Feb 21, 2011

All Your Base Are Belong to U.S.

What a long and (sometimes strange) trip its been since a group of stalwart government innovators published Social Media and the Federal Government: Perceived and Real Barriers and Potential Solutions in Dec. 2008.

Federal agencies are blogging, tweeting, sharing photos and videos, publishing data, running online public dialogues, texting, fanning and friending. Here's a great list in case you need to catch up.

Good news is that many of the policy barriers have been overcome and agencies are regularly using social media to communicate and, in some cases, serve the public. The complicating news is that the mainstreaming of social media has brought new eyes and challenges to light.

Two areas of increasing concern are the security of social networks and agency compliance with federal records requirements. I have heard that people in some agencies are asking if Twitter is FISMA compliant. Other folks are asking if their agency could comply with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for posts on their Facebook wall. Some are wondering how agencies  should archive comments on YouTube and Facebook or @replies on Twitter.

This manifests itself practically in an office saying they won't allow use of Twitter since it hasn't been accredited in accordance with NIST SP 800-37 "Guide for the Security Certification and Accreditation of Federal Information Systems." Hunh? Or another office saying that there will be no comments, or that comments will be ignored(!), on their Facebook wall because to interact would create a government record. Whaa? Big barriers to participation, no?

I wonder. Do people who comment on government pages and channels expect that they are entering data into the federal record?  Or are they thinking it's like a town hall or letter to the editor in a newspaper? Or more likely something for their other friends to see?

I wonder. Are agencies barred from using public social networks unless these private networks follow government security requirements? [And would they turn over security documentation for the public record?] Or are theses public commons in which the government engages, like the President giving a speech at a school or addressing the public as a guest on a cable TV show?

I wonder. Does government own or control third-party, private social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? Or is government a participant--like everyone else--in these communities.


Jan 2, 2011

Doing Gov 2.0 Backwards in High Heels

Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire backwards and in high heelsI was reading the awesomely comprehensive 2010 roundup of Gov 2.0 by Alex Howard and stumbled into a little Twitter dust-up between Alex and one of his readers, Microsoft's public sector evangelist, Mark Drapeau.

The twit-for-tat was around Mark's criticism that Gov 2.0 activities were focused on "govies, policies, and techies, and little citizens, services, engagement." He's right. There continues to be a lot of foundation-level work going on--like writing policies, creating governance, training, upgrading systems, cleaning up and making available data, etc. It makes it hard to see how this is having an impact on citizens and the public.

Then, Alex referenced Gov 2.0 impact on citizens
As the new year beckons, there are more ways for the citizens of the United States to provide feedback to their federal government than perhaps there ever have been in its history. In 2011, the open question is whether "We the people" will use these new participatory platforms to help government work better. The evolution of these kinds of platforms aren't U.S.-centric, either. Ushahidi, for example, started in Africa and has been deployed worldwide. The crowd matters more now in every sense: crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, crowdmapping, collective intelligence, group translation, and human sensor networks--O'Reilly Radar
Alex is finding some Gov 2.0 activity that is actually touching people. A good start, but how does this play for my sister in Indiana?

But, as Mark went on,
twitter image from Drapeau, Well @digiphile, government exists to serve all its citizens. Thusfar Government 2.0 mainly exists to serve wonks and geeks.
he and I part ways.

The heady newness of the Open Government Directive and the first forays into social media are over. We look back wistfully, like on the faded blush of a new romance. That was fun! But now we are left to work in the trenches to realize the promise. Much less sexy, but critical to success.

This year has included some very important new guidance--for example on surveys (Paperwork Reduction Act), privacy (including cookies and participating in 3rd party networks), plain language and prize authority to name a few--that agencies are trying to apply. And there is increasing scrutiny, oversight, and evaluation from both within and outside of agencies.

It seems that nothing breeds slowdowns like success. The layer of people who like things "the way they are" are not excited about new ways of interaction. And some are pulling the many levers at their disposal to doubly ensure that all T's are crossed and I's dotted.

Then, there are many early evangelists who are practicing what they were preaching. Being change agents in their agencies mean that they are less available to take to the pulpits of conferences and blog posts to proselytize across agencies.

I am neither a wonk nor a geek. I am a citizen, though. I am a citizen who works in government. And I am a citizen who works in a government built on--and sustained by--a massive command and control bureaucracy from a pre-Internet and social networking era. I am a citizen who works in this slow-moving behemoth and trying to make change for my fellow citizens, not to serve wonks and geeks.

Folks working in the trenches welcome the thoughtful criticism of outsiders. We don't have all the answers and have plenty of blind spots. Keep our feet to the fire, help us make change, and keep caring! But, I gotta tell you, from an insider's perspective, this is harder than it looks.

Nov 29, 2010

Schools Get an F: Our Kids and Tech

Tony Manero dancing on a lighted disco floor circa Saturday Night FeverWhile I am loathe to admit it, I danced on a lighted dance floor. I did The Hustle. I was quite underage to be going to clubs, but that's what we did. Those were the times I grew up in.*

Why the confession?

Because while I was a girl--disco dancing under a mirrored ball--I got a better computer education than high-schoolers get today.

At my working-class public high school, I took a "computer" class. We had to learn a language and write a program. We called the computer on the special phone, put the telephone receiver in suction cups and typed the commands to run the program. If the program didn't work, we had to figure out why. Line by line. And when it worked, we had accomplished something and did a happy dance.

I used  the C:\ prompt on my first computer (at work). Not because I am geeky, but because that was all there was. We had to imagine what was behind the dir command, because directories were opened one at a time. There was no tree, like in Windows, so you had to abstract and remember the directory structure.

The very, very basic programming and directory commands that I learned introduced me to using computers. I've been lucky enough to work with nice, smart, truly geeky people to help develop my technical knowledge. But I had something to build on, a basic computer literacy.

My kids go to pretty good schools. Their computer classes include how to use Excel and Powerpoint. Kids don't need to learn how to use productivity software. They just use it. "Programming," when offered, is usually HTML markup. They don't use logic. No IF...THEN...ELSE statements. The teachers don't use computers and are reluctant (don't know how?) to use them in class. The teachers who teach technology are hockey coaches. Kids get lessons in net-etiquette but not in three tier architecture.

We think that "born digital" kids know technology, but many of them can only put together a tacky, over-animated, under-researched slideshow. We have web "programmers" with a knowledge of HTML which they have parlayed into a visual programming language, but without any understanding of databases and data structures, systems analysis, or resource management. And, we have leaders who run programs based on technology, but who disengage whenever tech is mentioned.

Kids use technology and computers from sunup to sundown, but they don't know how it works. And they need to. Whether or not they are computer scientists or technologists, everyone needs a basic technical literacy. We teach the basics of reading, the building blocks of math, the structure of writing, but no fundamentals of technology. This is a huge mistake.

Government depends on the effective deployment of technology to solve problems. We need to recruit people who can write effective RFPs, navigate technology issues, oversee technology and technologists, as well as be geeks. But, that means we need people with the right knowledge and skills in the pipeline.

Kids do need to learn that The Cloud consists of physical servers, that data quality is critical to good output, that the semantic web can help machines make sense out of information on a web page so information structure counts, that information stored across multiple datasets and servers can be combined and mined, and all this is at least as important as whether a train leaving Boston for New York will beat an earlier, slower train from Providence.

Teachers, principals, schools, Secretary Duncan, let's get back to the future and do some meaningful updating of our technology curricula.

Technology is the fourth "R"--reading, (w)riting, 'rithmetic, and rechnology (that last one only works when spoken like Scooby-Doo another relic of my past).

[* here's how I was saved. Not quite fodder for On dot-gov.]

Jul 19, 2010

4 Lessons For Gov Via The @OldSpice Guy

Should i start with a melodic, "Hellooo Ladies?"

Not one to let a hot meme slip by, and vacation prone to hearing the oceans in a shell and seeing signs in billowing clouds, here's my resounding YES to finding lessons for dot-gov in this past week's Internet phenom: that most awesome 180 videos in 3 days, multi-channel, rock-hard abs Old Spice campaign.

But I am not going to write about the brilliant social media campaign--others are doing that. Instead, I want to talk about four lessons we can take from @OldSpice Guy to better our dot-gov projects.

Number one: Speed
This is 2010, and if you haven't got it yet, we stopped waiting. The Old Spice team created video responses in real time. Someone--sometimes famous and sometimes not--would tweet and in minutes there was a response. And it was good. We hadn't seen this level of realtime before, but we like it.

Government needs to get with the program and escape from the time warps of never-ending requirements gathering, ad nauseam reporting, acquisition merry-go-rounds, and TAA (total risk aversion). I was on a panel a few weeks ago when someone asked how was it acceptable for government to take 3 months to implement open government initiatives. My response? that I would love for a project to come in under six. Sigh.

Our citizens expect immediate results. We need to make it so.

Number two: Planning
How do you make 180 videos, have them distributed across multiple networks and garner 11 million views in 3 days? Very carefully. This was a well-designed and executed plan. And, like any well-executed plan, it looked easy. But the handsome man already had a fan base, the social media team knew where to reach out, all the resources for the rapid research, writing, producing and editing were on site, and sign-offs were established.

I don't want to miss any chance to hammer home the strategy message. You, too, are building toward a goal. You have to lay the groundwork, do your research and pull together the team.  You also need to be open to opportunities.

For example, we learned that you can't put a new capability in place during a disaster (duh, you say, but there is an expectation that technology can solve problems "magically"). That's why it's important for people drill and for organizations to run simulations and exercises. That's why your IT and new media teams need to participate. Setting up a Twitter account days into a crisis is much less effective than building a follower base and expertise to broadcast information that scales.

Is having a web infrastructure that can easily output RSS something you will need? Don't have the infrastructure you want, but can begin collecting data for the next gen? Do it now. In 2006, we tested third party tools for a blog, because, even though we had no nibbles from the front office, we knew that we would keep pushing to blog. When the formerly reluctant boss hit "go," many months later, we were ready with tested technology and policy. We went from go to live in 5 weeks without breaking a sweat.

See where you want to be. Build toward that state.

Number three: Talent
No doubt that the Old Spicers had a corral full of talent. From the guy in front of camera to the professional broadcast quality output to the hysterically funny writers to the social media experts who brilliantly got it and executed on key to the crazy creatives that put the whole scheme in motion, this was high-quality work.

Who do you have in your stable? Is your organization built for mules who keep their heads down and plod along on the well-worn path? Or do you nurture thoroughbreds and give them room to run? Do you hire or contact with superstars only to to keep pulling up the reins and push them to follow that old path? Does your staff look at the Old Spice campaign and wish they could do something like that?

You want high quality output? Find and nurture the folks who can do that work. And give them the space.

Which leads to...

Number four: Trust
There would be no speed from this well-planned caper if there wasn't an extraordinary level of trust in the superstar team.  The ad company had worked with the client at length and pitched a process that skipped traditional sign-offs from legal, et.al. And the client agreed.

This is an interesting element. It's critical to understand that while trust is imperative, it's not automatic. Trust needs to be earned, every day. It's unreasonable--and dangerous--for executives to bet on a project or team simply because trust is a success factor. It's up to the folks in dot-gov to build the trust and to show the judgement necessary to take on risk. You create trust by building relationships, by showing success on smaller projects, by understanding the needs of the organization and developing programs to meet mission goals, by creating strong implementation and risk management plans, and by communicating clearly both up and down.

Trust, like Rome, isn't built in a day.

So that's it, speed, planning, talent and trust or SPTT! I think I need a vowel for that. Hey, look, a fish just fell in my arms. Then it turned into diamonds. I'm on a horse.

And, in case you missed it, here's my personal favorite of the Old Spice rapid ads--to the actor's daughter.


Jul 11, 2010

Watch Out for the Gov 2.0 Villains (FanGirl Version)

First, go read Steve Radick's tragically funny post on the Six Villians of Gov 2.0. I laughed and I cried, especially since I know people in each category, I am sorry to say.

No great list goes without a tweak, and I want to add another villain to Steve's on target list. I'll wager that you have met him or her, too. It's The Man.

The Man is the one in charge, and with his extreme power he can immediately kill any innovative project--or green light it. The Man is driven by a desire to be young and modern. He is enamored with the cool, the perceived hip, the newfangled innerwebs things (in addition to other mid-life crisis baubles) that shows he still has "It."

The Man is especially susceptible to teaming with the Money Monger (this is the part where you really need to see Steve's list), who's promises of the easy, wild successes that "all the Fortune 100" are implementing have the appeal of the Fountain of Youth.

The danger is in the implementation of a high-cost technology death march void of strategy or measurable goals. These time and money wasters distract our heroes from the real work required for effective transparency and collaboration. And, to add to the injury, the inevitable project failures will poison future efforts--fueling the efforts of the other villains, Debbie Downer and Dr. Closed Mind.

The strength of The Man is his past successes which earned him his current senior position. He is in charge. He makes things happen. He wins.

His Weaknesses? His ego. Just as the Money Monger appeals to making The Man seem hip, you can use his ego against him. The challenge is to do so without backing The Man into a corner or implying, even by a hint, that he is wrong. You might be able to throw a flag by enlisting the popular and do-gooding Captain Conservative. The danger here is slowing down your future efforts. This is a price that must be paid. Be sure to come armed with data and a strong strategy to do battle.

(This was originally a comment on Steve's post, but my current technology doesn't support flash, which his comment engine requires, and I wanted to play, too.)

Jun 13, 2010

2 Wrong & 1 Right Response to "What Are You Afraid Of?"

New things make people nervous. They just do. New things don't have track records. They are hard to predict. We don't know what to expect.

New things are also very exciting. They can be rejuvenating, making old folks feel young again. New things have the potential to be game changing. The unknown has it's own thrill.

So, it makes sense that some people avoid new scary things and roll up into a safe little ball. Other people walk right into their scary zone, headlong, refusing to be cowed by fear.

Neither is a very good idea.

The scary part of the new venture has a name. It's RISK.  And blindly avoiding risk is as bad an idea as blindly embracing risk.

Let's start with the first response: blind avoidance. In the dot-gov and social media space, the idea of losing control of "message," of employees talking directly to the world without hierarchical sign-offs, of potentially causing citizens chaos or danger or confusion, of not understanding the unknowable consequences, of maybe potentially somehow breaking a law or regulation, of being dragged in front of a committee for a hearing, of making things worse, or of exposing your current embarrassingly whack procedures is enough to stop agencies cold.

Down side of avoidance? You lose opportunity for growth, innovation and, even, success. You are stuck using a manual typewriter and paper and finding information by searching through file cabinets while the rest of the world is using voice recognition to search and contribute to an entire world's worth of information. Oh, and people talk about you and your program and you are not part of the dialogue.

Turning to the second response: blind embrace. The allure of the new and the exciting can cloud judgement. There are slick promises that all needs will be met by the snake-oil salesmen and goading jeers from the outside critics who see how "easy" this is in the private sector (where private is a term filled with magic). And so it must be easy--especially since Facebook and Microsoft were started in college dorm rooms. Hire some college interns and turn on the spigot. Get out of the way of the wise crowds, they will reveal the path.

Down side of blindly embracing? I like to say pets.com or Skittles or Enron or all those friends jumping off a bridge that your mom told you about. There are bad ideas and bad approaches out there. The pressure can be hard to resist. And for government, the outcome can be much worse than embarrassment given our public safety missions, privacy requirements, and data holdings.

What to do? Take off the blinders.

You don't have to be an expert in technology to identify, assess and manage the risks in projects and approaches.

While there are tomescertifications and degrees, you can make better decisions about program, project or enterprise risk by analyzing the risks.
  1. Identify the threats. What could go wrong?
  2. Identify the impact. How bad would it be? 
  3. Identify the likelihood.  Should I expect this or is it rare?
  4. Identify strategies to manage the risk. What can you do about it? How is your mission affected?
What you do about the risk depends on the first three steps in the analysis. Four common management strategies are to
  • Avoid the risk--if it is too big and too likely to occur, this might be one to skip.
  • Reduce the risk--via policies, procedures, controls, staffing, training.
  • Share the risk--usually by purchasing insurance.
  • Retain the risk--deal with it, budget for it, prepare contingency plans.

Not to short circuit the formal risk management process, assessing risks should be part of your decision-making process.  Identifying risks and what you would do about them can help move projects forward by clarifying the actual impact--exposing the figurative fear to reality and analysis.

How does this work? 

Let's say an agency was considering  running a public dialogue on a important agency issue. In the blind avoidance method, you can work up all the reasons why that is a TERRIBLE idea. You don't know how to do it, no tool, it'll never pass legal, what do you do when participants type in the F-word, nobody will participate, everybody will participate and overwhelm us, what if we can't do what they ask, etc. Forget about it!

In the blind embracing method, you implement a cool tool that you read about in TechCrunch and see what happens. And you experience all the bad things that blind avoidance predicted above.

In a managed risk model, you analyze the risks blind avoidance identified and decide what to do about them. America Speaks put together a terrific risk matrix (PDF) for using online dialogue tools for the Open Government Dialogues. The matrix identifies the risks, what to do to prevent them and what to do if it happens anyway.

So, don't be very, very afraid or foolishly brave. What are you afraid of? Success?

Apr 7, 2010

A Few Things on the New Paperwork Reduction Act Guidance

Huge stacks of paper, ready to be reduced!Lot's of big news in "open government" today. Most federal Cabinet department and agencies published their open government plans, making good on the requirements of December's Open Government Directive

In other news, the White House Office of Management and Budget published guidance on "Social Media, Web-Based Interactive Technologies, and the Paperwork Reduction Act" (read the PDF here). There is plenty of commentary and analysis about the import of this guidance. Some think that it's more meaningful than others.

WaPost has a good overview of the memo.
The PRA, enacted in 1995, before the Internet was a staple of American life, requires officials at federal agencies to submit an Office of Management and Budget Form 83-I whenever they gather information from the public, to justify the collection effort. That process can take months.

The new document, posted on the White House Web site along with new "open government plans" from several federal agencies, acknowledges the novel ways in which information is collected via social media that should not trigger the PRA."--
Read more at Washington Post.
The ensuing discussions were not without a few bits of confusion.

  1. Some folks don't think that the memo went far enough in freeing agencies to engage directly with the public. One of the challenges, however, is that the PaperWork Reduction Act is a law, and, there is only so much space that the Executive Branch has to modify. Mods to the basic premise on web based surveys versus paper surveys tread on the Legislative branch. Some have said that this memo was as far as the White House could go and additional modifications to the PRA will take an "act of Congress." Literally. See the Constitution, especially regarding separation of powers, for more.
  2. Others think that this memo is a dud--in part--because it doesn't address issues with persistent cookies. Good news, that updated guidance is in the pipeline and should be out in a few weeks. Unknown is whether the guidance will scratch the itch. Stay tuned!
  3. There are two different PRA's in the federal government, The Paperwork Reduction Act, which this memo addresses, and the Presidential Records Act. The changes in this memo have nothing to do with Presidential records. I want to refer you to Nancy Scola's nice post on the memo--minus her reference "to obviate the need for such careful treading as the warning on the White House's official Twitter account that, "Comments & messages received through official WH pages are subject to the PRA and may be archived." Gosh, I hate government acronyms!
Don't forget to read the memo for yourself. And look for more to come!