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What's the IT Cost of Legislation?

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By Allan Holmes September 23, 2010

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This item was updated at 11:45 a.m. on Sept. 24 to provide another example of how Congress affects IT.

When Congress passes legislation, it rarely thinks about how much work is involved in putting a new policy into place. And that includes information technology labor.

One example I wrote about was the requirement in the 2001 USA Patriot Act that mandated the creation of an entry-exit system that would keep track of when a foreign visitor entered the country and when he or she left. The deadline to build the network was unrealistic, to say the least. But then again, the country was pretty shaken and wasn't thinking through its policy decisions.

Then there was the cost to rework computers at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to process Medicare Part D, which ocngress passes to alleviate the high cost of prescription drugs for elderly and disabled Americans. "The legislation required upgrades to the IT systems of pharmacists, insurance companies, state governments and CMS alike," Robert Charette wrote in Government Executive in December 2006. Computer problems "became so bad that more than 20 state governors had to step in and order temporary payment of drug benefit claims for their senior citizens."

Another, earlier, example occurred when some members in Congress wanted to privatize part of Social Security in the late 1990s (and the proposal has come up periodically since then). SSA officials told me then that to retrofit computer systems at the agency to track what was private and what wasn't would cost upwards of $1 billion. (Some congressional members were dubious.)

Which brings us to this week, when a Republican introduced a bill calling for two weeks of unpaid leave for federal employees. How does that affect payroll systems? What's involved in reprogramming payroll and human resource systems to track that accurately? Maybe it's merely just a box you check in the systems. Or maybe a lot more is involved. Not sure. How many extra work hours would it take to make the change, and was that taken into account when Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., figured out it would save the government more than $5.5 billion?

It would be helpful for federal IT managers and programmers out there who may know how much work is involved to comment on this. Is it significant or is it real easy?

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