Politics: It’s the Journey, not the Destination

It’s been a long time since I discussed politics here. I occasionally get into politics over on Twitter, but rarely do I write about it. I don’t consider myself a political wonk so I leave the blogging to the wonks. However, I am not exactly a political outsider either. With years under my belt in the political epicenter of the country – the Greater Washington, D.C. Region – I’m not exactly naive about the political gamesmanship that happens every day.

Now, living in Austin, Texas – the state capital, and center of political activity in the great State of Texas – it’s not like I’m unaware of the way things work on a state level either (though admittedly, I know far less about Texas politics than I do about Maryland or National politics). However, living and traveling outside of the Beltway bubble has been enlightening in how the rest of the country sees the political process.

More or less, outside the beltway, the vast majority of laypeople see politics as something that is offensive, or at minimum, charged with rhetoric, hate and something that is to be shunned in casual social scenarios. Things are so personal to the electorate that, right or left, the objective of governing is lost. The right sees the left as a bloc of people intent on taking away personal liberties, led by a man so vilified for ideas that are less written in stone, and more written in perception based on questionable, if not indiscriminately inaccurate, data.

The left is not much better. The left sees the right as a segment of the country who wants to simply obstruct every bit of progress possible, while returning the country to a racist, misogynist, hateful past.

Both of these perceptions, while steeped in some level of truth, are shams. Both highlight tendencies that reflect deeper conditions among both groups. But here’s the funny part… Both views are curated by both parties inside the beltway.

Whyever would anyone want to perpetrate these despicable ideas???

It’s funny how politics works. Politics is based entirely on manipulation and both parties (the establishment, not the people holding a voter registration card in South Dakota) are masters of it. Politics exists for the sake of power and both parties know that. Both parties also know they need each other to retain power. Both parties agree and walk in unison on 80% of issues. It’s the 20% that is a grand, choreographed display of artistic fortitude. It’s the 20% that allows the GOP to fire up their base of voters to keep keep them (or re-take) power. It’s the 20% that carries the Democrats to a 2006 and 2008 landslide based on anti-Bush sympathy and promises of Hope and Change. It’s the 20% that turns the Tea Party into a movement to be reckoned with in 2010.

Both parties know this and both parties work in lock-step to ensure this epic drama unfolds as it’s supposed to. To do so ensure that Democrats and Republicans lock-in the two party system, that benefits both of them in terms of money and power, for decades to come. To fail to do so (as in, an apathetic American public who isn’t angered by the Thème de la Jour), reveals cracks in the armor, possible loss of campaign contributions, corporate lobbying dollars, and power.

Having lived inside the Beltway, Hill staffers from both sides of the aisle put on their contorted political dance during the day, on television, radio programs, interviews and other media avenues, just to go to happy hour with their colleagues from across the aisle after hours. They are just like us in their every day life (with maybe more hectic schedules). They watch sports, go shopping, eat at restaurants, enjoy craft beers and go through their lives like all of us. The difference is, when they are at work, they are creating an elaborate illusion for the rest of the country.

The illusion is one of hatred, angst, bitter rivalries and political gamesmanship. The point: Keep the proletaria right so bent out of shape about Obama (or whoever) policies and the grassroots left looking at disgust at Republicans using parliamentary games that block Democratic initiatives.

It’s all a game.

Which brings me to the point I took a long time getting to: the GOP primaries.

Last night, I watched as Twitter exploded with chatter about Arizona and Michigan results where Mitt Romney won handily and barely, respectively. People scoffed at Santorum’s pro-life, anti-abortion stance while (inaccurately) putting out misinformation like, “If Santorum gets elected president, he’s going to take away your condoms”. Likewise, equally vilifying statements were made about Mitt Romney.

Now, I am not a partisan. I am unaffiliated with either party and I’m certainly not casting any support to the GOP candidate or to President Obama. I just don’t know who I’ll vote for in November. But I’ll tell you that watching the ongoing angst over the GOP Presidential hopefuls is both funny and tragic. It’s funny because… well, the GOP will get a 40% base no matter who gets the nomination and Obama will get his 40% base no matter who gets the nomination. It’s the 20% in the middle that will decide the race. You can get pissed off about Obama  but the historical data on election trends speaks for itself. Likewise, you can throw statements around about Romney and Santorum, but there’s no reason to believe that the election results in November will break any other way than they always have.

It’s tragic because I realize so few people sit back and enjoy the process. They lose the process through the politics. The process – the primaries as well as the other aspects of Washington work – is a beautiful work of art that has been around for centuries. The system is to be cherished. The politics not so much.

The primaries are not about elections. They aren’t even about politics. They are a mechanism of a party to determine who is going to be on the ticket for the general election (which is about politics). The rules for primaries are different between parties. The outcomes are irrelevant, except for the party internal mechanisms.

While the media does 24 hour coverage of these cycles (did ya hear Super Tuesday is coming up?!), the electorate gets more worked up into a fevered frenzy. It’s sort of like the snake charmer and the cobra where we the people are the cobra and the media and the beltway operation is the snake charmer.

So enjoy this process. Enjoy our system of government that, while not perfect, is still quite amazing. Everything that is old is new again. Everything new is fading away. It’s made up of cycles and we are just players in a grand dance.

Congress Moves to Rein in Illegal Wiretaps

The JUSTICE Act, short for the Judicious Use of Surveillance Tools in Counterterrorism Efforts Act, was brought to my attention today. The JUSTICE Act seeks to put constraints on the Bush-era USA Patriot Act and FISA Act Amendment which drove national security efforts here at home post-9/11.

In the past, I have been a very vocal critic of the previous administration and their liberal assumption of power not explicitly granted to them by the Constitution. Namely, the use of these powers was, in my book, impeachable offenses. That Administration has come and gone, but the PATRIOT Act and FISA still haunt us to this day.

We in the technology community should be alarmed.

The JUSTICE Act, however, brings some sanity to this process. I’ve read a significant portion of the bill (embedded below) and it goes a long way in improving the current situation that allows the government, based on their say so, to direct communications companies (cable, satellite, phone, wireless carriers, ISPs, etc) to hand over data on American citizens without warrant, and in a far-reaching and unfetter fashion. By placing investigations behind a veil of opaquenes that is unable to be questioned even by other courts, the executive branch of government, under the Bush Administration and in the name of National Security, assumed an exclusive lock oninvestigatory powers without constraint.

3531416607_3e8e066127This bill does what should have been done with the previous bills – considerations for Due Process, First Amendment rights and checks and balances.

Notably, the JUSTICE Act attempts to place the limitation and focus of National Security Letters (directives issued from the Director of the FBI) back on foreign powers and places significant protectionary road blocks between the government and the citizen.

While I do not trust the government to actually be able to do the right thing, the fact that this bill is introduced tells me that there is a recognition that when checks and balances are in effect, as they were intended to be, it’s much harder to do the wrong thing. It’s called accountability and the more we have, the better we’ll be.

EFF is hosting a call to action, allowing folks to automatically send a note to their Senators.

Ethical Questions over Apps.gov

It’s been no secret since the Obama administration took office, that a key technological interest for the administrations tech policy would involve Cloud-based, Software as a Service (SaaS) initiatives. To that end, contractors and providers have been jockeying to provide cloud service to the federal government.

One of these contractors, notable for their size and breadth within the government I.T. contracting ecosystem, is Computer Sciences Corporation [CSC], who has partnered with Microsoft [MSFT] to provide a specialized product offering for the government.

Interestingly this week, the federal government jumped on the the “app store” movement, made sexy by Apple [AAPL] and expounded on by BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion [RIMM] and Palm [PALM] and now Google [GOOG] with their Android phones.

Incidentally, I’m including stock symbols for a reason. Follow the money and see where it goes. Thats your homework for the day, kids.

Screen shot 2009-09-17 at 1.52.02 PMThe new government offering, Apps.gov is a new “app store” for the federal government. Unlike other app store offerings that are geared toward mobile computing, this app store, an initiative of the GSA seeks to be a clearing house for cloud/SaaS services for the federal government. I’d be lying if I told you I thought this wouldn’t work in driving adoption by other federal agencies of these services.

The App store is divided into four sections: Business Apps, Cloud IT Services, Productivity Apps and Social Media Apps. Most of the applications found in Apps.gov are for-pay services and they are only available for purchase with a government purchasing card. These pay-services include a variety of products from Force.com, creator of the highly popular (if onerously annoying) Salesforce, and a variety of Google Apps products (all paid).

Interestingly, there are free products as well, and this is where I have ethics questions. Many of the products that are free, mostly in the Social Media section, are tools that are used everyday in social media, blogging, and web culture. Many of these apps we take for granted and talk about everyday. Applications like Slideshare and DISQUS have been used on this blog absolutely free of charge.

However, in the government, there always needs to be a tradeoff. You do something, you get something. Even Freedom of Information Act provisions make getting information a freely available right, but it doesn’t make it free. Most requests must be paid for.

Even when working with Lijit, I spent weeks and months trying to get one of the campaigns to adopt the product, but we couldn’t get it done as a free product without it being considered a campaign contribution. Granted, campaigns are not government, but you see where I’m going with this.

Daniel Ha, the CEO of DISQUS commented that they work with a variety of government agencies but that the GSA requires agreements to keep things official and on the up and up. This does not surprise me. It seems to be necessary. Ha did indicate that he was not aware of Apps.gov though, which seems to indicate that the app store was simply populated with providers who the GSA has a record of. It seems to me there’s some kind of missing piece here and I can’t put my finger on what it is.

When browsing around Apps.gov, it is not immediately known how providers get listed in the store. This is where my ethics questions come up. Companies listed in the store gain an implicit endorsement by the government, and probably immediate adoption in other agencies struggling to identify which services should be allowed and which services should not. This is not a transparent process of product selection or offering that I would have hoped for, though on the surface, it is certainly a good step in the right direction.

The major missing piece here is a transparent statement that informs the public on how apps are selected, if there is money changing hands (pay per play), how companies can get their own apps listed, etc.

This is the same problem Apple [AAPL] has had with the iTunes App store and arbitrary selection. It is such a problem that the Federal Trade Commission is looking into it. It also sets up a possibilty of an FTC investigation of the GSA for anti-competitive practice, though I’m not entirely sure if that is logistically or legally possible.

My point is that GSA is doing the right thing here, mostly. They just need to tweak and get rid of any shadow of wrongdoing or ethics questions.

Government as a Platform?

Data, data, data. This is the answer for government in this new world of Government 2.0. Making government available to the citizens by building platforms for change. These are the ideas bandied around when the Silicon Valley Warlords came to Washington, D.C. this week to put on the invitation only Gov 2.0 Summit and teach Beltway insiders how their successes in the Valley could be instituted in the center of government.

The center of government. The center of politics. The center of policy. Of course, if the warlords have their way, the center of technology.

The concept of government as a platform is a good one on the surface. The idea that making government a series of, for lack of a better words, APIs to help the citizen understand and access their government officials and services better is a noble one. However, it is naive, and this is where the native-understanding of Washington comes into play.

The rest of the country looks at Washington as a city that is always in-fighting. That the entire ecosystem is made of bureaucratic citadels of power that never accomplishes anything. Incompetent politicians who all lie, lie, lie.

For those of us inside the beltway, we recognize that partisanship is a means to an end. That policy takes a long time to change, policy makers remain embedded as established government for years and even decades, and that politicians come and go. This is part of the expectation in our Washington. The agencies exist, made up of rank and file – the foot soldiers, if you will – and the policies in place in those agencies come from decades of precedent in some cases.

Some of it needs to be changed, and to the extent that OpenGov and Gov 2.0 can open up the doors to this change, then it will. However, some of this will never change and it’s not necessary to try to change it. Precedent generally exists for very sound reason.

What will fail, however, is the replacement of the Washington system made up of politics, policy and also data by a fraternity-style, easy-money lifestyle of the west coast. While they talk billion dollar valuations on startups, we talk about billion dollar annual budgets for Level C agencies. Two different worlds. We have a much bigger stake, and therefore, we’re less likely to change how we do things because they suggest we should.

My suggestion is to O’Reilly and Camp: Come back to Washington, D.C. I know you’ll be back for Gov 2.0 Expo in the spring, but come back for a Summit too. Instead of dictating how the event goes, however, open it up. Make sure 50% of tickets are available for free for any verifiable government employee. (General consensus is the attendace was around 70-30, Private-public, a guess since O’Reilly Media declined to comment on attendance figures). Double the price for the private sector tickets to compensate. Here’s a hint: The federal fiscal year doesn’t begin until Oct 1. Budget money isn’t available to pay for the agency employees to attend your event. This isn’t the private sector. Money needs to be accounted for, especially during a recession. If you want this to be about government, ensure that the Feds can go free of charge and charge the Private sector double.

Secondly, allow questions from the audience. There was extremely little interaction with the audience by speakers. This needs to change if it’s going to be a learning environment.

I’d also suggest the need for a competitive event. With everyone who has dipped their feet into the Government 2.0 kool-aid, precious few have kept their noses clean from federating around this very failed event. I said in November that few of anyone has this industry figured out yet, yet the money flowing in from the Valley has caused almost everyone to sacrifice their independence and free-thinking (How many of you on that Gov 2.0 Summit Advisory Board are free to do a competitive event?)

I’d encourage some of the historically free-thinkers who have given up their independence to think about how government can really be assisted (let’s not talk about fixing government – they innovate much better than we do, actually) in different ways. I think there is room for events that will avoid the thumbprint of previous event and will federate around real ideas, not just inspiration speeches.

* Photo Credit: Big Berto

White House Ushers In a New Era of Encrypted Openness

From the Department of Irony’s Press Secretary, we at Technosailor.com World Headquarters were forwarded this email from the White House announcing it’s new Open Government Website. Clearly, a new era has arrived.

We look forward to more transparency of this sort. ;-)

From: White House Press Office
Date: 2009/5/21
Subject: White House Announces Open Government Website, Initiative

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Got that?

The Three Constituents of Government Engagement

The other day, I had a chance to speak with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill about blogging and social media. It was an interesting opportunity that few people get, but I was honored to be given a chance to have that opportunity. It was also interesting to me that, the Democrats had a different set of interests, it seemed, than the Republicans. The Republicans definitely seemed to be interested about the concept of Twitter and microcontent and finding ways to communicate on behalf of their bosses (the members of Congress). The Democrats, on the flip side, seemed oriented to ethical communications, almost shying away from talking to bloggers for journalistic integrity and ensuring that all activity online feel in lines with the rules.

Regardless of the various conversations going on inside those halls and the various interests conveyed, they all have the same three constituencies to cater to. In fact, any government entity has to concern themselves with these same three constituencies. I had this conversation, in fact, last night at TechCocktail DC, where an entrepreneur was building a product that would directly serve government agencies. As a new entrepreneur with a new product in active development, he wanted my thoughts on how to bring the software to market. I advised him to think about these three different constituencies because, for a technology or movement to succeed in government, all three of these groups must have their needs addressed.

The Citizens (or the Users)

In the United States, rightfully, the federal government exists because of the American people. Every dollar spent on a program, project, contract or other investment is money that is gained through taxes or borrowing, which is in turn, paid for by taxes. Therefore, the American people have a direct vested interest in every line item in an agency budget, including product investment. This is why it is so important that the ideas that are brought to the table and utilized are done with careful consideration of ROI.

If a government agency decides to use a product, it is in the American people’s best interest that the idea is well vetted and has a high chance of success. Unlike other areas of the marketplace where experimentation can be tried, it is a much more difficult sell if large amounts of money are at play with an unknown chance of success.

The Elected Government (or the Board)

The second constituency, and the political side of the whole conversation, is the elected government. These are the Obamas, the Cabinet members, the department heads and other political appointees that set the policy and direction for their fiefdoms. They are the ones only concerned with the 50,000 foot view, that look at the puzzle as a whole and strategize about direction.

The elected government, at the end of the day, are likely to make the big decisions. Those decisions, might not be decisions about the adoption of a software product or technology, unless those products are major direction-changing products. However, they offer a significant stake in formulating the thinking surrounding adoption. In order to meet the need of this group, the entrepreneur has to think about the mission of the agency, and how strategically, their product or service is going to affect the strategic thinking at the top.

The Established Government (or the Employees)

The third important constituency in the ecosystem of government selling, is the established government. While the tenured feds who have been carreerists for 20 or 30 years, may not look at the larger strategy decisions, they are intimately involved in the day to day. They are the foot soldiers that, regardless of who is in office, continue to do what they do. They have their kingdoms that have been built up over years, making decisions not based on the high-level strategy, but based on executive orders, court rulings and the practical ebb and flow of day to day work.

The established government cares little about the “why’s” (many are just there to do their job and go home, which is not to say that they don’t care – they just have a different level of buy-in), and instead are focused on the “how”. They might argue, “It’s great that we want to adopt Linux as the operating system of choice in our agency to save money for the taxpayers, but we have significant interoperability concerns with other agencies.”

In order to bring a product to market, an entrepreneur must understand the practical challenges that are faced in an operational environment. This cannot be done with a single meeting in a conference room for an hour or two, and it can’t be done by simply reading blogs or newspapers. An entrepreneur should take as much time to understand that landscape intimately, and ensuring that any solution brought forth is going to address challenges as best as possible.

This group is also going to be the one that is most likely to derail a “pitch”.


Whenever you want to bring a product to market, the government (like business), is going to look at what you do from the perspective of their own understanding and perceptions. Taking the time to listen first, and understand the challenges of the three constituencies, is going to go a long way in extending your product reach to this audience.

It would be presumptuous to walk into Google and suggest better software for a perceived internal problem without first understanding if your solution extends Google’s mission to organize the worlds information. If it doesn’t help Google gain market share with their own products, then it’s not likely something that the Google brass care to entertain. If it doesn’t help Google, in some way, make money, then it probably doesn’t have wings. A sensible entrepreneur would look at these concepts before walking in the door. Why aren’t we doing the same thing with the government?

Crossing Over Technology With Government

In recent months, I’ve made a small fuss over the so called Government 2.0 experts descending on Washington expecting to change the way of life in government. Of course, I’ve been also called out for not providing actual solutions. Probably rightly so, but understand that I don’t work in the government space. I am simply an outside observer who approaches problems with some degree of sobriety and realism.

Today, I figure I’ll offer some ideas that can move the conversation forward in some kind of constructive way. Wired’s Noah Shachtman covered a white paper released from the National Defense University that approaches Government 2.0 from the perspective of information sharing. While that is indeed a portion of the solution to the greater problem, the military in particular, probably needs to look at broader solutions (and more specific, less 50,000 foot view), as a more effective technology complement to their Mission.

For instance, while simple communication across the various branches of the service is useful for any enterprise, it would pay to address the core war-fighting mission of the military. For instance, a less than 50,000 foot view that suggests “information sharing”, might propose use of mobile devices that utilize GPS information for tactical war-theatre decision making.

Real-time use of video and photography immediately makes data available to analysts requiring split second decisions (such as the split second decision making by the Navy Captain responsible for ordering the sniper takedown of the Somali pirates this weekend).

It is not useful to simply put out generic information about “information sharing” and suggest blogs, wikis and the like are the solution to the problem. While I understand whitepapers are intended to provide a skeletal framework for further action, it is condescending to organizations who already value and understand the need for “information sharing”. What they are looking for is the “hows” and “whats” to achieve their mission.

As stated in previous articles, this is where the “experts” should be focusing. Realistically, those activities will be classified and not published for public consumption. That’s probably the way it should be. The real experts are working internally, inside their organizations, with their constituency – not in the public forum where context and value are lost.

Missional Government 2.0

It’s only a matter of time before Tim O’Reilly tells the world that Web 2.0 Expo is going to be hosted in Washington, D.C. I mean, I don’t know anything for a fact, but all the sex appeal of Web 2.0 is descending on Washington. I certainly appreciate the fact that the Silicon Valley bubble is seeing that there are real things happening here in Washington, but I continue to ask the questions about motive and clarity of thought. Are they (we) missing the forest through the trees?

Tangentially, but still related, the web technology space has clearly been usurped by marketing and communications. When folks refer to a “tech community”, what they really are referring to is the social web community which is now dominated less by actual technology folks and increasingly, and somewhat disturbingly, by marcom folks.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. It’s just not “tech”. It’s community. It’s marketing. It’s public affairs. It’s public relations. It’s brand. It’s reputation management. It’s rarely tech.

And so, the conundrum. What Washington outsiders suggest is “Government 2.0” is really a marketing campaign. Is that really beneficial? Or even new?

Peter Corbett wrote a great post here the other day suggesting that governmental change and “Web 2.0” adoption, to paraphrase, can be delivered by building appropriate technology and applications to meet the needs of the government.

Think about this… How can we have Government 2.0, when the government consists of so many divergent niches, industries and missions? On the federal level, there is Congress, Labor, Commerce, Defense, Intelligence, Health, International Development, and the list goes on. On the state and local level, there are Motor Vehicles, taxation agencies, police departments, fire departments, schools. That only constitutes government proper and says nothing for government related organizations like political action committees, lobby groups, NGOs and grassroots political organizations. Again, that’s only in the federal sector.

You can’t apply one solution to the entire government. Understanding of the missional nature of sectors of the government is critical. We should be talking about Commerce 2.0 or Intelligence 2.0, not Government 2.0. And we should certainly not be applying a one size fits all solution that works effectively in the private sector to the public sector without understanding that mission.

Our taxpayer dollars are the sole funding sources for most of these government groups. In a time when taxpayer money is being printed to fund things that can only be funded by taxpayer dollars, the last thing we want is those dollars going to ineffective solutions that don’t extend the mission of the agency, simply to say, for instance, that the Department of Labor is on Twitter.


Does it fit their mission? Is it effective in protecting the taxpayer interests and extending the mission of Labor?

The Department of Labor fosters and promotes the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners, and retirees of the United States by improving their working conditions, advancing their opportunities for profitable employment, protecting their retirement and health care benefits, helping employers find workers, strengthening free collective bargaining, and tracking changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements. In carrying out this mission, the Department administers a variety of Federal labor laws including those that guarantee workers’ rights to safe and healthful working conditions; a minimum hourly wage and overtime pay; freedom from employment discrimination; unemployment insurance; and other income support.

This is an example, of course. I don’t mean to single out the fine public servants over at Labor and, in fact, I cannot speak to anything they are doing with the social web.

Folks, listen up. People have to take a step back and stop trying to apply the same stuff that works out here to what is going on in there. It might work. But then, it might not. Understanding those core missional requirements can help the real experts bring real solutions to the table.

In fact, in many cases, building technology that doesn’t already exist to meet the misssional requirements of agencies that we may never see is not sexy in an era of web celebrity and achievement. In fact, people may never see some of the technology that comes to bear because they simply think that common social networks or blogs are the solution.

If you want to be in this space, you need to protect taxpayer dollars by bringing appropriate solutions to the table, whether public, well known services (if they meet the need) or building apps that make sense to the mission and may never be used outside of that organization.

These are the keys.

Added: Geoff Livingston spoke to the National Park Service and made my point for me. Clearly, he understands the mission and scope of the NPS and is encouraging the proper modes of social media that are compatible to their mission.

Dan Mintz: Government 2.0 is an Experiment

Lately, I’ve focused quite a bit in the government technology space. With the new administration and the apparent focus on open technologies and dialogue with the public, it is clear that government is going to become more transparent and will likely adopt (and maybe re-engineer) some of the technologies that the private sector has taken advantage of over the last five years.

Dan Mintz, formerly the CIO for the Department of Transportation reiterates my assertion, in an interview with ExecutiveBiz, that the Government knows that no one is an expert in this area but is willing to work with competent individuals and companies who are willing to partner in learning the space:

This is still an experiment so therefore “˜how this will play out’ will require people who are comfortable with experiments. The government has a tendency to be risk-averse, which is understandable. It will be very important for the leadership within the departments and agencies to provide support for people who are willing to do the experiments. The second important factor to remember is that it [2.0 activity] will be user driven, not IT driven.

In my earlier article on this matter, I stated:

What [self-described Government 2.0 experts] don’t realize is the government they wish to work with understands that Government 2.0 is new and that very few people are experts. The government, I believe, is looking to partner with people who have the chutzpah to become experts. Who have a firm grounding in communications principles and web savvy. They understand that the next year will make experts if the right candidates, firms and contractors are chosen. They are looking for people who have the savvy needed to guide and advise, with the understanding that it’s a completely new playing field. My instinct says that the government knows that they are getting prepared to experiment and want someone to experiment with.

Sounds like we are saying the same thing. It’s just a shame that Mr. Mintz is the former CIO of the Dept. of Transportation.