Sunday, February 22, 2009

Stimulating Technology: The Award For Best Special Effects Goes to... (corrected)

Reposted from GOVERNING's blog

Forget the Hollywood red carpet at tonight's Oscars ceremony. The best spot for political star gazing today was the J.W. Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue, scene of the National Governors Association's winter meeting. When I stopped there this morning to have coffee with a state official who was in town for the gathering, it was hard to go more than a few feet without passing a governor. There was New Jersey's Jon Corzine and his impressive entourage on the escalator -- followed shortly by Vermont's Jim Douglas, NGA's unaccompanied vice chair. Also solo was Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, dressed in fleece and tennis shoes, on her way the hotel Starbucks before the morning workshops began. Downstairs, in the dining room, NGA chairman Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania held court at a small power breakfast.

Just like Hollywood, the less-recognizable players who work behind the scenes wield considerable influence over what we see on the big screen of American government. These days that often means the special effects wizards from the community of big government technology vendors. So I was not at all surprised to run into senior executives from the public sector groups at companies such as Microsoft and Oracle working the crowd.

Anyone who questions how important technology is in government today just needs to glance at NGA's list of 114 corporate fellows. Each companies' "$20,000 contribution allows NGA to leverage your industry expertise and utilize your company as an intellectual resource for the work done by the NGA Center for Best Practices," the association's Web site explains. More than a quarter of those corporate fellows (at least 30 companies, by my count) provide technology and telecom services and advice to government.

Much like the awards for the most technical categories at the Oscars, tech issues were not exactly prominent on the governors' agenda for the three-day meeting, with one speaker scheduled for Monday afternoon's closing plenary session. But many of the companies in attendance were particularly interested in hearing the governors' take on the technological implications of the recently enacted $787 billion economic stimulus package.

Those implications also were much on the mind of two senior officials representing the National Association of State Chief Information Officers -- Minnesota CIO Gopal Khanna, the organization's current president, and Pamela Richardson Walker, NASCIO's new director of governmental affairs in Washington. (Pam came from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which worked closely with NGA and NASCIO on issues related to the 2005 REAL ID law; she also is an alum of Congressional Quarterly, my publication's parent company.)

The NASCIO team came to the governors' meeting with a long list of stimulus-related questions. Among them:
  • How do states plan to use technology to meet the stringent transparency and accountability requirements that are attached to all those stimulus dollars?
  • What will states do to make sure the highly targeted federal money does not perpetuate the often "siloed" ways that state organizations run their staffs and operate their systems -- particularly when federal laws and regulations in effect require that funding and data be segregated in ways that may be inefficient?
  • Do the governors plans to use any stimulus money for cybersecurity or consolidating their frequently decentralized data centers in order to protect the underlying technology on which nearly all government infrastructure and services depend?
  • Will states use the $7 billion dedicated to extending high-speed Internet access to under-served communities to pay for increasingly important wireless technologies as well as more traditional fiber- and cable-based efforts?
  • What are the states' plans for coordinating the $19 billion provided for spreading the use of electronic medical records?
  • How much of the $106 billion for education and training will be invested in educational technology?
  • And will any of the $37.5 billion for energy research go for the kinds of "green IT" programs that are high on the agenda for state technology leaders, who also see opportunities for controlling expenses by deploying computer systems that gobble less electricity?

I don't pretend to have the answers to these questions, but they are the right ones to be asking. Technology may not be a head-turning, sexy subject for most elected leaders, but it is so critical to the way governments do business -- or need to -- that it should be among the issues that get top billing the next time the governors put on one of their big shows.

(Note: An earlier version of this posting incorrectly stated that technology was not called out at all as a topic on NGA's agenda. That error has been corrected above.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Spiel Check: To Err Online Is Still All Too Human

One of my first and best sources when I covered Research Triangle Park for the Raleigh News & Observer was Mike Clark. Mike was then a senior corporate communications official for a nonprofit research center called MCNC. He and I were united by a lonely interest in words in a community of technology-oriented people who seemed to prefer cryptic and sometimes meaningless abbreviations -- like MCNC, which once stood for the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina, but stopped meaning that sometime before I arrived there 15 years ago. (I also could count on Mike to appreciate the hackneyed puns, double entendres and occasional Yiddish I found ways to slip into my copy -- and still do.)

Mike now writes a column on language for the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., and a related blog, DoWriteRight. His latest column is a roundup of embarrassing typos he encountered. His concluding example recounts a humbling and absolutely unintentional error involving me and this very blog -- and the interactive way in which it was discovered and corrected. I'll let Mike tell the story from here....
"[Mark] was a panelist speaking about media careers to a group of journalism students at the University of Virginia. With his focus on online writing and editing, Mark emphasized that in today's world, many journalists are asked to blog frequently, so mastering the discipline and skills to edit one's own writing is critical.

"Right after the discussion, Mark received a text message from an eagle-eyed reader, alerting him that in his latest blog posting, Mark had left out an important 'r' when he wrote about 'an Obama T-shirt.'

"See there -- even with the best of us, shirt happens."

Sigh. Here's the original -- and now corrected! -- item to which Mike was referring.

Web 2.0 Love Fest: Get a Room

One way to measure the fervent enthusiasm and creative energy behind the current push to use technology to make government more accessible, responsive and transparent is the number of people who've signed up to attend next month's Government 2.0 Camp here in Washington. The event already has more than 450 registrants, and about 30 paying sponsors (this Web site among them). Now the organizers just need a place to hold this "unconference."

The purpose of the planned March 27-28 gathering is to discuss "using social media tools and Web 2.0 technologies to create a more effective, efficient and collaborative U.S. government on all levels (local, state, and federal)." It's too soon to say if a passionate crowd with nowhere to meet is a metaphor, but the list of those planning to attend is indeed diverse and impressive, including a sizable contingent from inside the alphabet soup of federal agencies and departments, as well as representatives from other levels of government -- from Arlington County, Va., to Washtenaw County, Mich. And there's no shortage of folks from the vendor and consulting community, including some of the biggest firms in the business.

I'm looking forward to seeing how BarCampish this really turns out to be. The idea grew out of a post-election discussion comparing notes on MiXT Media, a blog hosted by D.C.-area strategy and business consultant Maxine Teller (a former colleague of mine at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive). Hats off to her and fellow organizers Peter Corbett and Mark Drapeau for the energy they've harnessed so far. They also have a helpful co-conspirator in Jeffrey Levy, director of Web communications at the Environmental Protection Agency and co-Chair of the Federal Web Managers Council's Social Media Subcouncil.

If you have any ideas for a Metro-accessible, rent-free venue that's available for a meeting this size, you can add it to the event wiki, of course. And you can follow developments via the Government 2.0 Club's group on GovLoop's Ning site, on LinkedIn and Facebook, and on Twitter, where you can see or contribute related posts using the #GOV20CAMP hashtag.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Information Underload: Washington's Ways Are a Barrier to Interactive Government

Adapted from my "Futurist" column in the Feb. 16 issue of CQ Weekly.

Ron Sims' move from one Washington to the other may change his online world, too. The nomination of the Seattle-area county official to be deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development could make Sims one of the highest-ranking federal officials on Twitter if he's still allowed to use the free Web-based, mass-messaging service.

The King County executive told his local public radio station he was aware that "the rules" of Washington could mean he'd have to log off from his online social networking. Sims said he'd wait to gauge the new administration's "comfort zones with my Twittering and my Facebook."

Unfortunately for Sims, the capital's comfort zone took a hit just after he was chosen two weeks ago. That's when Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra began sending short Twitter posts during a congressional trip to Iraq. "Just landed in Baghdad," the House Select Intelligence Committee's top Republican told his followers. "Moved into Green Zone by helicopter. . . . Headed to new U.S. embassy," he said in another Tweet.

Hoekstra dismissed complaints that his postings endangered the Iraq delegation as a "Twitterversy." But the incident, paired with last year's debate over whether lawmakers could use Twitter on the House floor, also underscored the challenge of using the Internet to promote a more interactive and transparent government: Can Washington safely and smartly harness the same online tools that helped propel Barack Obama 's presidential campaign? And does it really want to?

It's not that Washington is afraid of the Web. The Federal Web Managers Council estimates that the government has launched 24,000 Internet sites. Many departments and agencies host blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds and even ambitious virtual worlds on Second Life. But many also strictly limit staff access to the same services they are using to reach out to the public.

See these recent reports and white papers from the Federal Web Managers Council (all are PDFs):

Some of the roadblocks the Web managers have documented are substantial. The "terms of service" on commercial sites that ordinary users might click right past are often at odds with what federal agencies can legally accept -- a challenge best illustrated by the complex seven-month negotiations between the General Service Administration's Office of Citizen Services and YouTube on that very issue. (A note on the U.S. government's Web Content Manager's Forum last month summarized the key points in those talks; Government Executive's NextGov reported last week that the feds were "on the verge of reaching an agreement" with YouTube and its corporate parent, Google.) Other legal and regulatory barriers include procurement laws, which possibly limit how the government may use free online tools, and other rules that constrain how officials may collect feedback and track online behavior.

Technological and managerial concerns include fears that giving federal workers less fettered Web access will create security vulnerabilities and sap limited network bandwidth. And perception problems abound, from posting government information on sites that display advertising to worries that employees will waste time "friending" college roommates and old flames.

As Obama's campaign team shifted to governing mode, it seemed to recognize some potential perception problems, too. A week after the election, The New York Times obtained a questionnaire asking candidates for senior positions to provide not only "any posts or comments on blogs or other Web sites," but also "all aliases or 'handles' you have used to communicate on the Internet" and any electronic communications that might "be a possible source of embarrassment." The seven-page form -- subsequently posted by the transition team -- also sought addresses for "any Web sites that feature you in either a personal or professional capacity (e.g., Facebook, MySpace, etc.)."

Despite this sudden skittishness, the transition team continued to actively post its own YouTube videos and solicit public input. And on Jan. 20, the White House Web site rebooted with a prominent blog. At the same time, the new staff chafed at strict online security rules and struggled with outdated computers and software. In a Washington Post story two days after the inauguration, White House spokesman Bill Burton said that the adjustment had been "kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari."

Those frustrations strongly echoed the grumblings from another White House transition, 16 years ago, when Bill Clinton's staff arrived to find aging, user-hostile computers and communications systems -- as I recalled in a previous Blog post. And one of the senior White House aides I mentioned in that item, Clinton first media director, Jeff Eller, told me last week that the Obama team's initial struggles sounded familiar to him, too.

Those struggles did not ultimately dampen the Clintonites enthusiasm for the potential of the novel new technologies that they had used in their campaign. When I spoke to Eller in 1993 -- in an electronic interview using CompuServe, a popular online service at the time -- he had speculated about how this thing called e-mail would someday "allow us to make information from the White House more readily available to the general public." That's just how Obama's staff views the social media tools of today. But Washington, a town in which even government spokesmen insist on being quoted anonymously, has ways of keeping its secrets.