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Incompetence Abets Malice In Alaska

Napoleon famously remarked that it was best not to attribute to malice that which could be explained by stupidity. But sometimes one gets a little help from the other.

AP asked for documents using Alaska's freedom of information laws. The state informed them that the tab will be over $15 million. The State of Alaska is getting a lot of these requests and its IT staff has been "overwhelmed" by them. Superficially, the problem seems to be that they don't know what the hell they're doing:

How did the cost reach $15 million? Let's look at a typical request. When the Associated Press asked for all state e-mails sent to the governor's husband, Todd Palin, her office said it would take up to six hours of a programmer's time to assemble the e-mail of just a single state employee, then another two hours for "security" checks, and finally five hours to search the e-mail for whatever word or topic the requestor is seeking. At $73.87 an hour, that's $960.31 for a single e-mail account. And there are 16,000 full-time state employees. The cost quoted to the AP: $15,364,960.

.... And this is what they're doing every time someone makes a request. That is, they're apparently not taking any effort to save time or effort by, say, just extracting the mailbox once, or setting up a data warehouse of old emails. But hey, if they can get someone to pay for it every time, isn't it the American way to exploit the situation for gain?

I suppose I should leave it at that, but as someone with a much better than average grasp of IT operations principles, the situation irks the hell out of me. Let's just leave aside for the moment that if this description of activities required is accurate, they've got a hopelessly incompetent IT staff (both at the level of execution and architecture). Implausibly incompetent, in fact. Let's just look at the activities themselves. If we do that, we can see that somebody is scamming somebody somewhere, because there's no way it should take five hours of "programmer" [sic] time to extract a mailbox from an archive. (I can imagine that it might plausibly take an hour or two for the server to execute the extraction, but there's no way that a person should be billable for that entire time unless they've got some really gross problems with employee slacking up there.) (And by the way, "programmer" would just be a job title for that person -- at least, I bloody well hope so. If an actual programmer is required for that task, then in addition to being fired, the system architect should be stripped of any professional IT certifications he/she possesses.)

What the "security" checks are, I don't know, but I suspect that it amounts to auditing the mail spools for the presence of passwords or "secret" server names. In any case, the two hour figure is implausible in two ways. First, if they're audits for specific vulnerabilities, they should be automated, and thus would require at most 10-15 minutes of billable time, not two hours. (If they're not automated, that's a problem, because there's a probability that some steps in these "security" tests are going to be missed.) Second, the security checks would probably be more comprehensive and more difficult than the actual search operations, and take more time -- here, they're estimated at a lower cost. 

Finally, five hours to search for the offending words or phrases is quite absurd. It's true that Exchange and Outlook don't search that quickly (and I'm given to believe that AK is an Exchange shop), but they search much faster than that. And in any case, again, most of that "search" time is going to be time when the operator (who will not be a "programmer", except maybe in job title only) is just sitting at his/her console twiddling thumbs. I.e., the time bloody well should be spent doing something else.

The "five hours to search" figure, actually, though, might be the one slightly realistic figure. Redaction isn't itemized in the total above, but it is mentioned in the article, so one could imagine that the five hours includes redaction time. That said, we know that the state uses an absurdly time- and labor-intensive redaction method. Saying that they're 'not set up for' digital redation, they print hardcopies and redact those, then photocopy the redactions. Now, if you're redacting hardcopy, then yes, you absolutely photocopy, because otherwise it's possible to read the redacted text in many cases. But if you redact digitally by deleting the redacted text and replacing it with, say, the letter 'X', then there's no possibility of reading the redacted text and you haven't had to take the time and effort to to print, magic-marker and photocopy all that hardcopy.

Plus -- and here's the best part -- every PC in the AK state governmenment is "set up" to do this. After all, they all have 'Delete' and 'X' keys.

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