A Missed Opportunity in Washington

By Mark Roberti

The U.S. government missed its chance to use RFID to ensure accountability of the huge stimulus package currently making its way through Congress—but governments can still consider this option for future programs.


Last week, I made phone calls to the aides of several U.S. senators who had, in the past, asked me for information regarding radio frequency identification. I proposed that they try to insert language into the huge stimulus package now making its way through Congress, stating that the U.S. government would require the use of RFID to track the progress of projects, and to ensure accountability for the money spent.

If history has taught us anything, it is that when governments spend money, there is always tremendous waste. We’ve seen this with reconstruction projects in Iraq, and at home. The stimulus package includes some $60 billion for infrastructure projects—does anyone believe the U.S. federal government will spend each and every taxpayer dollar wisely? I doubt that.

RFID could help track every I-beam, ton of concrete, can of paint and box of screws, and make that data instantly available to government auditors. The government could then provide the appropriate technology—active, passive, high-frequency (HF), ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) or ultra-wideband (UWB), all of which might be required for different applications—to the companies managing these projects. The cost to taxpayers would be small compared to the overall amount being spent, and the benefits would be huge.

First, using radio frequency identification would enable companies taking on projects under the stimulus program to be more efficient and cost-effective. Construction sites are often vast locations at which supplies, tools and other equipment can be misplaced or stolen. Instead of paying workers to search for a particular pipe or tool, RFID could locate that item instantly, enabling workers to focus on completing projects on time, and within budget.

Second, RFID would enable these firms to automatically capture data about the goods arriving—and leaving through the back door—for major projects. Items arriving could be matched against invoices to ensure that if, for instance, a company says it needs 25,000 gallons of paint to repaint a bridge, that many gallons of paint are used. Tags on paint cans arriving at the job site could be compared both against a line item in a budget, and against the tags on discarded cans. This would not eliminate waste and fraud—but it would make it more difficult to perpetrate and easier to detect.

Third, including an RFID requirement into all contracts for the stimulus plan would create jobs in the RFID industry. Today, there are companies across the United States with highly developed RFID products that could be put to work immediately. These projects would require the companies to hire additional technicians, and to manufacture more tags and readers.

And finally, requiring businesses to track their supplies with radio frequency identification would enhance the competitive advantage of U.S. companies, because they would learn to employ RFID and related technologies in their manufacturing and supply chain operations to cut costs and streamline processes.

I was told it was too late, however, and that “the train has already left the station.” That’s too bad. Still, if the Obama Administration is serious about “renewing America” and creating a government that is more effective, it should consider creating a national RFID policy to encourage the use of RFID in order to ensure that taxpayers receive the items on which their dollars are being spent, and also to promote a level of adoption within the private sector that will enhance competitiveness.

And we’re trying to do our part: RFID Journal LIVE! 2009 will feature an RFID in Government preconference seminar that will help educate government managers about how to employ RFID to reduce costs and boost efficiencies. We’re also offering special discounts for those in government in order to make the event affordable. I hope agencies will extend the effort to come learn how radio frequency identification can help them make government smarter.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.