I hate to break it to you, but FITARA does NOT give federal CIOs total IT budget authority

April 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Sorry, but CIOs will not get the budget authority everyone has been reporting they will under the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act.

Now that I have not buried the lead, a little context.

One of the more intriguing recent Government Accountability Office look-sees didn’t get enough attention. I featured the report on The Federal Drive when I interviewed GAO’s Dave Powner, but I hope more agency executives take a look. The gist of the report is this: Federal chief information officers have to file a lot of reports every year, and  many of them are at least a partial waste of time. CIOs must file 36 mandatory reports, and a survey GAO conducted shows CIOs think 24 of the reports don’t help them much in managing their responsibilities as they relate to their departments’ priorities.

One big reason is that many of the reports concern progress on generic, government-wide requirements — IT strategic planning, capital and investment management, cybersecurity, IT acquisition, and e-government. GAO points out, the Office of Management and Budget directs CIO’s to concentrate on things like proper governance, meaning budget, acquisition and portfolio analysis. Or commodity IT, meaning data center consolidation, cutting redundant systems and using more shared services. That’s only natural, given OMB’s governmentwide view.

It’s a prime example of how large bureaucracies, both private and public, default to detailed process to achieve goals. The recipe approach indeed works in many domains where you want absolutely repeatable outcomes. If you are producing 1,000 wedding cakes a week or 1,000 airliners a year, process is paramount.

For CIOs the problem with all this process and reporting, aside from the cost and questionable relevance of much of it, stems from how little use it can be in resolving department-specific challenges. Filing 36 reports a year didn’t get the Veterans Affairs Department to Nirvana in scheduling and treating veterans, or Health and Human Services to stop wasting 15 percent of Medicare and Medicaid dollars. It won’t get NASA to Mars any time sooner, nor will it save State Department systems from being turned into a botnet for Russian hackers.

The reporting questions came just as it dawned on CIOs that the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) I mentioned at the beginning, is law. Now CIOs are awaiting OMB guidance on how to implement what passed as a large amendment to the 2015 National Defense Acquisition Act.

Some CIOs are asking what FITARA will really change. Its most widely-quoted visible provision gives CIOs authority over departments’ IT budgets. That authority was not given by the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, which made CIOs the primary advisors to agency heads on IT architectures and investments. But it left primary budget authority with chief financial officers, consistent with Title 35 of Chapter 44 of the U.S. Code. CFOs understandably like and defend their budget authority, as many a CIO has learned.

Im my reading of the law (scroll WAY down to Section 5101), CIOs still don’t get total budget authority. FITARA elevates CIOs such that “amounts appropriated … for information technology shall be allocated … in such a manner as specified by, or approved by, the Chief Information Officer of the agency in consultation with the Chief Financial Office of the agency and budget officials” (emphasis mine). So the complex interplay among OMB, CFOs and CIOs is still there, but now CIOs have more weight. What actually changes will depend on CIOs making the case for how they allocate IT spending. To the extent everyone else involved in the decision agrees on specific agency priorities, that shouldn’t be a problem.

A couple of CIOs I’ve spoken to note that because of the highly federated nature of their departments, there’s a long tradition of autonomy by large agencies over their own IT. That won’t be easy to change. Down-a-notch CIOs won’t give up easily. Department CIOs don’t want to become clerks, signing off on every little thing an agency level CIO decides to buy. If title defines the job, agency and bureau CIOs will have “deputy,” “assistant” or “associate” added to their titles. That might help underscore the superior authority of the departmental CIO.

FITARA might bring the beginning of the end for so many CIO reports. Section 5102 gives the CIO Council a bigger job. It’s supposed to “develop cross-agency portfolio management practices” and “issue guidelines and practices for infrastructure and common information technology applications.” All of this is to be “used as the basis for comparing performance across diverse missions and operations in various agencies.” I’m thinking maybe the CIO Council, which of course is made up of CIOs, could take over some of the common reports departmental CIOs are obligated with. Then, CIOs would have more time to think about specific departmental missions and playing nice with the CFOs.

There’s much more to FITARA. The law pushes data center consolidation, rationality in acquisition of software licenses, cloud computing, and reduction of duplicative contracts. Nearly every item in FITARA has been proposed either in law or by executive branch initiative going back to something called Reform ’88, launched in 1982. It made the cover of the first issue of Government Computer News, but rated only Page 7 in Computerworld.

Categories: Uncategorized

Five Steps For The Government To Regain Trust

March 30, 2015 Leave a comment

Last month the Obama administration rolled out something called the federal feedback button. Officials describe it as a Yelp-like way for people to give feedback on the online service they get. That is all well and good. People visiting federal websites should have a good experience, easy to navigate and returning the results they seek. I think for the most part they do. Still, you can never have too much feedback. Sites vary. Some are still tough to navigate, others are right up there with the best of them. Some adapt perfectly to mobile devices, others have yet to be redone with responsive, mobile-aware coding. But on the whole, people responsible for federal web sites care a lot about their work.

One goal of the federal feedback button puts a little too much on the shoulders of web managers. Specifically, the notion that better digital service and gimmicks like a website button can help restore faith in government. A lousy web experience might reinforce the notion that government is incompetent if a visitor is inclined to think that way. Most people take a poor web experience for what it is — a poor web experience. To make an analogy, I’m highly loyal to the brand of car I drive. The company’s website is over-engineered and precious to the point of being annoying and hard to figure out. But that shakes my faith in its web people, not in the car.

Distrust of government stems from problems way deeper than digital service. All you have to do is scan the last few weeks’ headlines to see examples of what makes government sink in citizens’ estimation. None of these sources of mistrust will be remedied with the federal feedback button.

Nor will they be fixed with simple-minded assertions about the efficiency or motivation of the federal workforce. Good people working in bad systems will produce bad results. The way to better, more trustworthy government tuns through fixing the systems and processes, and funding them adequately. Then you’ve got the tools necessary to hold people accountable.

Here are my five picks for systems that need fixed to restore faith in government.

1. Fulfill FOIA requests. How many more decades must pass before federal agencies figure out a way to answer Freedom of Information Act requests within days or hours, and then fulfill most of them? A default to secrecy and withholding clings stubbornly. Just a month ago the Center for Effective Government came out with another dreary accounting of agency FOIA performance. The open data movement, exemplified by data.gov and the hiring of a chief data officer at the Commerce Department are fine moves for helping untrap the government’s vast stores of data. But FOIA performance is a powerful indicator of how open the government is with respect to information people demonstrably want.

2. Get serious about not wasting money. $124 billion in improper payments for fiscal 2014. That’s two years worth of Overseas Contingency Operations budgets. Three years of operating the Homeland Security Department. Four years of the Energy Department. It’s around $350 for every American. The administration deserves credit for diligent efforts over the last few years to push improper payments down. But it’s like trying to suppress in your hands a balloon that’s connected to an air source.

3. Remind high (and low) officials to think before they act. A secretary of state used a rigged-up server to do four years of federal business then erases the whole thing. The deputy DHS secretary is found by the inspector general to have improperly intervened in staff work regarding visa clearances, on behalf of politically connected-individuals. A member of Congress spends $40,000 of somebody else’s money decorating his office. The Justice IG can hardly keep up with all of the misbehavior at law enforcement agencies. Not all the people in these episodes are bad or evil. Alejandro Mayorkas contends that, in the case of the visas, he was expediting stalled applications. He has a distinguished record of public service, but golly, I wish he’d stopped for just a sec and looked at the expediting from a poor taxpaying schlub’s point of view.

4. Stop writing badly-worded laws. Like the VA overhaul bill that gives veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA facility the option of using private health care. Congress wrote in a provision telling VA to use geodesic measurement, meaning a 40-mile radius drawn by protractor around each VA facility. But people don’t drive like a crow flies, as Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson pointed out at a hearing. The whole thing made VA look goofy. It bewildered veterans. And it limited the utility of an expensive program. Now they’ll use online maps to calculate 40 miles even though that’s not really what the law says. Sloppy.

5. End backlogs. Good service means speedy service. Veterans Affairs has a first-time-claims claims backlog of about 245,000. That’s a sharp reduction from its peak, but it’s not likely to disappear, even though the department has promised a zero backlog by the end of the year. Social Security’s disability claims backlog runs close to 1 million. The Patent and Trademark Office, the backlog runs to more than 600,000. The people handling all of these claims aren’t lazy or incompetent. But they’re working in a system that makes them look that way.

The administration favors challenges and crowd-sourcing of ideas. Here are five persistent problems that, if rectified, would significantly increase faith in the competence of the government, and by extension, the people who work for it. These conditions persist not because government employees are bad or don’t care. It’s because they work in a culture that avoids risk an makes easier to say no to an idea than it is to push it through to completion.

Federal open source software activities are growing

March 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Patricia M. Loui-Smicker of Hawaii was confirmed by the Senate, just the other day, as a director of the Export-Import bank. Not the kind of routine confirmation that makes the news. Gilberto de Jesus of Maryland withdrew his nomination to be chief counsel for advocacy at the Small Business Administration. The Senate Committee on on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs reported favorably on a bill “to reduce the operation and maintenance costs associated with the Federal fleet by encouraging use of remanufactured parts.”

If, like me, you sometime pause in wonder at the majesty and trivia of the federal government, a universe within the universe, then you may from time to time like browsing the daily digest of the Congressional Record. Thanks to the simple and fast web site FDsys.gov, operated by the Government Publishing Office, you can zero in on a particular day between yesterday and 1994 in a few clicks. GPO says that since FDsys became its distribution system of record in 2009, some 1 billion documents have been downloaded.

Now, the GPO has made portions of the code that controls FDsys available on GitHub, one of the more active sites for open source software communities. Among the initial chunks is FDsys Collections, which GPO describes as a specialized parser using regular expressions to extract relevant information from source documents. The collection provided covers congressional hearings. More will follow.

GPO is not alone among federal agencies contributing to GitHub. The General Services Administration has put in lots of code it says is useful for building mobile apps.

It appears the adoption of open source by the federal government is growing.  In its 2012 digital government strategy, the Obama administration stressed open data and public application programming interfaces leading to better online services, particularly mobile apps. The strategy doesn’t explicitly ask agencies to make their code public, nor to join open source communities. It does, however, call for a “new default” of exposing federal data and web APIs publicly. Although some of the strategy has been fulfilled and some not, maybe open source application code is the next logical step the strategy might have taken.

Some of the vendors sense this.  I spoke recently with Jarid Cottrell, an open source expert at Booz Allen Hamilton. BAH is planning several moves in federal open source, in the manner in which the company pushed cloud computing early on.

Contrell says the main advantage of open source code is not so much that it’s distributed free initially, but that that it fosters communities of developers. They continuously develop and improve it. And by having so many eyes on it, open source code tends to be freer of cybersecurity weaknesses, its proponents say. Open source can potentially change the economics of whole classes of software when communities create free or low cost versions of functionality otherwise dominated by expensive, proprietary software.

Open source is not free of effort. Once a team develops code for whatever function the organization needs, the code must be compiled into a runtime package and thereafter maintained. That’s why for-profit companies have formed around open source, among the oldest being Red Hat. It and others sell value added support and training services around code that is open sourced. Or they acquired proprietary products, release the code under various non-revenue license agreements, and sell value added services. That the code is available for anyone to contribute to makes the open source subscription model fundamentally different from the licensing models that apply to proprietary software.

Both models have a place in computing.  But I sometimes wonder whether super-popular proprietary products like Microsoft Word or Excel might have spawned more secure and less annoying versions had the company chosen an open source approach.

Booz Allen has created its own open source community called Project Jellyfish. It’s devoted to software for cloud connectivity and cloud brokering, which may be the next hurdle for federal agencies looking to put more data and workloads into clouds. Cotrell said Jellyfish is just part of a larger open tech initiative BAH will launch over the next few months. It will do its consulting gig, helping federal agencies understand open source. It will incubate open source communities around cloud and mobile. And will build more apps and share the code, as it has done with Jellyfish.

The White House may now be a source of acceleration for use of open source tools in federal systems. The newly appointed White House director of Technology, seems to have solid open source creds. He’s been a proponent of the OpenID Connect authentication technology. CrunchBase lists him as once being the president and director of the Open Web Foundation, while the White House blog about his appointment mentions open source work while at Facebook.

New contracting rules published last week by the General Services Administration make it harder for software vendors to tie up agencies with self-renewing licenses and support/upgrade packages. That plus the need to squeeze cost out of maintenance and operations will also give agencies impetus to at least look at open source. You can find open source software for nearly every function, from hypervisors to text editors.

Will Somebody Tell Me Why We Need Net Neutrality?

March 6, 2015 1 comment

I join the crowd of those totally mystified by the FCC’s plunging headlong into Internet regulation. Sixty percent of the FCC commissioners, that is. I have two objections, one procedural the other substantive.

Even if you think net neutrality is the best thing since the Princess Phone, the way the commission did its work hardly seems open and transparent. There’s a five-page summary at FCC.gov, but the estimated 300 pages order hasn’t been posted. Chairman Tom Wheeler says the commissioners got millions of comments “overwhelmingly…in favor of preserving a free and open Internet.” I doubt they were in favor of regulating the Internet as if it were the switched-circuit, monopoly telephone service, 1934-style.

Then there is the idea of net neutrality itself. One young person who free-lances at Federal News Radio simply assumed: Well, the Internet is important, so shouldn’t the government protect it by regulating it? If that’s what the so-called digital natives think, we’re all in trouble. I explained that I remember when a thrilling innovation in telecommunications was installation of an “extension” phone upstairs. Before that, someone would have to run downstairs to answer the phone in the kitchen or front hall. Eventually we got Touch Tone (on which my friends and I would play melodies until the “tilt” signal emanated from the earpiece). Then came modular jacks so you could replace the tangled cord on a telephone yourself.

I also made the analogy to airline service. When it was regulated in the so-called Golden Age you could fly first class, tourist, or student fare. Relative to before airline DE-regulation occurred — with the blessing of a Democratic administration — 10 times more people fly at about half to a 10th the cost, inflation and population adjusted.

Yes, I know. Planes are crowded and in-flight service stinks. Well, not if you can afford business or first class, especially overseas. You can’t? Neither can I. Get over it. A lot of those West Coast Hollywood and Silicon Valley campaign donors and net-neutrality pushers don’t even fly first class — they fly in private jets. So would you rather put up with 8 hours of discomfort on a $1,000 round trip fare to Paris or not go? Or go, but pay the pre-deregulation, inflation-adjusted price of $10,000? This 2013 article from The Atlantic shows just how far those prices have fallen. In 1974, it was illegal  for an airline to charge less than $1,442 (inflation adjusted) one way from New York to Los Angeles.

You still can talk to elderly people who rush off of long distance phone calls because they have vestigial instincts of when those minutes added up. A 1960s Bell System ad touted only 25 cents a minute on weekends. I recall one GSA official in the 1990s promising that the FTS 2000 contract would get long distance rates to under a nickel at some point in the future. That was when deregulation was still just winding up and before IP telephony, wireless and all the rest. Now a $10 a month landline gives you unlimited long-distance.

Ironically, people feared the deregulation of both phones and airlines. But both actions spawned unimaginable innovations. They brought unheard-of products and services to millions. Airlines were deregulated in 1978, the government-sanctioned phone monopoly in 1980. Thirty five years later, and we’re all experiencing an ongoing arms race among carriers, content providers, phone manufacturers and software developers to bring better and faster and more innovative products and services.

So what is the problem? Why would the administration push an allegedly independent FCC so hard for the “strongest possible” regulation of something that is such a roaring engine of jobs and wealth and innovation? Who asked the federal government for this? The FCC majority says this is to protect the future openness of the Internet. But you have to question it when any set of regulators gives itself immense power over something unfettered in the name of keeping it unfettered, and promises if won’t use those powers very much in its “modernized, light-touch approach.” As Anton Chekhov is often thought to have said, if there’s a gun on the wall in the first act, in the third act it’s going to go off.

The issue isn’t regulation per se. Some things have benefited from regulation. I’ve flown two million miles or so in my career. The explosion in air service, planes, traffic — none of it could happen without one of regulation’s great successes. The cooperative arrangement between the FAA, airplane manufacturers, carriers and other responsible parties has produced a logarithmic increase in safety since lumbering, prop-driven airliners ruled the skies. When those planes plowed into one another regularly, they made a good case for new rules and the technology investments to back them up. That sort of regulation doesn’t sound like anything the FCC is selling, with words like “just,”  “reasonable,” “addressing concerns” and similar vagary. Ultimately it cites a 1934 law that, 35 years ago, was found to be stifling communications technology and services. Now that law is invoked to box in the greatest communications innovation since moveable type.

Will CIO Tony Scott Make Feds Eat Dog Food?

February 15, 2015 Leave a comment

The most interesting fact about the new federal CIO, Tony Scott, is that he owns a Cirrus SR22 airplane. At a half million dollars a copy, the SR22 is popular with enthusiasts and even small commercial operators. It’s faster than a lot of other single-engine planes, and it’s made of modern composite materials. But it’s not in the class of single-engine planes with turbine engines and near-jet speeds. Those start a more than a million dollars.

One more thing. The SR22 has a built in parachute so that should the engine quit, the plane can still make it to the ground with the pilot and passengers in one piece.

All in all, not a bad metaphor for federal information technology. It should be up-to-date, perform well, come in at reasonable cost and have a safe way to bail when projects don’t go right.

Since the appointment, all of the trade media have dutifully trotted out the usual parade of experts, giving their opinions on what the new CIO has to do first, what his agenda should be, what he must accomplish in two years. But the White House was pretty clear about what it wants Scott to do: drive value in IT investments, delivering world-class digital services, and protecting federal IT assets and information. In other words, stopping the billions spent on failures, getting online services up to date, and cybersecurity. Pretty much what federal CIOs and their equivalents going back 20 years have been trying to do.

By the blog accounts, Scott left Microsoft in 2013 amicably. For example, Geekwire‘s Todd Bishop reported at the time that Scott left because of family needs following the death of his father, and because he wanted time to complete his instrument rating for his airplane. One tidbit from that post gives a clue to how Scott might approach his White House job. To wit, dogfooding.

These things can be murky, but Microsoft is apparently where the term, eating your own dogfood, first came into the high technology industry in the 1980s. When one group develops new software, Microsoft employees use it internally to see if it’s any good. The practice continued while Tony Scott was CIO. (Aside: That does raise the question of how in Hades the company felt it was safe to publish Windows 8.)

How could dogfooding help federal IT? Consider how the federal IT market has bifurcated. On one side you find the apps and data people represented by the Presidential Innovation Fellows. This side focuses on the quick developments, using agile techniques and multiple data sources. Example: SmokeFreeGov, which is a web site, app, and Twitter handle all at once. Up the food chain a bit is something like the Labor Department’s Enforcement Database. This pulls information from five databases, each developed separately, so they are more searchable and useful.

On the other side are the traditional large-scale developments driven by program managers that still take years and billions. Case in point: The next generation of electronic health records, torturously pursued by the lumbering Veterans Affairs and Defense Departments. Maybe Scott can help each side adopt what it good about the other. Serving each a little taste of the other would be a great strategy. Send a starry-eyed Fellow over to the VA CIO shop for a few weeks. And send some DOD health functionary over to a few hack sessions.

This wouldn’t be dogfooding in the classic sense, more like giving the dry kibble eaters a taste of canned, and vice versa.

By the way, if you find dogfooding unpalatable, so did Tony Scott. Thanks again to Todd Bishop, we know from the Puget Sound Business Journal back in 2009 that Scott replaced the term dogfooding with ice-creaming. Feds, pick up your spoons.

Government innovation? It gets an A for effort

January 26, 2015 1 comment

You know you’ve been covering technology for a long time when your friends’ kids – whom you remember as toddlers – start showing up at conferences you’re wandering through, panels you’re moderating. But that’s what happened to me the other day at a conference on collaboration in Washington. It was designed to match innovative companies with potential federal customers.

For me, it was an unusual event if only because of the mix of casualness and neck-ties – which, by the way, does not correlate with age.

I did run into a few guys I’ve known since my days at Government Computer News in the early 1990s. We joked, this sure isn’t FOSE with the latest copiers on display. It was bracing to see so much earnest brainpower – on both the government and fledgling industry side – talking across traditional boundaries. And a jolting reminder at how much the economy has changed from when I used to cover industries like steel and engineered metal products.

I’m not sure what innovation means exactly. But one of the government people had a pretty good, down-to-earth definition. Dan Doney, the chief innovation officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said it’s finding ways to deal with the new problems you have when the old tools don’t work. Or trying new tools on persistent problems. You can’t put it in a bottle. And you can’t conjure it up at will by shoving people into open workspaces. But you know it when you see it.

Or when you know where to look. The government is learning where to look. That’s why you see so many agencies launching challenges and contests. They’re looking for ideas the bureaucracy can’t solve with the usual ways it does things.

At collaboration, the Energy Department had a table lined with one-page brochures listing challenges it has open. It’s preparing to spend a million dollars on prizes. There’s the Collegiate Wind Competition, for example. They’re not looking for a socialist professor to hold a faculty lounge gabfest, but rather teams of students to design and test a marketable wind turbine. Reading the material, I sense a subtext in this contest. Namely, the current wind turbine industry has problems with reliability, cost, and the fact that without the government forcing it, no sane utility would bother with them.

Another DOE contests has to do with lighting. In conjunction with Ford Motor Company, one seeks ideas for new automotive lighting systems. Another, in partnership with RecoveryPark, is looking for ideas for more efficient agricultural lighting for greenhouses.

I saw an impressive piece of unmanned aerial vehicle innovation. The problem with those whiny quadricopters is battery life. Flying a payload like a GoPro camera or something of similar weight, they just don’t go far enough. And the devices could be a lot more productive if they could operate in swarms. But operation doesn’t scale – one operator, one drone.

That’s according to Brandon Borko and Christopher Vo. They look like my kids age. They are my kids ages. But they’re the CEO and chief technologist, respectively, of a startup called Sentien Robotics. I couldn’t help but ask them how come they weren’t in school that day. But they’re both George Mason University engineering grads. They’ve developed software that can operate, they say, hundreds of drones autonomously, launching fresh machines as the batteries on flying ones fade. Their video showed a sort of drone rack concept, mounted on the back of an F-250. It launches charged drones while the expiring ones fly into a space on the rack. Imagine operating 100 drones with only your driver’s license.

Could you have thought of this? I don’t know what the Sentien system costs, but I’m willing to bet it’s less than the billion dollars the Defense Department would spend to have a systems integrator do it.

I spoke to one 20-something who says he started a company that creates branding narratives. I’m not sure what that even is. But it sounds like something a few government agencies could use.

A young woman from BraveUX described this chic company’s approach to app development, which its web site describes as “clever, clean, gutsy, art-meets-science, polished, , original, avant garde, modern, smart, bold, simplified, definitely not boring, full-bodied, fun, delightful, original, stylish, refined & Brave.” Hardly something you’ll find on the web site of the average federal contractor.

Elephants also exhibited at the conference, hoping to show they, too, can innovate. Booz Allen Hamilton talked about its use of crowd-sourcing platforms like Innocentive and IdeaScale to help agencies get into the innovation groove.

The event itself had one innovation you don’t see much in Washington. It ran on a Friday and Saturday. All those kids innovating don’t think in terms of a 9-5 M-F workweek. My entrée came from Jonathan Aberman, a northern Virginia venture capitalist who specializes in national security market startups locally. I moderated a discussion with him and Doney, but it was on a Friday afternoon. Our theme was that technology innovators have avenues to get their ideas in front of government, even with the procurement process in place.

And the neighbor’s kid? A shout-out to Ben Center, recent grad, now working as investor relations associate at Onevest.

So, Federal Senior Execs To Get Nods For Customer Service

December 21, 2014 1 comment

When President Obama deigned to meet with members of the Senior Executive Service and other managers earlier this month, some three thousand of them showed up. Not a lot of new ideas rolled out, but the old “customer service” idea resurfaced. Specifically, the still-to-be-developed idea of giving some sort of award or bonus to SESers whose agencies deliver excellent customer service.

This notion goes back a while. In the George H.W. Bush administration, they called it service-to-the-citizen. That was before online services came along, but the idea of government services equal to what people get from the private sector took hold. Notwithstanding that customer service in many areas of the private sector stinks, the idea has endured. Nowadays, the comparison mostly refers to online, and to some degree, telephone service. My comment on that is, the newest form of customer service, online chat, is something the government ought to explore more. I’ve resolved many a technical issue with neither e-mail (rarely any good) or telephone (it depends) by using chat.

I remember a one-star Army general who retired and went to work for a large software company, working in its federal division. At an editorial retreat I held for one of my magazine staffs, he was a guest speaker. He got a lot of laughs when he said, “I was trained to break up things and kill people! Now I’ve got to learn to delight the customer!”

I’m not sure what “delighting the customer” might mean for services from the government, but the latest online trend seems to be a hybrid of online transactions executed flawlessly, together with what they used to call high touch, individual-to-individual followup. It’s actually not that new. Six or seven years ago I ordered occasional computer parts from CDW, and the e-mail receipt always had the signature of a real person with a direct phone number.

Let me tell you about a really delightful commercial experience I had this month. Having been a four-eyes since the age of six, I’ve bought many a pair of glasses. I did contacts for 30 years, but gave up on them because of the discomfort and the tiresome routine. A couple of years ago I bought three pairs of glasses from a storefront shop — two contrasting styles for daily wear and retro-looking sports glasses for running (think Kareem Abdul Jabbar). The three pairs cost me more than $2,000. The store provided fine services, if you back out the schlep of driving there twice and parking, and waiting in the store for help. Recently lost of of the pairs, Ray-Ban frames, and I realized I couldn’t read a computer screen with any of them. It was affecting my broadcast delivery. I could see closeup and far away, but not that magic 18-24 or so inches.

Having read about the online glasses phenomenon, I decided to risk it. Long story short — the outfit sends customers five pairs to try on. I e-mailed them a picture of my fancy-shop prescription together with a selfie with a credit card held under my nose, pressed against my upper lip. This wan’t the payment system, it was how the retailer could figure out the distance between my pupils, since the credit card is a universal, fixed distance. Get it? The prescription I had was for so-called progressive lenses, bifocals with out the little line in the middle. The optician there extrapolated the single focus prescription.

I felt I was taking a risk, but at only $99 for frames and coated lenses, I felt if was a tolerable risk if the glasses turned out junky. I’d only be out a c-note. The glasses arrived a few days later in the mail. This after a couple of clarifying e-mail exchanges from an actual person at the retailer.

Amazing! They are perfect. All frames, including the fancy designer names, are made in China. These were imitations, privately branded, and as nice as anything in the storefronts. The glasses arrived inside a soft drawstring bag, inside a hard clamshell case. Nothing cheap about them at all, but a third the price I’d have paid at the shop connected to my opthalmologist. Most important, I can see a computer screen finally. I ordered a second pair — this time with only a couple of mouse clicks since their system remembered me. Not only that, the same person with whom I’d corresponded sent me a chocolate bar in the mail — with a handwritten note! of thanks!

For me, that’s the new “delightful” bar for great customer service. The federal government isn’t going to send chocolates. But it can, with the right resources and focus, reach the kind of service that makes people say, “Gosh, that worked out pretty good!”


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