If there’s a better way, Oregon has failed to find it

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’

President Ronald Reagan,

August 12, 1986

That moment occurred in the year following my transfer to Portland to be the General Attorney for Pacific Northwest Bell. Mr. Reagan wasn’t the first to say that, but it was a concept that most conservatives embraced from when they were old enough to have their first encounter with government. What I learned soon after moving to Portland is that there was an even more terrifying phrase in use by government officials in Oregon at all levels of government, but concentrated primarily amongst the governing class* in that corridor running from Portland on the North to Salem on the South. And that phrase is:

But we have a better way.”

About the third time I heard that refrain I realized it wasn’t community pride but rather one of the most supercilious and condescending remarks to be made by a group of people completely unaware of the irony of their own incompetence. This was the same group that took inordinate pride in the fact that Oregon had one of the most highly educated work forces in America while missing the irony of educational degrees without any significant employability. Unaware that it shouldn’t be a point of pride that men and women with master degrees were making beds and cleaning rooms on the Oregon coast.

So let’s just review a few of the “better ways” that state and local governments have foisted off on their citizens.

1. In 1993, Oregon undertook a massive reorganization of its motor vehicle system to modernize and automate its registration, titling and licensing operations. They did not purchase systems currently in use by other states but rather announced that they had a “better way” for a mere $46 million. In three years the “better way” costs had nearly tripled to $123 million and in the end produced nothing, forcing the state to abandon its hardware and software. It never worked, no other state would use Oregon as a model and the taxpayers were out $123 million. No one was reprimanded, demoted or discharged.

2. In 1997, Portland’s Water Department announced that it would introduce a new, fully automated billing system for water and sewer that would serve as a model for other major cities – all at a cost of just $6 million. The system failed from the day it was turned on resulting in lost data and thus revenue in amounts somewhere between $20 and $30 million – a more accurate estimate is still unavailable today and that is despite investing another $10 million in the system before abandoning the whole thing.

3. The Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network (OWIN) project designed to provide secure communications amongst all of Oregon government levels – state, county and local – through a series of radio and microwave towers. It ignored the option to work with existing private communications providers (telecommunication, cable television and broadband providers) which already had towers, microwave systems, distribution networks and well trained operating personnel – in order to build its own government owned and operated “tower-based” system that would be a ‘leader’ amongst state and local governments. After spending $600 million with no workable system even close to operational, the project was abandoned in 2011.

4. The digital version of Oregon Business in a January 24, 2014, article by Eric Fruits published an article detailing the failure of Cover Oregon – Oregon’s failed attempt to implement online access for registration for Obamacare:

Cover Oregon’s fizzled launch has been a high profile disaster for the state. After spending $160 million, Oregon’s health insurance exchange had exactly zero people sign up for private insurance in the first two months.

Now Cover Oregon claims to have enrolled 7,300 people. However, the fine print from the Cover Oregon press release reveals that the suspiciously round number is actually an estimate. In fact, Cover Oregon has not indicated that a single person has paid their first bill, which is the industry’s measure of enrollment.

As with any bureaucratic failure finger pointing is an unavoidable stage. Rather than trying to figure out who messed up and when they messed up, we can use Oregon’s history of multi-million dollar software disasters to illustrate some valuable lessons.

1. Start small. Do one thing, do it well, then add bells and whistles. Google began with a search box. That’s it. It took two years before the company ran ads. Oregon’s software projects try to do too much, too soon, resulting in busted budgets and missed deadlines.

2. Off-the-shelf is another way of saying, “It works!” Use the resources that have already been developed and tested. Learn the lessons from other states and municipalities. We Oregonians like to think we’re special, embodied in the state’s old marketing slogan “Things look different here.” But, fact is, we’re not that different from any other state in the U.S. and in many cases we don’t need one-of-a-kind software solutions.

3. Know your limits. Software firms specialize in software, so use them. Don’t try to do it yourself. If you don’t know what you’re doing, then you shouldn’t be overseeing the project. Cover Oregon was urged to hire a system integrator to oversee implementation of the Cover Oregon online exchange. Instead, the state decided to be its own general contractor and found that its staff had no idea what was going on.”

But that sound advice has, apparently, fallen on deaf ears as Oregon state government and Portland municipal governments continue to lurch from one failed solution to another. Portland dealt with a summer of incredible violence – looting, arson, assault, property damage, lost and closed businesses – by joining in marches with those directing the mayhem. The result has been an outward migration of people and businesses at the expense of the general revenues to government and the characterization of Portland as one of the biggest jokes in the nation. And yet when nothing is done, it simply encourages its return – usually with an escalation as if the last riot wasn’t big enough. And Portland is already seeing the beginnings of a repeat with the marches, rioting and damage by supporters of one of the most violent regimes in the world – Hamas sited in Gaza and controlled by Iran and preparations by the same groups to riot regardless of who is elected as president in November..

Oregon tackled the problem of drug abuses amid a significant upturn in use and deaths (mostly from fentanyl) by legalizing a list of dangerous drugs and providing “shooting galleries” and drug paraphernalia. The only thing that is accomplished was to remind America that the elites of Oregon were far dumber than most expected. It became so bad in such a short period of time that the Oregon legislature was required to repeal the legalization this year.

And Oregon tackled the growing homeless problem by providing free tents, increasing access to food and drugs, and allowing the streets to be used as campsites, toilets and opportunities for indolence. Who would have envisioned that such an approach would lead to a massive migration of bums, drug abusers and criminals to enlarge the homeless population by nearly twenty-five percent in just two short years between 2020 and 2022? Well, just about everyone except Portland’s political elites. And while the homeless population continues to surge the outward migration of business and population grows rapidly.

And even at that, Oregon’s insistence on its “better way” has resulted in thousands of unemployed Oregonians being denied unemployment benefits for months at a time. It is a combination of the state’s failure to police its own policies with thousands of resulting false claims – approximately $230 million paid out to date – and the implementation of yet another computers system that has failed to meet expectations.

These only scratch the service of state and local governments in Oregon dominated by liberal/progressive political elites – most bearing college degrees, and all assuming intellectual superiority to the masses. It is reminiscent of the old saw that describes a liberal/progressive as one who sees a man drowning seventy-five feet offshore throws him both ends of a hundred foot lifeline and races off to bungle another good deed.

It is as inexplicable to explain Oregon’s penchant for electing and re-electing people who have demonstrated without pause their gross incompetence and, at times, ruthless antipathy towards the very people they claim to help. It is probably too late to save Oregon. As it stands today Portland will become Detroit-on-the-Willamette, and Central Oregon and the Coast will become vacation spas for the wealthy.

It breaks my heart every time I return.


*In contrast most of the men and women I have met in Oregon generally roll their eyes when they hear their political class once more opining on their “better way.