Minimizing Personnel Savings from Expensive Automation

Look, we all know how government works — why it’s so inefficient and never shrinks.  Nonetheless, it’s still sometimes hard to believe when it’s expressed as clearly as this:

The new $364-million system known as the Unified Health Information System (UHIP) is scheduled to launch in mid-September. Dubbed RIBridges, the new software system will replace one that is three decades old. …

“Discussions with the affected unions are ongoing. Out of respect to those potentially impacted employees, we cannot provide any more specific information at this time,” [Department of Administration spokeswoman Brenna] McCabe said. “We will work with the unions to ensure the impact is as minimal as possible, and we are optimistic that a majority of the employees who are impacted will be provided the opportunity to bid into employment, training, and other positions that will directly serve children, families and other Rhode Islanders.”

On its surface (that is, at the level of analysis that progressives prefer), this seems like a matter of compassion.  Employees who’d thought their jobs had all the security that government in Rhode Island provides now face the prospect of being obsolete.  The technology threatens to cast them out into the dreaded private sector, so the unions and bureaucrats are working together to reduce the number of lives that are upended.

At the next level of analysis, one might observe that this is just about money for unions and power for politicians.  Council 94, for example, has a number of healthy salaries to support, as well as a good chunk of money to spend on “political activities and lobbying.”  What’s the point of owning the state government if it’s just going to implement technology that costs you membership dues?

The deeper reason to believe that finding ways to maintain personnel after automating is not compassionate at all comes from basic economics.  If our community is finding previously unneeded work for well-remunerated public employees after having spent hundreds of millions of dollars on technology that makes their prior jobs unnecessary, then somebody, somewhere is being prevented from doing something more valuable for the community because the resources are tied up with the make-work.  Of course, we can’t see those losses right in front of us, so there’s no way of knowing how they would have cycled money back into politicians’ coffers, or even if their activities would have been disruptive to the status quo… and we definitely don’t want that.

Of course, I think this is all talk.  UHIP is designed to rope people into dependence on government.  When it’s fully operational, the increased caseloads will require more personnel, even if the amount of work for each “client” is reduced.

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