foreign police, intelligence and security forces.

Ironically, the Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program is administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), which is responsible for the security of the department’s computer networks and sensitive equipment, including laptops, among other duties. It also protects foreign diplomats during visits here.
This is how well one department handles not only security but property paid for by taxpayers.
On Feb. 6, the department’s Senior Assessment Team gathered at the State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom to discuss the security of “personal identification information.”

The department’s official in charge of computer equipment, John Streufert, warned the more than two dozen officials present that the department did not have good records of its inventory.

A “significant deficiency” relating to laptops existed, Streufert said, according to a source who attended the meeting.

[...]

The official who chaired the meeting, Christopher Flaggs, the department’s deputy chief financial officer, also warned that revelation of the laptop losses could develop into a “material weakness,” an accounting term-of-art that essentially means inventories are out of control.

“It’s the worst flaw you can have in management control,” one close observer of the State Department’s problems said.
Apparently no policies or procedures which procured and secured laptops that gave the Department a way to keep up with who had them and whether they were secure.

I have to wonder what would happen to the person in the corporation I work for, and which provides me with a laptop, if this same problem existed. Well really I don't have to wonder, but I do wonder what will happen to the person or persons responsible for this particular mess.

My guess - nothing.

At this point the Department has no idea of where the laptops are, what information has been compromised (and in situations like this, until you know otherwise you have to assume it has all been compromised), or frankly, what to do about it.

Another, in a long line of examples, of why you really don't want government running anything in your life.
 
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400 missing laptops? Are you kidding me? How in the world do you lose 400 laptops???
 
Written By: meagain
URL: http://
Apparently you give them to the State Department.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.QandO.net
Not to worry. I am sure any sensitive data on those laptops (although I am sure that those security-conscious folks had none on theirs) is password protected.
 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
Any bets on how many machines (laptops, desktops, even servers) are missing from GM or Citibank? The fact is, when you are dealing with tens or hundreds of thousands of systems, some are going to go missing. Most of the time, it’s innocent accounting problems. For example, employee A has a system, and is on record as having it. Employee A leaves the company. Employee A’s manager gets employee B as a replacement, and gives him A’s laptop because it’s available and otherwise it’s a week until B is productive. Employee B then gets his laptop, moves everything over, and puts A’s laptop aside waiting for IT to claim it. But IT doesn’t know that B has it. Over some months, the laptop ends up in a secretary’s drawer, she’s transferred, and the new secretary simply assumes that the laptop is a department spare or something. That laptop is now thoroughly unaccounted for, anyone would call it lost, yet it still exists and is still under positive control. This kind of thing happens all the time in large organizations.

How do you lose 400 laptops? The amazing thing is when you don’t lose them.

Now, all that said, you’d think that the controls would be stricter on security-sensitive systems, and the State Department clearly needs to pick up the ball on that end of things at least. But on the non-critical systems, the truth is that it’s often more expensive to find the systems than their value in either information or physical worth.

 
Written By: Jeff Medcalf
URL: http://www.caerdroia.org/blog
Oh, and a side note, this kind of problem is a real winner for RFID systems and a good tracking database, because it can locate these systems easily and (relatively) cheaply, or at least determine when and where they left the system’s control.

I know of no company or government organization that has effectively implemented such a system, however.

 
Written By: Jeff Medcalf
URL: http://www.caerdroia.org/blog
Employee A leaves the company. Employee A’s manager gets employee B as a replacement, and gives him A’s laptop because it’s available and otherwise it’s a week until B is productive. Employee B then gets his laptop, moves everything over, and puts A’s laptop aside waiting for IT to claim it. But IT doesn’t know that B has it. Over some months, the laptop ends up in a secretary’s drawer, she’s transferred, and the new secretary simply assumes that the laptop is a department spare or something. That laptop is now thoroughly unaccounted for, anyone would call it lost, yet it still exists and is still under positive control.
Actually it’s not that difficult. In my company the manager doesn’t make that decision - when employee A leaves, his laptop goes to corporate IT before the last paycheck is sent. If B wants everything moved over from A’s laptop, B sends his laptop to IT who takes care of that. The small loss in productivity is ameliorated by a priority at IT and FedEx. Positive control.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.QandO.net
I’m not saying positive control of laptops can’t be done, merely that it is difficult to do and most organizations, including companies, don’t get it right much of the time. I’m not trying to excuse the government, but to note that this is a harder problem than it seems at first glance.

At one company where I worked, we had something like 100000 servers or controllers of various types around the world that we were being billed for. The company that was billing us, to which we had outsourced support of these systems, is one of the largest computer support companies in the world. An audit of one city’s servers found that of 440 servers listed, only 322 existed (the rest were who-knows-where and probably long ago decommissioned) and there were 11 servers that existed but were not on the records. You would think that servers, that don’t move around like laptops, would be easier to account for, but if you once let your records get out of date or poorly maintained, regaining control becomes nearly impossible, and almost always impractical.

Again, secured systems (executive systems, financial systems, government computers with sensitive data, etc.) should be under a much tighter regime, and could theoretically be more easily brought under control having gotten out of control. Still, it’s a difficult problem, and the fact that they found the number of systems that are missing means that (presuming they are serious about fixing the problem) that they working in the right direction.

 
Written By: Jeff Medcalf
URL: http://www.caerdroia.org/blog
Well McQ you’d better HOPE that "gov’mint competence" wasn’t no oxy-moe-ron...You spent 28 years with them off and on...are you saying that you were INCOMPETENT? Were your battalion and brigade commadners, your company commanders? How about Petraeus? Oh or is it that the ARMY isn’t the government?

Why I’m not a Libertarian Number 34,678...broad brush, guv’mint is stoopit statements. And when a man who proudly and loudly proclaims his government service says things like that it makes me laugh....

Jeff Medcalf makes a good point. Let me ask another question? That 400 Laptops, represents what PERCENTAGE of laptops in the State Department? And that percentage of lost laptops compares to a corporation of equivalent size and scope HOW?
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Apparently you give them to the State Department.
An army of homers (to paraphrase Glenn)
 
Written By: capt joe
URL: http://
I have to wonder what would happen to the person in the corporation I work for, and which provides me with a laptop, if this same problem existed. Well really I don’t have to wonder, but I do wonder what will happen to the person or persons responsible for this particular mess.
That would be the CIO. If your corporation is anything like the corporation at which I used to work, the answer is he’ll get a nice fat bonus, and his stock options repriced so they’re not underwater. It is important to provide incentives to retain such valuable institutional intelligence.
 
Written By: Retief
URL: http://
Well McQ you’d better HOPE that "gov’mint competence" wasn’t no oxy-moe-ron...You spent 28 years with them off and on...are you saying that you were INCOMPETENT? Were your battalion and brigade commadners, your company commanders? How about Petraeus? Oh or is it that the ARMY isn’t the government?
Of course there is incompetence in the military. For heaven sake, many of those leaving mid career aren’t leaving to spend more time with their families. They’re leaving because they’ve failed to be picked up for promotion too many times.

The difference is the military is authoritarian and stresses both responsibility AND accountability. And they can make it stick. So for the most part, the incompetent usually don’t rise to the top (or get anywhere near it) or run anything of any significance or size. There are exceptions - like LTG Ricardo Sanchez, but they’re hardly the rule like in government union protected places like DoS, etc.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.QandO.net
McQ, just curious about your opinion on this.
The difference is the military is authoritarian and stresses both responsibility AND accountability. And they can make it stick. So for the most part, the incompetent usually don’t rise to the top (or get anywhere near it) or run anything of any significance or size. There are exceptions - like LTG Ricardo Sanchez, but they’re hardly the rule like in government union protected places like DoS, etc.
Does it take a war to make that true, or is it equally true in peacetime?
 
Written By: Retief
URL: http://
Does it take a war to make that true, or is it equally true in peacetime?
It takes place in both peacetime and war. And it takes place from very low levels on up. Its about taking ownership of your profession and doing what is necessary to weed out those you don’t think are worthy (for any variety of reasons) of "your" (name your branch of the service).

War has a tendency to speed up such identification and also to quickly point out the incompetent who have somehow managed to slip through the system to that point (you can’t really simulate war properly in peacetime in order to ferret out the possible incompetents whose incompetencies are related to performance on a battlefield).

However, it isn’t perfect and has been a complaint among both officers and NCOs that the rating systems and priorities in the peace-time military tend to favor one skill set, while, in many cases, war has a tendency to favor another skill set not alway welcome in peace. I’m sure you’re familiar with David Hackworth’s designation of peace-time "warriors" who he felt wouldn’t know the lethal end of a weapons system on 2 out of 3 tries. He called them "perfumed princes" and saw them as more tied in politically than militarily competent. True perfumed princes are the first to be found out in the transition from peace to war.

What most officers and NCOs would like to see is the wartime skill sets be recognized as the most desired with rating and promotion schemes set up to reward them.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.QandO.net
What most officers and NCOs would like to see is the wartime skill sets be recognized as the most desired with rating and promotion schemes set up to reward them.
When these wartime skill sets McQ speaks of are not front and center in the rating/promotions schemes, the result is visited upon the troops in the field. Incompetence leads to unnecessary deaths on the battlefield and even worse, defeat. Too may accountants and too few real combat leaders results in ever more efficient ways of counting dead - your own.
 
Written By: SShiell
URL: http://
McQ, Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
 
Written By: Retief
URL: http://
"Jeff Medcalf makes a good point. Let me ask another question? That 400 Laptops, represents what PERCENTAGE of laptops in the State Department? And that percentage of lost laptops compares to a corporation of equivalent size and scope HOW?"
All reasonable questions, but there is a difference between a government agency and a corporation. I’m forced to fund the govt. agencies’ incompetence and it has no competitive pressure to attempt to do a good job. That, tied in with the potential security issue, means they should be held to a higher standard.

 
Written By: Grimshaw
URL: http://
Well, at least they’re not The Peoples’ Tractors, rusting away in the fields.
 
Written By: Billy Beck
URL: http://www.two—four.net/weblog.php
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