September 28, 2008 By Bill Schrier
Is it acceptable for City government employees to use the City government's Internet connection at work for personal web browsing?
At first I'm tempted to say "no, absolutely not". Abuses are not only newsworthy, but headlines, such as when a third of the Port of Seattle's police offers were caught exchanging or receiving racist, sexist and sexually explicit e-mails between 2004 and 2007.
Almost every survey of employers, public and private, shows quite extensive use of the Internet by employees for shopping, finding relationships (i.e. dating services) and planning vacations.
On the other hand, we certainly allow employees to use the telephone and even e-mail to make dental or medical appointments, talk to their schools and daycare about their kids and perform a wide variety of quick, short personal transactions. Why shouldn't we have the same sort of policy about use of the Internet and e-mail?
Let me first say that almost all the employees I know at the City of Seattle are ethical, diligent, and hard-working. I see that diligence, that dedication, every day.
But everyone (government employee or not) has their weakness. Some folks are addicted to alcohol, others to shopping, many to cigarettes/smoke breaks and many others to surfing the Internet or YouTube. They can't help themselves from surfing or bidding on e-bay or browsing MySpace for their friends.
Pin-up girls. The very phrase evokes images from World War II barracks. In City of Seattle call centers in the 1970s, we had problems with pin-up girls decorating cubicles. Then it was pin-up guys. Naked pin-up guys. In guy's cubicles. We ended up banning all such photos from the workplace and no one would think of allowing them back in today.
Yet I've had workers visiting dating sites and leaving images of half-clothed people on the computer screen scandalizing a co-worker. I've seen workers leaving their City e-mail address for craigslist and e-bay sales. I know of employees surfing Internet sex sites. We "flatten" at least five computers (out of 10,000) a week. (This is a process also known as "re-imaging" or wiping a desktop computer clean and re-installing all programs.) Why? Because they became infected with malware from visiting non-business websites.
In almost every single case cited above, the City employee was a good employee. Hard working and well-intentioned. Someone I'd be proud to call a friend. But they either didn't know the rules or had to indulge an addiction to the Internet.
One department director tells me how much he loves the "Websense" (Internet filtering software) installation in his department because it reduces the number of Loudermill hearings he conducts, disciplining workers for non-business use of City computers. Websense helps keep honest people honest.
And hard-working City employees chafe when they see co-workers wasting time "surfing". My experience is that morale among the top-performing City workers improves when they see low-performing employees unable to indulge their Internet addictions and/or disciplined for it.
Most City government workers earn a living wage. They work 40 hours a week, and many get overtime for hours beyond that. They have both the ability to buy a personal computer for home and the time to indulge themselves in the cyberworld at home.
Public employees are held to a higher ethical and work standard than workers in any other industry. When there's a disaster, private employers shut down and their employees go home. Public employees work 12 hour shifts for the duration of the emergency.
Those same higher standards apply to use of City equipment, and conduct at work day-to-day, and the Internet content filters remind all of us of our duty to meet that standard. S
o how do we balance what is acceptable use versus unacceptable? I'm struggling with that issue right now - working with our management and unions to find that equilibrium.
The Pin-up Girls are long gone from the workplace. We don't want to bring them back with the web and Internet. But we also want to treat our employees like the responsible, dedicated employees they are.
I'll report back when we figure this out!
September 25, 2008 By Bill Schrier
A few hours ago WAMU (Washington Mutual Savings Bank) ceased to exist, seized by Federal regulators, and partially sold to J. P. Morgan. WAMU was a modern day success story, going from a small Seattle savings and loan to a national banking powerhouse headquartered in two gleaming new skyscrapers in downtown Seattle. Seattle is a center of 20th and 21st Century innovation, but, like the national economy, is stumbling just a bit. What are the effects of our current economic troubles on Seattle as a City, and upon its city government?
Seattle is a hotbed of innovation: examples abound. Weyerhaeuser and forest products, Boeing and jet planes, Amazon.com and e-tailing, Starbucks and coffee, Microsoft and software, WAMU and banking. One success story after another. There are a few recent setbacks, perhaps not so widely known. Boeing has employment of about 74,000 in the State, down from a peak of 106,000 in 1989, and is in the middle of a machinists' strike. Weyerhauser and Starbucks have both recently announced significant layoffs. SAFECO Insurance has be acquired by an out-of-state company. And WAMU headquarters will dissolve away to New York City, its buildings probably going on the market and many employees laid off.
What effect will these changes - and the dire national economic news - have on the City government of Seattle and government in general?
Traditionally, in good times people expect more services from their government, just as they expect more services from private companies (banks, insurance, retailers).
In bad economic times... well ... people expect more services from their government! Unemployment insurance, homeless shelters, Medicare, "the support net". Oh yes - and demands for public safety, libraries and parks (inexpensive entertainment) all increase as well.
Washington State's tax system is built on two legs - property tax and sales tax. We don't have an income tax.
So what happens to us in tough times? First, the economy in the Seattle area is still strong - just look at all the cranes around downtown Seattle or Bellevue, and we have a lot of well-paying jobs and relatively low unemployment. Amazon.com, Google and Microsoft are going strong and hiring. Nevertheless, sales taxes plummet as people - even people with good jobs - look at the national economy and cut back on spending. And, although property values here are still relatively high (they've gone down a bit), property taxes are, at best, stable. So, without an income tax, overall resources available to government are dropping.
What does this mean to the City government of Seattle? Well, we'll get a glimpse on Monday at 2:00 PM, when Mayor Nickels delivers his budget to the Seattle City Council. You can watch it live on the City's version of YouTube, www.seattlechannel.org . And the whole budget document will be online at www.seattle.gov then as well.
What are the implications of these reduced revenues for technology in government?
Ideally, in tough times, businesses and governments continue their technology investments in order to improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Over the next few weeks and months I'll tell you how Seattle has done that. I'll include some of our shortcomings and warts, as I've done before in Bleeding Edge Government. And I'll give you some hints about some interesting things coming down the pike.
But, for the time being, I weep for once-powerful WAMU, tighten my personal belt a bit, and am prepared to help the City government of Seattle weather the storm through wiser use of technology.
September 21, 2008 By Bill Schrier
Tonight (Sept. 14th) I watched The Daily Show receive an Emmy for Outstanding TV Series. Last night (Sept. 13th) I watched - in person - the Seattle Channel - Seattle City Government's own Channel 21- receive the national award for Excellence in Government Programming - essentially being named "Best Government TV Channel" for a large city.
Even more amazing, the Seattle Channel also consistently wins Emmy Awards. What's the catch here? How can a broadcast of the Seattle City Council's Finance and Budget Committee compete with Desperate Housewives or The Daily Show for an Emmy Award?
Well, unfortunately, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences doesn't recognize government television stations as members or the Seattle City Council when making those awards for Outstanding Drama Series (or maybe it would be "Comedy" series).
But almost every City and County government has a television station or at least television programming. And many are members of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA - pronounced nah-toe-ah). NATOA conducts a juried competition for city/county television programming each year in 63 categories. NATOA's annual conference just ended in Atlanta with its gala awards banquet Saturday night, September 13th. T he Seattle Channel (www.seattlechannel.org) took home six "first place" awards in those 63 categories, including that overall "Excellence in Government Programming" for stations with an operating budget over $500,000. Remarkably, the Seattle Channel now has won this honor two years in a row, 2007 and 2008.
TV programming in many other outstanding cities such as Tucson, Carlsbad California, Aurora, Colorado, and Prince William County Virginia was also recognized. A complete list of the categories and nominations are on NATOA's website here and the list of the winners will be posted later this week on the NATOA website.
While the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences doesn't recognize government programming, local chapters of the Academy do give their own Emmys each year. Government and public television stations do participate, and the Seattle Channel consistently brings back two or more Emmy awards from the Northwest Chapter each year.
Many smaller cities and counties only have the budget to broadcast meetings ("all meetings, all the time") But innovative governments find ways to budget for creative programming which highlights the issues in their communities.
The Seattle Channel has an outstanding news magazine, City Inside/Out , hosted by C. R. Douglas (won two first place 2008 NATOA awards). C. R. drills down into the issues, and occasionally "grills" elected officials about their positions. And the Seattle Channel has a whole series of programming - ArtZone - which highlights the music, visual and literary arts scene in Seattle.
And the coolest thing? Not only is it all free, but it is all free online. Anyone, anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can watch any of the Seattle Channel's programming at any time. Just go to www.seattlechannel.org and ... well ... "click".
September 17, 2008 By Bill Schrier
Internet Explorer Version 8 Beta is released!
So proclaim the headlines over the past 10 days on the Internet ether and in the tech trade rags and e-mail magazines (e-zines).
Do you know what we use at the City of Seattle? IE Version 6. I personally think IE V7, with tabbed browsing, is the best thing since the invention of the first browser (yeah yeah I know - Mozilla Firefox had it first). I use both IE7 and Firefox all the time at home.
But at work in downtown Seattle, I'm an IE 6 user because that is the standard for the City of Seattle . The one I - as Chief Technology Officer - have set for the government.
While we are on the subject new software, does anyone care about Microsoft Vista?
Oh sure, if you buy a new computer for home or personal use, you get Vista as the operating system. Because you don't have any choice! And you probably don't care, as long as it works.
But if you are a large corporation, Windows XP rules. Indeed, those corporations, including the City of Seattle, will receive a computer with Vista installed, wipe the hard drive, and install Windows XP instead. And XP works fine for us.
As another example, Office 2007 has been on the market since, well, before 2007. Yet at the City, the most advanced users use Office 2003. Most users use Office XP (aka 2002) or Office 2000. In fact, there are still those who long for Word Perfect. Even the most skilled power users probably use 1% of the commands and functions of Word. Office 2007 does change the format of documents, making them more interoperable with documents on the web and other document formats. But that's a feature few corporate users care about at this time.
Why the heck can't the City of Seattle keep up with the Gateses? Why are we (and, frankly, almost all other large Corporations) so far behind? Is this another case of sluggish bureaucratic inertia?
Actually, computer systems today are all "ecosystems". Very few pieces of software stand on their own, independently of others. For a specific example at the City of Seattle, we use PeopleSoft Government Financials Version 8.8, one of the very latest versions of a financial management system. But PeopleSoft has engineered it to use IE V6 as an interface for most users, to work under Windows XP, and to download data into spreadsheets in Office 2003 or earlier formats. PeopleSoft certifies that it will support these versions, but not newer versions until they exhaustively test them. We - the City - cannot upgrade to a newer version of any software without losing PeopleSoft's support.
Microsoft is a little better, at least for its own applications. It extensively tests software so that Microsoft XP works with Microsoft Exchange works with Microsoft Office works with Microsoft fill-in-the-blank. This testing makes it easier on corporate IT folks (and sells more software in the meantime).
At the City of Seattle, we complicate this a bit by using some non-Microsoft software such as Novell's GroupWise for e-mail and Novell's NetWare to save and print files. So we have to test those ourselves with new Microsoft software.
Even more complicated than this, any particular user's computer will have dozens and dozens of different applications running on it. Not just Windows XP, Internet Explorer and Office, but also our GroupWise e-mail system, maybe the financial management system or the utility customer information system and perhaps Microsoft Visio, Adobe Photoshop, Virtual Private Networking, McAfee anti-virus and many more. Changing any one of the pieces of software - and especially core software such as Office, IE and Windows itself - could break any of the other applications. And then the City government employees can't do their job.
To complicate this even further, each one of the City of Seattle's 11,000+ desktop and laptop computers can have different applications from every other computer! Things are not really this bad, of course - the computers installed in police vehicles are pretty standard, for example. But certainly computers in offices will vary from cubicle to cubicle.
These complex systems are now necessary to do the work of City government. But it also makes it hard to keep up the latest versions emerging from the Gateses.
September 15, 2008 By Bill Schrier
Barack Obama states he will appoint the nation's first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) . And, indeed, his own campaign even has (had?) its own CTO. Blogger Robert Scoble recently listed (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) the "A list" of names for the National CTO job. Vint Cerf (as quoted by Ed Cone in his blog on CIO Insight) worries about "centralizing" technology or technology policy in the Federal government. He correctly points out that a "technology czar" would have about the same level of success as previous administration's "energy" and "drug" and "fill-in-the-blank" czars. And now Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus, weighs in that a national CTO is a good idea - see article here in Government Technology.
But what would a "national CTO" actually DO?
Obama's campaign website lists a potential set of duties. These include:
As CTO (aka "Chief Geek") for the City of Seattle, I do have an opinion about this (surprise!) . The City of Seattle does not have a CIO. To some extent, the title "CTO" instead of CIO in Seattle is an historical anomaly dating from the time the position was created by the Seattle City Council in the mid-1990s. But I also head a department (Information Technology or DoIT) which largely manages infrastructure. Applications are supported by the individual departments who conduct the business of City government (providing water, electricity, transportation, policing, parks, fire and emergency medical service, etc.). As CTO, my office provides oversight and standards for the use of technology in City government, but I only directly manage about 215 of the 600 or so IT employees in the government.
In the Fedgov, not even the technology infrastructure of the government can be centralized under a CTO. The Fedgov is just too large and diverse. I've previously written that government generally should not be on the bleeding edge of technology - we should take technologies pioneered and honed by the private sector, and apply them to the business of governing. In the Fedgov this is also true, with the exception of the military and homeland security, who have unique duties which will stretch the envelope of technology in new and different ways from the private sector.
So what would a national CTO actually DO? I suggest:
In terms of national (non-federal-government) leadership by this CTO for the USA, I'm a little more cautious and skeptical. I like Vint Cerf's idea about an information technology advisory committee (PITAC), to help inform national policy. Perhaps the USA CTO could give a technology perspective as other policies and strategic directions for for the federal government are developed ("What are the technology considerations in starting a war with Iraq?)
But, in general, I'd say the robust set of private technology companies (led by Seattle's own Microsoft and Google), the University community and the open source Internet community are doing just fine in national and worldwide technology leadership. We do have a number of Federal agencies which appropriately regulate or support technology, for example the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission, National Science Foundation and, of course (famously) DARPA. The functioning of these agencies could be improved in an administration more technologically enlightened than the present one.
But we don't really need a federal technology "czar" to "help".
This Digital Communities white paper highlights discussions with IT officials in four counties that have adopted shared services models. Our aim was to learn about the obstacles these governments have faced when it comes to shared services and what it takes to overcome those roadblocks. We also spoke with several members of the IT industry who have thought long and hard about these issues. The paper offers some best practices for shared government-to-government services, but also points out challenges that government and industry still must overcome before this model gains widespread adoption.