East Oregonian : E.O. (Pendleton, OR) 1888-current, January 05, 2019, WEEKEND EDITION, Page A4, Image 4

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East Oregonian
Saturday, January 5, 2019
Managing Editor
News Editor
Founded October 16, 1875
State needs to fix faulty buying practices
regon state government has
been stunningly inefficient
when buying computers and
other technology.
In fact, agencies’ buying habits are
so bad that the state unnecessarily
spent an extra $400 million to $1.5 bil-
lion during the 2015-17 budget period,
according to a recent report from the
state Audits Division.
The problem is ironic: antiquated
systems of purchasing goods and ser-
vices for information technology.
Some of the purchasing systems date
to the 1990s.
As a result, whereas one agency
might pay $176.40 for a 24-inch Dell
monitor, another paid $241.15. The
state bought 1,300 such monitors
during the study period, according to
the audit report, and could have saved
more than $16,500 if it bought at the
lowest price.
In another example, agencies paid
131 different prices for the same Ricoh
surge protector, ranging from $65.90
to $173.98. Prices also fluctuated
widely for some software licenses and
service contracts.
The state’s woes in managing IT
projects have been well-known, and
the audit report says more improve-
ments also are needed there.
National studies have shown that
the majority of IT projects run into sig-
nificant issues, whether in the public
or private sector. The technology itself
EO file photo
is not to blame. The problems arise
from human faults: arrogance in deci-
sion-making, internal rivalries, unreal-
istic expectations of what technology
can do, equally unrealistic timelines,
changing desires, mismanagement,
lack of oversight and inadequate atten-
tion to testing.
All those showed up in the infa-
mous Cover Oregon debacle.
As for buying IT products and ser-
vices, the audit report criticizes tech-
nology as well as procedures. We are
well into the 21st century, but unlike
most corporations, the state lacks an
overall purchasing system for prod-
ucts, whether computers or those little
adhesive notes known as “stickies.”
The lack of a viable eProcurement
system is indefensible and illustrates
how public officials’ claims of cost-ef-
ficiency do not always match reality.
Technology purchases represent a frac-
tion of the state’s multi-billion-dollar
budget. But if the lessons learned from
this audit were applied to all state pur-
chasing, the estimated savings could
average from 5 percent to 20 percent.
The state is making progress, hav-
ing launched OregonBuys as a pilot
program for eProcurement in 2017.
Ten state agencies participate so far. It
won’t be fully implemented until mid-
2021. Secretary of State Dennis Rich-
ardson, whose Audits Division per-
formed the IT purchasing audit, and
Republican legislators are outraged
about the long timeline. Gov. Kate
Brown and Democratic lawmakers
should be, too.
Brown proposed some expansion
of OregonBuys, but the state should
move much faster. Investments in
eProcurement will save money and
potentially time.
There are all sorts of reasons to
oppose centralized purchasing. It lim-
its choice and reduces personal deci-
sion-making. Some jobs might become
unnecessary. The technology of such
a system is fallible. But so is the cur-
rent decentralized approach. The audit
report said, “purchase-level data is
only available for approximately 12.5
percent of procurement expenditures.”
The report also noted, “Without the
ability to analyze detailed purchase
data for all procurements, Oregon is
unable to identify opportunities for
potentially millions of dollars in cost
savings.” In contrast, states such as
Georgia have achieved significant sav-
ings by tracking and analyzing such
purchase contracts.
If the governor and Legislature truly
are serious about saving money with-
out harming services, as they should
be, the audit report is a good place to
Useless knowledge begets New Horizons mission
n October 1939, as Hitler, Mussolini
think of the American dream in materialis-
and Stalin were plunging the world into tic terms — a well-paid job; a half-acre lot;
children with better opportunities than our
war, an American educational reformer
named Abraham Flexner published an
own. Or we think of it in political terms, as
essay in Harper’s Magazine under the mar-
an ever-expanding domain of ever-greater
velous title, “The Usefulness of Useless
freedom and equality.
But prosperity, freedom, equality for
Noting the way in which
what? The deep critique of the lib-
eral society is that it refuses on
the concerns of modern educa-
tion increasingly turned toward
principle to supply an answer:
worldly problems and practical
Each of us lives in pursuit of a
vocations, Flexner made a plea for
notion of happiness that is utterly
“the cultivation of curiosity” for
subjective, generally acquisi-
tive and almost inevitably out of
its own sake.
“Now I sometimes wonder,”
reach — what psychologists call
he wrote, “whether there would
the “hedonic treadmill.” Religious
B ret
be sufficient opportunity for a full
cults and authoritarian systems
S tephenS
life if the world were emptied of
work differently: Purposes are
some of the useless things that
given, answers supplied, questions
give it spiritual significance; in
discouraged or forbidden, and the
other words, whether our concep-
burdens of individual choice and
tion of what is useful may not have become moral agency largely lifted. They are dicta-
torships of meaning.
too narrow to be adequate to the roaming
Flexner was acutely aware of this. “In
and capricious possibilities of the human
certain large areas — Germany and Italy
I thought of Flexner’s essay while fol-
especially — the effort is now being made
lowing the New Horizons flyby of minor
to clamp down the freedom of the human
planet 2014 MU69, better known as Ultima spirit,” he wrote. “Universities have been
Thule. This comes right on the heels of
so reorganized that they have become tools
NASA’s Osiris-Rex probe entering into
of those who believe in a special politi-
cal, economic, or racial creed. Now and
orbit around the asteroid Bennu, barely
then a thoughtless individual in one of the
a month after the InSight lander touched
down on Mars, and not six months since the few democracies left in this world will
Parker Solar Probe began its trip toward the even question the fundamental impor-
tance of absolutely untrammeled academic
You don’t have to be a space geek to
appreciate the awe and wonder involved
Flexner’s case for such untrammeled
in these missions: New Horizons’ stun-
freedom isn’t that it’s a good unto itself.
ning close-ups of Pluto and its moons; the
Freedom also produces a lot of garbage.
breathtaking ambition of Osiris-Rex to col-
His case is that freedom is the license the
lect rocks and dust from Bennu’s surface
roving mind requires to go down any path
and return them to earth. The marriage of
it chooses and go as far as the paths may
disinterested science and technological wiz- lead. This is how fundamental discoveries
ardry on the farthest-flung adventures of
— aka, “useless knowledge” — are usually
the human race is what John Adams had in
made: not so much by hunting for some-
thing specific, but by wandering with an
mind when he wrote that he had to “study
interested eye amid the unknown. It’s also
Politicks and War that my sons may have
how countries attract and cultivate genius
the liberty to study Mathematicks and Phi-
losophy.” It is among the greatest fulfill-
— by protecting a space of unlimited intel-
lectual permission, regardless of outcome.
ments of the American dream.
It is not, however, among the most com-
All of this, of course, has its ultimate
monly understood ones. Typically, we
uses — hence the “usefulness” of Flexner’s
Unsigned editorials are the opinion of
the East Oregonian editorial board. Other
columns, letters and cartoons on this page
express the opinions of the authors and not
necessarily that of the East Oregonian.
This illustration provided by NASA shows the New Horizons spacecraft.
title. Newton’s third law of motion begets,
after 250 years, the age of the rocket; the
discovery of the double helix delivers, sev-
eral decades later, Crispr. It’s also how
nations gain or lose greatness. The “reorga-
nized” universities of fascist Italy and Ger-
many had no place for Leo Szilard, Enrico
Fermi or Albert Einstein. They became the
Allies’ ultimate weapon in World War II.
Which brings us back to New Horizons,
Osiris-Rex, InSight and every other piece of
gear flying through the heavens at taxpayer
expense and piling up data atop our already
vast stores of useless knowledge. What are
they doing to reduce poverty? Nothing.
Environmental degradation? Zippo. The
opioid crisis? Still less.
And yet, in being the kind of society that
does this kind of thing — that is, the kind
that sends probes to the edge of the solar
system; underwrites the scientific estab-
lishment that knows how to design and
deploy these probes; believes in the value
of knowledge for its own sake; cultivates
habits of truthfulness, openness, collabo-
ration and risk-taking; enlists the public
in the experience, and shares the findings
with the rest of the world — we also dis-
cover the highest use for useless knowl-
edge: Not that it may someday have some
life-saving application on earth, though it
might, but that it has a soul-saving applica-
tion in the here and now, reminding us that
the human race is not a slave to questions of
utility alone.
There are plenty of reasons to worry
about the state of the American mind today,
as well as the state of the university. Speech
is not as free; gadflies are not as welcome;
inquiry is dictated as much by the avail-
ability of funding as it is by the instincts of
curiosity, and funding itself is often short.
But let’s start 2019 on a happier note. Even
in the midst of the shutdown, the New Hori-
zons mission was still considered an “essen-
tial” activity of government. If Flexner
were alive to witness it, he might say, “most
Bret Stephens is a columnist for the New
York Times.
The East Oregonian welcomes original letters of 400 words or less on public issues and public policies for
publication in the newspaper and on our website. The newspaper reserves the right to withhold letters
that address concerns about individual services and products or letters that infringe on the rights of
private citizens. Letters must be signed by the author and include the city of residence and a daytime
phone number. The phone number will not be published. Unsigned letters will not be published.
Send letters to managing
editor Daniel Wattenburger,
211 S.E. Byers Ave.
Pendleton, OR 9780, or email