Quotable (#96)

In a classic article on the problems governments can be expected to face with Bitcoin adoption, Daniel Krawisz writes:

All organizations tend to evolve so as to resist change, but governments, being subject to the problems of socialism, suffer much worse from this because government operations lack a clear concept of efficiency [for] their overall success, the relative importance of any of its parts, or the relative merits of alternative organizational structuring. Consequently, governments can more easily evolve into labyrinthian structures that nobody understands without anyone realizing what is happening.

An eye-opening article called Sinkhole of Bureaucracy describes a surreal example of this phenomenon in an outstandingly incisive way. In an abandoned Pennsylvania mine, which is now an office containing 600 federal employees and endless filing cabinets, process all the federal retirement pensions on paper by hand. The system is widely understood to be insane and dysfunctional, but despite repeated and ceaseless attempts to automate the process beginning in the early 80’s, the system has not changed. It is not a problem of will, but of knowledge: there is no one available with the skills to carry through the transition successfully, no one who knows precisely what those skills would be, and no one who can evaluate anyone else for them. As a result, the attempts to develop an automated process failed because the software engineers did not understand the laws and the bureaucracy well enough to design something correctly, and the bureaucrats did not know how to tell if the software engineers knew what they were doing.

Will the federal government be able to adapt to Bitcoin? This would require building an a system not just for the one department, but for the entire organization, and it would have to be built properly — it must distribute decisions enough so that bitcoins cannot be stolen easily by employees. After reading that article, I think it is reasonable to think that the government may not be up to such a task at all.

10 thoughts on “Quotable (#96)

  1. The problem is even worse than that. I’ve worked on many Federal and State projects over the years in which the actual truth is that the governments tried to transition both staff and code at the same time. Many Cobalt developers are now retiring and very few younger generation developers work with such code. Most governmental applications still exist on old mainframes in the state of spaghetti code (i.e., code that is so nested and in strings that are sometimes thousands of lines long), that even those who are hired (like myself) to come in and transition the code to newer languages have difficulties. Why? Two aspects: the original coders are dead or retired (i.e., unavailable), and the code in question no longer serves the purpose originally intended and therefore has become a bug in the populated system.

    One can no longer tell the working code from the bugs, and the people for whom the code was intended as business users have retired as well, while newer bureaucrats and officials one deals with in learning the analyzing the business processes were intended to do, much less what those business processes are now. So the logic of the business is usually the first order of business one pursues before development ever begins. Both Business and Systems Analysis. Problem with this is that because much of the code is based on security level access, so that the people who could be effective in attaining such business and systems level expertise are not the people one needs to speak. So that one is in a stupid loop without outlet working through middle-tier bureaucrats who convey the messages back and forth with all the mistranslated understandings that go on in such horror stories. So one ends up filling in the blanks the best one can. It’s like living in Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found In A Bathtub…

    The added feature is that I’ve worked on contracts that after two years and almost completing the task assigned the funding ran out so that the code and systems are finally abandoned an new teams with new ideas are hired to bring in newer data systems and market hyped notions form Big Blue (IBM) and other organizations who promise their knowledge will save the day. Good luck on that…

    • similar problems in industry, working with an international tech company to help develop a kind of real(ish) time group record about why they are making the choices/developments they are, will never be very complete but we just need close/useful enough, the main snag is that they often aren’t self-aware about making decisions or even at explaining themselves when asked, too much experience/intuition at work for good record keeping…

  2. Cmon folks. The government and bitcoins? They already screw enough up and steal enough money. The government and code? May as well stack up $100 in palettes 200 ft high soak it in gas and light it.

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