Saturday, January 2, 2010
The Twin Threads of Competence and Trust
Let’s talk about the twin threads--the thread of computerized silicon, the thread of personal trust--that connect two of the biggest public concerns of today: homeland security and healthcare.
The thread of computerized silicon requires government competence. And so we must wonder: Is the government competent enough to run a complex project? And the thread of personal trust requires public confidence: Are its employees honest enough to be trusted?
The strength of the twin threads is vital to both our physical safety and our medical wellbeing. And so if the threads were to break--and they are now fraying badly--not only would public acceptance for homeland security measures and healthcare reform be lost, but we would all be at greater risk from terror and from disease.
Let’s take up homeland security first. Should regular Americans trust the government to keep them safe from terrorism? That’s been a concern for years, but such concern has been greatly amplified by the attempted Christmas Day bombing of NWA flight 253. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, as we all recall, that “the system worked.” Does that inspire confidence in her--or in the system in which she is a prominent part?
As Maureen Dowd put it in The New York Times:
If we can’t catch a Nigerian with a powerful explosive powder in his oddly feminine-looking underpants and a syringe full of acid, a man whose own father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a traveler whose ticket was paid for in cash and who didn’t check bags, whose visa renewal had been denied by the British, who had studied Arabic in Al Qaeda sanctuary Yemen, whose name was on a counterterrorism watch list, who can we catch?
Commenting on this debacle in The Washington Post, Thomas E. McNamara, a security appointee in both the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations, noted the continuing challenges to federal threat-information sharing, a key to effective counter-terrorism. Spreading blame widely, McNamara accused both the Bush and the Obama administrations, as well as Congress, of failing to provide “the high-priority attention required to reform how national security information is processed.”
That’s a damning point. And yet who would say that McNamara is wrong?
McNamara concluded, “While the rest of the nation marches into 21st-century information management, the federal government cannot remain mired in 20th-century practices.” So again, we must ask: How much confidence can we have in our homeland security system? How much real reform can we expect from the current crew?
Yet in addition to incompetence, a strain of malevolence seems to be running through the homeland security system. Recently we learned that Errol Southers, the Obama administration’s nominee for administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)--which oversees, among other functions, airport-passenger screening--has abused his public trust. Back in the 80s, while he was an FBI agent, Southers accessed a government database looking for damaging information about a romantic rival, an illegal action which at the time drew an official reprimand. And then, last year, he misled Congressional investigators about those past actions. When confronted with evidence of his past misdeed, Southers’ answer was that he had forgotten about it.
Yet not only is the Obama administration sticking by Southers; many US Senators are stepping forward to defend him as well. He should be confirmed, they say, even though he misled them.
We might ask: If Southers is confirmed and takes his post, what confidence can we have about the sanctity of private data at TSA? And looking ahead, we might also ask: What’s going to be the public reaction as the TSA installs more full body scanners--the kind that reveal people’s private parts--in airports? Such scanners might be essential to airline security, but who is going to trust TSA to respect people’s privacy and dignity? What credibility would TSA have in its assurances that embarrassing pictures won’t go circulating through the TSA bureaucracy--and from there to the Internet? And what about the next security intrusion after that?
For many reasons, Americans lack faith in the Department of Homeland Security, which spends $55 billion a year.
Next we come to healthcare, for which the government expects to oversee trillions in new federal spending. At the national level, the oversight and management of a healthcare system is ultimately an information issue; it’s all about computers and competence. Does the government know about upcoming public-health crises? Is it properly funding needed research? Does it know who has health insurance and who doesn’t? Does it have a solid system for reimbursing doctors and hospitals? And does it have the tools for ferreting out waste, fraud, and abuse?
To gain perspective on those questions, all of which require technical competence, we might think back to last year’s swine flu epidemic--during which the Department of Health and Human Services mispredicted vaccine production by 85 percent. And so we might ask: If the homeland security bureaucracy proved, during this past year, that it was incompetent and untrustworthy, should we assume that the healthcare bureaucracy is any better? Recalling the words of Thomas E. McNamara--that the feds “remain mired in 20th-century practices”--we might wonder why anybody would think that federal health databases are any better managed than federal homeland security databases.
Indeed, for further perspective on the federal government’s computer competence, we might recall the stimulus-data fiasco of November, in which the supposedly cyber-savvy White House’s own Recovery.gov website was found to be shot full of errors. The site claimed, for example, that the Ninth Congressional district of Tennessee had gained “156.2” jobs, while the completely mythical “47th Congressional District” of the Volunteer State had gained a grand total of three jobs, thanks to $2.3 million in stimulus spending. Nearly $800,000 per job--would the White House really have wanted to brag about that achievement, even if it were true?
But on health, on homeland security, or on any other cyber-subject, we might further ask: Is Congress providing proper oversight and needed checking-and-balancing against incompetence and malfeasance?
If not, then executive-branch snafus and abuses are likely to continue. And so it will be impossible to snuff out the rumors and paranoia that sprout like nightshades when the government is seen as going rogue--fearful phantasms of coercive rationing, mandatory euthanasia, or “death panels.”
If Obama wished to restore confidence in his leadership, he would make major changes in homeland security. He would call in the CEOs of Google, Intel, Cisco, and Apple, and listen closely to their suggestions for ensuring effective and trustworthy data systems. If he were to do so, he would increase confidence in his homeland security apparatus; indeed, as a bonus, he might find that public confidence in his healthcare system, too, was on the rise.
Anyone who presumes to lead the federal government will find that support for homeland-security and health policies depends on the strength of those two threads--the silicon thread of competence and the personal thread of trust.
So what to do? The prime objective should be to demonstrate effectiveness and prudence. Is the federal government current demonstrating such qualities?
Posted by James P. Pinkerton at 7:46 PM