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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.

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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.