Nov 29, 2010

Schools Get an F: Our Kids and Tech

While 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, 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 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!

Jan 24, 2010

Three Privacy Tales

Black t-shirt that reads, privacy is not a crimeA very smart, millennial new media colleague was talking online privacy over a beer. He said that he didn't really have an expectation of privacy and that he trusted Google to do right.

Last month, Google CEO Eric Schmidt ruffled more than a few privacy feathers.
In a recent interview [CEO Schmidt] suggested that people pushing for privacy are the one's at fault: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

This sounds suspiciously like a reheated version of "if you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to worry about," that's trotted out by law enforcement types when pushing for stronger laws to violate individuals' privacy. It's an odd statement for someone like Schmidt to make, especially given the incredible level of scrutiny given to Google for the view it has into people's lives. To folks who are worried about such things, it sounds positively dismissive, which isn't the position that Google should be cultivating with those who are concerned right now." --
More on TechDirt
This month, another tech giant, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, resurrected the controversy when he said that people don't expect privacy anymore.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told a live audience this weekend that the world has changed, that it's become more public and less private, and that the controversial new default and permanent settings reflect how the site would work if he were to create it today. Not everyone agrees with his move and its justification.

Has society become less private or is it Facebook that's pushing people in that direction? Is privacy online just an illusion anyway?--Read more on ReadWriteWeb
Facebook, with it's 350 million members has modified it's views on privacy as well as its policies. From a closed network in which only people that you have approved can see your profile, photos and other information to a fairly open network in which the default is "open to all" including search engine results.

My third privacy tale is from another direction--and continent. Europe has had pretty strong online privacy protections. In November, the European Union passed a law requiring Internet users' consent before cookies can be placed on their machines.
The amended directive will now state that national governments must "ensure that the storing of information, or the gaining of access to information already stored, in the terminal equipment of a subscriber or user is only allowed on condition that the subscriber or user concerned has given his/her consent, having been provided with clear and comprehensive information."

Cookies without user consent would only be allowed when they are "strictly necessary" to provide a service "explicitly requested" by the user such as storing shopping cart information on e-commerce sites, for example.--Read more at ClickZ
So, as big U.S. tech/new media moguls posit that privacy is becoming less important, to the Europeans, at least, it's critical to protect.

In the U.S., dot-gov has stronger privacy requirements than the private sector. There are some who think, though, that the EU controls will force a change in the commercial sector--especially to put more control in the hands of the consumer to be included in tracking and data gathering.

In the meantime, federal agencies will continue to face barriers in using commercial tools that use cookies to track users as these privacy tales play out.

Jan 3, 2010

7 Social Media Takeaways for Dot-gov

Seven of hearts playing cardAs we traverse to a new decade, here are seven takeaways to help small, medium and large agencies use social media to be more transparent, participatory and collaborative. Take what you can use.
  1. Community without guilt. There are many "experts" will tell you that there is one right way to "do" social media. They are wrong. There are tons of ways to use new communications tools and channels. Want to engage with your fans, followers, friends? Great! Want to use social tools to rebroadcast your message? That's okay. Just want to see what people are saying about you? That's fine, too. Most important, make sure you have a strategy together before jumping in. You can always adjust later.
  2. Social media is "plumbing." Don't adopt tool angst. While you need to know how different tools work (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, social voting), these tools are conduits to communicating and, hopefully, engaging with your audience. The key is to figure out what you are trying to accomplish (again!), and use the best tools to reach out and meet your goals.
  3. All you can eat doesn't mean that you don't HAVE to eat it all. People get overwhelmed with the variety and scope of engagement opportunities. It's better to choose fewer, strategic projects and do them well than to spread yourself too thin. I predict that there will be as many abandoned government Twitter and Facebook accounts as there will be new ones in 2010. Prove me wrong!
  4. Friction free. One of the reasons that Twitter is so popular is that it's friction free--in other words, EASY. It's super easy to sign up for Twitter, same with Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. This is the expectation that citizens now have for government services. Government needs to review our gateways to try and make it easier to use our services than to NOT use us.
  5. Listening is important. Don't overestimate the importance of re-broadcasting your same tired messages in new venues. The real value comes from listening--from finding out what people are saying about your agency, where you succeed as well as where you are failing. My favorite saying is "Everybody has a point," even when their delivery makes it hard to hear. If you are listening, though, you have the opportunity to learn, see trends, and improve.
  6. Communicate with economy and precision. One of the best things about Twitter is that it forces communications into 140 characters. This forces us to eliminate all the extra, flowery, self aggrandizing government language. It behooves us to do this not only when tweeting, but in our blogs, websites, manuals, letters, instructions, well, you get the picture.
  7. Wisdom of the crowds can be time and volume based. Twitter helps define what is important, according to Clay Shirky, by “algorithmic authority." The idea is that if "all kinds of people are pointing at the same thing at the same instant, it must be a pretty big deal." Looking at trends in Twitter, Google, and your own search terms on your site can give you insight about what people think is important, NOW. What can you feature on the homepage of your website? Can you tweet a link to a resource? Clear up a misconception?
Bottom line, it's the same formula: What are you trying to accomplish? Who is your audience? How do new media channels help you meet your goals? Measure all your efforts against these questions.

This post is inspired by David Carr's very good post in the NYTimes on Why Twitter Will Endure. Read that, too!