Jul 30, 2009

Pulling the Plug on Underperforming IT Projects

The Department of Veterans Affairs pulled the plug on 45 problem IT projects, pending further evaluation to see if they should continue.
In preparing data for the so-called IT Dashboard, a site that offers a window into the complex and costly process of procuring government IT services, VA officials discovered problems with some of the agency's IT projects. For example, while sifting through the data, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki and CIO Roger Baker learned that a scheduling project was running 17 months behind schedule, Kundra said.

Shinseki and Baker announced on Friday that they temporarily stopped development of 45 projects that are either behind schedule or over budget to determine if they should be canceled or salvaged.--Read more on NextGov.
The IT Dashboard allows users to learn more about information technology projects, like the VA's Health Data Repository, a $28 million project that is way behind schedule.

In addition to cost and schedule information, you can easily learn the purpose of the project and review other official documentation. And, very importantly, you can provide your thoughts to the CIO on specific projects.

This project is a tough one for agency CIO's. They are required to very publicly report and evaluate their projects. Many of them are responsible for projects that they didn't approve and in some cases went sour before their arrival. But it's important to begin to get an honest handle on IT projects and expenditures. And it's even more important to do something about them.<

Bravo to the VA, and bravo for this new transparency resource.

Jul 25, 2009

Choir Boys and Rebels

Old picture of two choir boys in robesThe government meets web 2.0 conference circuit is getting tired.
All web 2.0 conferences are all starting to look exactly the same. Many speakers come from agencies that are boldly using social media in a new and exciting ways, and many more "believers," who are not allowed to use those same technologies, come to hear about it. But the status quo remains the same. NASA and DoD get to successfully use social media, and the rest of us, for the most part, don't. This is the divide that needs to be overcome. I understand that agencies like the IRS and SSA have intensely sensitive data and need to be extremely cautious. But there are a great many agencies that do not fall into this category that are prevented from using these technologies, despite any prior approval GSA may have gotten. My agency isn't even officially allowed to use Twitter yet...One panelist at a breakout session described how DoD is using "other transactions" to quickly fund new ideas to address current problems. While very interesting, this was less than helpful since DoD is the only agency that I know of with this kind of authority - everyone else has to use the traditional and time-consuming procurement system. For an expo, these are excellent speakers. DoD, NASA, The White House are getting things done, but as a method to further collaboration and expand the use of social media, it failed. We need specifics: case studies, business case strategies that succeeded to support any/all of these tools, etc. [emphasis mine]--More from Jaime Maynard on her GovLoop* blog.
The robust discussion that followed Jamie's post included more than a few frustrated voices lamenting the lack of process and policy that can allow and encourage the use of social media tools in government agencies. Bottom line, it's not fun to see what everyone is doing if there appears to be no light at the end of your own tunnel.

So, tunnel!

Here's the thing. We are just at the beginning of a social information revolution. The roads are more like ruts in the ground. There are no traffic signals. And, yes, in many cases, it's the blind leading the blind.

But, it's not just government. The private sector--outside of the social technology companies themselves--is also wrestling with the upheaval that social media brings.

The ultimate issue is, How do hierarchical, risk adverse and change-fearing organizations incorporate tools that are anti-hierarchy, risky, game-changers?

Funny thing, these conferences that are causing frustrations--what with all the preaching to the choir--are the venues to create and build the networks and common language that choir members take back to their day jobs. And, the rebellious choir members are singing to colleagues, bosses, and compliance professionals from this same hymnal. And, some of the people who hear the music feel the joy and join the choir, too. This process repeats.

This is a sea change that is disrupting the basic structures of our systems, from contracting and buying services to shining bright lights on moldy laws to upending command and control structures. These institutions--acquisitions, legal, management--are meant to withstand fads and the winds of change. But the change is happening from within.

Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, blogged on this earlier in the week.
We’re seeing movement from mere words to reality, and by bearing witness to that progress, I hope to help accelerate that progress, with actual results. Our goal involves:
  • Increasing government accountability
  • Everyday engagement between government workers and the public for customer service
  • Everyday engagement between the public and their representatives regarding ongoing government policy
As a nation, we’re already heading to our shared goals, mostly via many grassroots, spontaneous efforts, often involving informal collaborations between the citizens and government workers. --[emphasis mine] Read more on FedScoop.
So, take heart and channel any impatience towards improving your own knowledge and networking with other choir members. See, for example, the terrific follow-on post by Jeffrey Levy with practical suggestions to build the community and help usher in the change.

Raise your voices. This is a choir like none we've seen in a very long time.

[* If you're not a member of GovLoop you can't see Jaimies post. So join GovLoop, it's a great social network tool connecting the government (local, state, fed, contractor) community.]

Jul 22, 2009

Shorts: Second Life for White House, Participation, SocNet Policy

Fairly ugly pair of yellow madras shortsObama Team Officially Gets a Second Life.When President Obama spoke to a live audience in Ghana, his address was streamed to audiences in the virtual worlds of Second Life and Metaplace. After the speech there was a virtual discussion, led by a panel with the former ambassador to Qatar and an African historian. This event was announced by CBS News and organized as an official White House event by the U.S. State Department. No one knows yet what the future holds for the Obama administration and virtual worlds, but what we are sure of, is that they are actively seeking out, researching, and testing these opportunities. Read more.

Measuring Effectiveness of Participation Projects. What is the return on the investment of the government's time, resources, and attention into cracking open the political sphere to citizen engagement? In other words, how do open government projects operating within the government bureaucracy justify their keep? That's the subtext to a new report out from New York Law School's Center for Patent Innovations, overseer of the Peer-to-Patent project. Peer-to-Patent broke new ground in participatory government and the Patent Office decided to assess whether it's worthwhile to continue the project as part of the standard practice of how the U.S. vets patents. In its two-year life thus far, 2,600 people registered on the site as patent reviewers. More than 180 applications were vetted. Read more from Nancy Scola on Tech President.

10 things you should cover in your social networking policy. When the social networking phenomenon began, many companies dealt with it by not dealing with it — they simply banned/blocked social networking sites on the company network. Now, as social media grows up, policy is starting to try to catch up to practice. Check out the suggestions from copyright to employee conduct on and off the job. More on the TechRepublic blog.

Jul 17, 2009

What Is the Most Important Thing?

My desk phone rang at 7:00 p.m. "Go Home!" said the caller.

Of course, he was glad to have caught me, and we had a quick confab about social media. And the arrows all pointed at the disruptive communications technologies that are social media.

The early days of ignorance and bliss are gone. The days when government staffers innocently clicked the button that said, "I agree," and opened up the Pandora's box of Facebook, YouTube, AddThis, Feedburner, MySpace, and Twitter.

Those few days when the Internet was free and open--a new, more transparent, collaborative and participatory way--for government to communicate and interact with her citizens. The days before the inevitable crush of rules and regulations, of some CFR thingie and the threat of potential hearings, made us grow up and take notice of what we had unleashed.

So today's discussion with my friend was about one of the regulatory tigers [link to pdf]. It doesn't matter which one because they are all important. Could be security. Could be privacy. Could be protecting the record of how a decision is made. Could be ethics. Could be cramming the Internet pipes of an agency with who knows what. Could be the sovereignty of the United States of America, for goodness' sake!

They are all important. And so is embracing the uncertainty and risk of this new more transparent, collaborative and participatory way for government to communicate and interact with her citizens.

Amazing photo of traffic circle by Nikolas R. Schiller, Los Angeles, Calif April 2008
We are now standing in the middle of an incredibly busy intersection of dozens of important interests. Working through the interests, it sometimes seems that these important interests don't know or recognize that they are all part of the same ecosystem. An ecosystem that is not yet in any balance. And, as each of the interests advocate vociferously for their needs, the shape of the discussion distorts.

My friend @bashley said, "We'll know #gov20 has come of age once it's cross-examined as if a defendant before a magistrate, awaiting sentence."

We are trying to build the perfect traffic circle. A circle in which all the interests enter into the traffic flow--the flow of this new more transparent, collaborative and participatory way for government to communicate and interact with her citizens--without colliding, without impeding the stream and without giving too much favor to any one interest.

Jul 12, 2009

Numbers and Darn Numbers

A few quick resources to look at the state of the interwebs and to help you measure your own state of being.

First, check out what's hot in the blogosphere. Nielsen data shows that Twitter is gaining mentions and MySpace is flatlining.
Graph of mentions Twitter Facebook MySpace. Twtitter trending up, Myspace flat and low, Facebook holding it's own[my apologies to the Tweep who sent me this way. I searched and couldn't find you. So an annon h/t. So sorry!]

Second trend, Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey shows that personal recommendations and online opinions are the most influential.

Government is not listed in the mix, but depending on how you cut it, government sites are most like "brand" websites, which have a respectable 70% positive trust level.

The important piece for government, though, is to make content more sharable. If a friend sends an email, or shares a page on Facebook or tweets a link, 90% of the people will trust the information. Helping people to share government content looks like a big win.

Third, since Twitter is so hot, here are some numbers to give flavor to the "Twittershpere" via a report by Internet marketing company Hubspot. Among Twitter users
  • 55.50% are not following anyone
  • 54.88% have never tweeted
  • 52.71% have no followers
Looking closer at what this means, only 9% of the Twitter users meet all three criteria (less than 10 in each category). For example the State Department travel alerts follows only 15 but is followed by 6,215 and have updated with 175 alerts. And then there's Oprah, with her nearly 2 million followers, who only follows 14 people with a paltry 50 tweets.

People who have never tweeted may be using Twitter as a news aggregator, taking in information and choosing to share nothing. They are still involved by reading messages and are available. The people with few followers may follow many, follow a few people with whom they have a close exchange, or perhaps simply never got the Twitter bug. You can read the entire State of the Twittersphere (download PDF) report, here.

Jul 8, 2009

If Social Media is the New Punk, Who Are You?


This is a fun video. And whether you do or don't like punk, you must admit that it influenced the music following. So, for fun, if gov-social media is to punk rock, where do you fit?

Ramones. Raw, stripped down and honest. Listen to Blitzkrieg Bop. Let's face it, not many in gov have the guts or the ability to be leaders in this space. But NGOs can.

Take a look at the innovative, crowd-sourced and brave efforts of the JumpStart Mapping Initiative. This program aims "to produce complete, free, and open public-domain street maps in developing countries." Volunteers are being trained in GIS surveying and cartography and walk the streets to produce a data set for a street map of the West Bank using web-based open source software to get to
  • better transparency in government planning for civil services
  • better relief and reporting for humanitarian efforts
  • better fluidity in private markets
  • the potential to generate job opportunities that enable businesses to enhance their services
See also the slides from Mikel Miron's program from Crisis Camp Ignite. This is one of the most amazing projects I have seen.

Another Ramone's era example is the useful, cool and edgy mashup created with official D.C. government data. Stumble Safely is a mobile application that helps people "find the best bars and a safe path to stumble home on." It uses uses data about D.C. crime, streets, liquor licenses, parks, and subway stations to build a safe route home as well as awareness information to let you know club hotspots. This is what happens when government takes the chance of opening up it's data stores-an application that gets people's attention and fills a niche need (or maybe desire). Watch the local government space for more Ramones-like applications.

The Clash: Punk from across the pond, The Clash took raw energy and politics and recognized that production values count with some added polish. Try Train in Vain. Still crazy innovative, they brought the in-your-face punk to a wider audience with the best LP of the 80's.

We are starting to see examples of Clash-level work, like the TSA Blog which brings a bite not normally seen in government discourse with an openness, and, yes, sometimes even in-your-face-ness that others have yet to emulate.

Another example, less edgy and more harmonic, is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and their e-marketing social media efforts. Their steps into interaction in virtual worlds reaches new audiences (kids and their grandparents) to change people's behavior, like getting a flu vaccine. CDC is also using widgets to encourage people who care--not everyone--pass on public health information to their friends.

Much to come in this category.

U2: Still with a distinct sound, this Irish band has defined rock and roll for 25 years. From Two Hearts to Beautiful Day to a turn at the inauguration, they are definitely mainstream, but with an edge. They ask us to participate and to collaborate with them and with each other.

We are too soon for any U2-style examples as we're at the beginning of the trek (at this stage I see more examples like this).

We must continue to evolve, experiment and take risks. There would be no U2 without the Clash and no Clash without the Ramones. Punk evolves to mainstream, but a bit of the anarchy remains (did you hear what Bono said about int'l relations at the Inaugural concert?).

It's up to the folks who want more than a controlled, conservative approach to government "interaction" to step up to be dot-gov rockstars, the next Bono.

Hey, ho, let's GO!

Jul 6, 2009

Where You Are Matters: MySpace and Facebook

Picture of a racially diverse group of VERY cute kidsHad an amazing time at the Personal Democracy Forum in NYC last week. More than once I felt my head exploding with new thoughts. In this program full of great thinking and new ideas, danah boyd's talk on "The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online" was probably the most referenced, and one that struck a nerve.

boyd began with questioning the hype that Facebook was hot and that MySpace was not. Now that Facebook has caught up, traffic-wise, with rival MySpace, many think it's over for MySpace. But with 70 million visitors on MySpace, how does it not continue to be important?

She then discussed her research and the growing race, class and education divide between the two networks and what she calls a modern day, digital "white flight" from MySpace to Facebook.
All this said, people are already divided and we accept that people from different backgrounds inhabit different environments. We cannot expect technology to automatically integrate people and generate cultural harmony. Although most of you call these sites "social networking sites," there's almost no networking going on. People use these sites to connect to the people they know....

But here's the main issue with social divisions. We can accept when people choose to connect to people who are like them and not friend different others. But can we accept when institutions and services only support a portion of the network? When politicians only address half of their constituency? When educators and policy makers engage with people only through the tools of the privileged? When we start leveraging technology to meet specific goals, we may reinforce the divisions that we're trying to address.

boyd summarized her thinking and research about social networks and the impact of institutions selecting specific venues for outreach.
1) Social stratification is pervasive in American society (and around the globe). Social media does not magically eradicate inequality. Rather, it mirrors what is happening in everyday life and makes social divisions visible.

2) There is no universal public online. What we see as user "choice" in social media often has to do with structural forces like homophily in people's social networks. People connect to people who think like them and they think like the people with whom they are connected.

3) If you are trying to connect with the public, where you go online matters. The key to developing a social media strategy is to understand who you're reaching and who you're not and make certain that your perspective is accounting for said choices.

4) The Internet has enabled many new voices to enter the political fray, but not everyone is sitting at the table.--read the entire talk on danah.org [emphasis mine]
So, as government agencies develop a social network strategy--and even as they are dipping their toes into the social media waters--the decisions agencies are making about resources and resourcing need to be informed by facts and not hype.

If government wants to reach people where they are, it needs to understand not only where "people are," but also who uses which tools and how different audiences expect to interact and consume information.

My excerpts and overview do not give boyd's ideas their due. Please read more here and think about how you might use her analysis as you develop your social media strategy.

Jul 3, 2009

Smithsonian Seeding Staff New Media Innovation

The Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall, Washington DCSmithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough announced a new project and fund to encourage staff at the world's largest museum complex and research organization to explore and launch ways to "use digital technology and new media" to advance the Smithsonian's work.

From Secretary Clough's announcement to staff
The Smithsonian 2.0 Fund offers internal grants to staff for varied and diverse attempts to use interactive web methods and digital technology in a creative way so as to engage members of the public or particular constituencies in the collections, research, exhibitions, or programs of the Smithsonian. Grant awards will typically be in the $10,000 to $30,000 range; they are intended to provide seed money for projects likely to turn into larger initiatives.

All Smithsonian staff and units are eligible to submit projects for funding. Proposed projects must be led by a Smithsonian staff person, though they may involve more than one SI unit as well as outside partners.

In light of our very successful Smithsonian 2.0 conference and subsequent debates and discussions, I am confident that we have a large number of good ideas for moving ahead in the digital arena. I fully expect numerous staff to submit fine proposals for the benefit of the Smithsonian, the public, and our various constituencies.--from email to staff
This project begins to answer one of the challenges raised in their debates:
Knowledge is increasing at such a rapid pace that keeping web-delivered content up to date is an extremely challenging and expensive task, perhaps too much so...If the pace of knowledge development is driven by the collaboration and sharing of expertise via the Internet, should we be looking at a similar model to get the word out about the breakthroughs and new developments we are part of?--see more on the Smithsonian 2.0 blog.
What a terrific effort to tap the collective knowledge and creativity of the people who directly know the collections and the audience, AND, to acknowledge that the knowledge and creativity of staff as a valued resource.

The effort is funded by gifts from the Smithsonian National Board. Great job putting your money where your mouth is, Smithsonian.