Packet Rat: PTO's IT budget could be the mother of all invention

The Rat

Michael J. Bechetti

When it comes to travel, mixing business and pleasure is always risky business.

So when the Rat decided to bring the wife and ratlings along to JavaOne in San Francisco, things were bound to go haywire.

His family was traveling on frequent-flyer miles and staying with relatives, and the Rat was flying on the agency dime to learn the latest about Mustang, the next release of Java 2 Standard Edition. But while it was easy enough to book the brood's tickets through an airline Web site, the attempt to synchronize his travel with theirs was like having a root canal with Dr. Torquemada.

'They should apply for a patent on this travel process, it's so painful,' the whiskered one whined to a friend over lunch at the National Museum of the American Indian (the Rat's new favorite place to dine inside the beltway). 'And given how things are at the Patent and Trademark Office, they could probably get one.'

The cyberrodent has long watched from a distance the pain experienced by his colleagues at PTO, so the Government Accountability Office's June report to Congress on PTO's ongoing automation woes came as little surprise to him. Since the Commerce Department regularly uses PTO's cash flow from patent fees to fund other things rather than investing in the agency itself, the Rat's friends in PTO IT have become accustomed to splicing things together with whatever they can scrounge.

But that doesn't exactly make for a great enterprise architecture.

'After spending over $1 billion on its efforts from 1983 through 2004,' the GAO report says, '[PTO's] existing automation has not provided the fully integrated, electronic patent process articulated in its automation plans, and when and how this process will be achieved is uncertain.' The GAO report pointed specifically to the 'ad hoc' way PTO has implemented systems as a contributing factor in the agency's failure to make patent processing more automated.

'Ad hoc is Latin for half-cocked, I believe,' the wirebiter remarked as he bit into a bison barbecue sandwich. 'Or half-something, for sure.'

But it doesn't even seem like PTO has half an idea of what to do. 'The undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and USPTO's chief information officer acknowledged the need for improvement, but specific plans for resolving problems have not yet been developed,' GAO carped to Congress.

Of course, in an agency where people are rewarded for ap- proving as many patents as possible (and get hardly any recognition for quality work), there isn't a whole lot of incentive to get much of anything having to do with quality done. 'Why fix things when you can just ignore them?' the furry one asked between bites of fry bread.

'Of course, in PTO's defense,' the Rat's companion remarked, '$1 billion spread over 21 years doesn't seem like a lot of money in this town, does it? The Pentagon has lost track of more money than that over the last 21 years.'

'I think we've spent more than that on laser printer cartridges in the last 21 years,' the Rat replied.

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at rat@postnewsweektech.com.

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