Power User: Still seeking common sense, the Power User logs off

John McCormick

I've spent years in Washington and elsewhere and have concluded that lack of common sense is by far the greatest threat facing this country. The examples are seemingly endless.

The procurement process can be so complex that new purchases may be several years behind the technology curve. Windows and Microsoft Office are the government standard, but free open-source alternatives are available that would save taxpayers millions every year. Do either of those things make sense?

We've spent years arguing over HDTV standards yet phishing, a real problem for millions, has only recently been made a civil offense in California. You can't even sue over it any place else.

If malware is a problem in the office, why not discipline people who open e-mail attachments from strangers and end up spreading worms? Then mandate that Rich Text Format be a default file format instead of the more dangerous Microsoft .doc format.

MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte is building $100 laptops for Third World families, yet the U.S. can't fund wireless broadband or basic PCs for all this country's children. Is it too expensive to make this incredible resource available to everyone in the U.S., but not too expensive to maintain a nuclear arsenal? Why not require power utilities to provide broadband Internet in rural areas? It seems simple to me.

An infant can't board an airplane because he shares a name with a terror suspect, but we don't adequately inspect cargo containers entering our ports or secure our porous borders. Evacuees trying to escape rising waters huddled in the New Orleans airport because there weren't any Transportation Security Administration shoe inspectors around. Is that common sense? Would terrorists rush to New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina in hopes of getting onto a plane unscreened?

IT and beyond

Speaking of Katrina, despite having the most government that money can buy, more people affected by that disaster were rescued by neighbors who 'borrowed' boats than by helicopters.

So what about common-sense disaster planning? Forget for a minute that working communications is about the most effective, common-sense measure we still haven't achieved. How can officials not know that many people will refuse to evacuate disaster areas unless there is some provision to save their beloved pets? And once they do start pouring into shelters, let's make sure there's a single online database to which they can add their information so fathers aren't lost to their families, or babies lost to their mothers.

How about intelligent job training programs? My 58-year-old neighbor lost his factory job and had to take training as a PC technician in order to keep his government benefits. Now he knows almost as much about computers as the average eighth-grader. Does that make sense? He was an unemployed laborer, now he's an unemployable entry-level computer technician, but someone got a government check to train him.

How about better tackling medical malpractice? Every nurse can name the bad doctors, but the public can't learn who they are. Malpractice suits and hospital mortality rates should be listed online in a central database so people could avoid endangering themselves unnecessarily.

Speed kills, but Congress doesn't mandate ignition computers to enforce a maximum potential speed for vehicles. Why should anyone be able to buy a car or truck capable of going more than 80 miles per hour? We mandate seat belt use, but teens and drunk drivers have access to cars that go 120 mph. Why?

So many things could be so much simpler. Why is common sense so uncommon?

Satchel Paige said 'Don't look back. Something may be gaining on you.' George Santayana said, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'

I say, 'Just because something gets quoted a lot doesn't make it true.' Therefore, I've always thought for myself.

This is my final Power User column. It's time for someone else to carry on and seek out common sense. But I'm not looking back.

Editor's note: After more than 20 years of insight on how government can make better use of IT, John McCormick is signing off as the Power User. We at GCN thank him for his years of dedication and pledge to carry on his mission of helping other power users accomplish their missions.

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