Thursday, June 22, 2006

Government on the cheap

First, Gov. Tim Pawlenty wanted contractors to front their own money in order to get contracts to work on the Crosstown Commons project. The result? Nobody submitted a bid, and the project is now delayed for at least a couple of months.

Now Pawlenty wants private businesses to lend the state their top IT experts for a year -- for free.

The state is asking high-tech firms and large corporations to lend their computer experts for as long as a year to the Office of Enterprise Technology. The private companies would continue to pay their employees' salaries and benefits.

The computer experts would be put to work on an ambitious project to reinvent the government's computer network. The proposal lists 14 categories of work, ranging from cyber security to systems development to government Web site design.

The first question that jumps to mind is, "why would the private sector agree to this?" The answer to that, the state hopes, is civic-mindedness and the chance to guide the direction of state government.

That's a beautiful thought. And if it works without murky quid pro quos, great; I'll admit I was wrong.

But consider these other thoughts:

1. Why would a party that routinely demonizes government as "the problem" suddenly expect companies to respect government enough to donate their top people?

2. There is no free lunch. Why is it better to effectively tax a few individual companies in order to fill a statewide need, rather than spreading the pain around by simply hiring the necessary experts with taxpayer money?

3. What kind of example do we set when our government keeps trying to find ways to not pay for what it wants?

The article calls this a "grand experiment." But it doesn't strike me as grand so much as chintzy, an attempt to chisel the private sector for something that should simply be paid for like any other government obligation. This isn't the Peace Corps; this isn't an attempt to change the world. It's computer infrastructure. We would not expect Dell to give the state free PCs, nor would we expect AT&T to provide free high-speed data links. So why should we expect free IT design services?

A "grand experiment" would be a project designed to help citizens directly, like a statewide WiFi network or an education initiative or something like that. Modernizing the government's computer network just doesn't fit the bill. It's small-bore thinking wrapped up in gaudy language.

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