May 5, 2014 By Bill Schrier
"Innovation" is an overused word, especially in government. Chief Innovation Officers are sprouting up in state and local governments as fast as dandelions bloom in the springtime.
I've contributed to this trend myself, publicly advocating Seattle's new Mayor Ed Murray to appoint a Chief Innovation Officer. He did appoint Robert Feldstein as Chief of Policy and Innovation (although my advocacy probably had little to do with that).
But can government employees at any level – City, County, State or Federal – really innovate? Or are they doomed to be unrepentant bureaucrats, steadily but blindly following rules and procedures?
What is "innovation"?
I like Bryan Sivak’s definition of innovation as the “freedom to experiment”.
Many organizations – not just government, but really any large organization (think Boeing, the cable company, Microsoft) is captive to its rules, regulations, processes and procedures – its "bureaucracy".
Governments are especially captive to their processes because they are subject to public scrutiny and criticism. Many government officials hide behind policies and procedures saying "we treat everyone uniformly and equally" even though uniform processes often produce discriminatory results due to the differing circumstances of neighborhoods and individuals.
Consider a police department, for example, which handled abandoned cars in a uniform way. Callers were directed to a voicemail where they left information about the abandoned car in their neighborhood. The information was transcribed onto slips of paper which were then given to parking enforcement officers (PEO) for each neighborhood who, along with a host of other duties, would track the cars down and tag them – when the PEO had time. This business process had numerous problems – on weekends the voicemail box would become filled, and callers became frustrated. Slips of paper became lost, or the information was improperly transcribed. In some neighborhoods PEOs were overworked with other issues, and didn’t get to tagging the abandoned cars.
Freedom to experiment takes a lot of guts on the part of government officials. By giving their employees or teams the freedom to try new processes – new ways of handling old problems – they must understand experiments may fail, subjecting their department to criticism. "Fail fast, fail cheap, learn from the failure."
Innovation is not just about Technology
In this razzle-dazzle world of the 21st century, we tend to think of "innovation" as synonymous with some cool new smartphone app or a new computer system which automates a paper-based process.
But the best innovations don't necessarily involve technology. Indeed, they often are just changes in business process, sometimes enhanced by technology.
For example, consider Seattle's antiquated process for approval of siting of cabinets in the roadways. These cabinets contain telecommunications equipment which allow higher speed internet in neighborhood. Placing the cabinets allows private companies to build high-speed fiber networks deep into the city.
But, sometime in 2008 or 2009, someone complained to a deputy Mayor that one of the cabinets appeared in a neighborhood and was unsightly and intrusive. The City's response was to create a draconian rule forcing telecom companies to get explicit approval of all homeowners, within 100 feet of a proposed cabinet, throughout the entire City of Seattle.
Such a rule has many problems, not the least of which is stifling competition to provide high speed internet. But the City’s proposed response is to lift the rule, but require telecom companies to pay an annual fee for each cabinet. The fee is, supposedly, to pay inspectors to make sure the cabinets don't become overgrown by weeds or marked by graffiti.
In an age of 311 and citizen activism, with cameras in every smart phone, this is a solution worthy of the 1930s! Clearly the city employees involved here are still living in a risk-adverse, anti-innovation age.
We do NOT want governments innovating on some issues.
Washington State just suffered a devastating mudslide near the town of Oso on State Highway 530. Forty-three residents of that neighborhood lost their lives.
In some places in Washington State – and elsewhere – building codes would have restricted the construction of a home in a slide-prone area. At the very least, the potential homebuilders could have been forced to acknowledge the danger in the area before they constructed. Yet a few homeowners in Oso actively resisted such "government intrusion".
We also want to be careful in how we innovate in matters involving public safety. We don’t want experimentation with different shapes or colors of stop signs, for example. In areas subject to hurricanes, earthquakes and similar natural disasters we probably want to be careful in how we change building codes.
"Government Entrepreneur" is Not an Oxymoron
Mitchell Weiss said it best when he wrote this article in the Harvard Business Review on March 28th.
"The idea of 'public entrepreneurship' may sound … like it belongs on a list of oxymorons … But it doesn't. Public entrepreneurs around the world are improving our lives, inventing entirely new ways to serve the public."
He cited a list of entrepreneurship in government, and there are many additional examples ranging from open data which begets a host of private sector apps to 311 to New Urban Mechanics, which has "institutionalized innovation"(and perhaps that IS an oxymoron) by both government employees and citizens.
Some things are best left to the private sector.
How about healthcare.gov as the poster child for this one? No matter what you think of the Affordable Healthcare Act, the online implementation sucked. Kurt del Bene, formerly of Microsoft, led a turn-around, but President Obama deserves credit for giving him the authority to fix the site. And damn the bureaucrats in the Center for Medicaid Services (CMS) who used "tried and true" (i.e. non-innovative) processes to create it and failed badly. Indeed, some states did much better, e.g. Washington. In each case, however, engaging private sector companies and individuals is key to success.
Innovation is really about Leadership
It takes a lot of guts to be an innovative Mayor or Governor. You’ll be subject to critics from every angle. Government employees don’t want change because "this is the way we’ve always done it" and they fear individual responsibility to make decisions. Members of the public and business communities will immediately line up on one side or the other, perceiving themselves as winners or losers.
Yet examples of courageous, innovating, leaders are abundant. In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt forced the Washington Correspondents Association to admit an African-American reporter Harry McAlpin. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson pushed civil rights legislation despite the obvious and continuing (to this day) damage to the Democratic Party in the South. Just this year, Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle pushed a $15 minimum wage and obtained a supermajority of 21 of 24 members of his business-labor committee on a plan.
Great leaders know when to push, when to ask, when to cajole, and, most important, how to accept risk to push forward innovation and improvement in government.
There is an entrepreneur in (almost) every government employee and every citizen. It just needs to be unleashed.
March 11, 2014 By Bill Schrier
In fairness, FirstNet was never stalled or stopped, although it appeared that way when I wrote “Is FirstNet Stalled?”on its two-year birthday, February 22. Work was going on behind the scenes, and it burst out onto the stage this week:
Overall, I’m encouraged.
As the State Point of Contactfor Washington (the state, not the place inside the beltway), I especially appreciate the additional information we received this week. About 70 officials attended a conference in Phoenix for those of us in the western states who are working to prepare our states for FirstNet. Each state already has a state-and-local-planning grant (SLIGP) for this work. But many of us were waiting for a “starting gun” to launch our outreach and education efforts. These efforts will find every potential Firstnet-using agency in our states: law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical, transportation, transit, public works, electric and water utilities, schools and everyone else with a public safety mission.
That starting gun is now fired.
We can proceed with that outreach.
We also know – and this is new information – that FirstNet will need to collect some additional detail about potential users: the name of each agency, a point of contact, the number of potential users, the kinds of devices, any existing use of a commercial service and, perhaps, a bit more. We don’t know the exact nature of the information to collect. We’ll find out the details when FirstNet comes to our states for an initial meeting, probably sometime this summer. And we expect there will be a data portal or template to standardize the way the information is collected.
Everything is not, however, sweetness and light. Many toads remain sitting on FirstNet’s roadmap to attain our vision of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.
The business plan is still a mystery.
FirstNet officials say there are multiple paths to a viable business plan. However FirstNet needs to build a network which covers a lot more geography than any commercial network – “every square meter” according to Board Chair Sam Ginn. It needs to do that with about 5.4 million users, compared to more than 100 million each for Verizon and AT&T, and over 40 million each for T-Mobile and Sprint. And its per-user subscriber costs need to be comparable to commercial providers, or many public safety agencies cannot afford to switch. I’ve blogged elsewhere about elements which might constitute a viable business plan, including putting FirstNet in every consumer and business mobile phone, or building sensor networks such as electric utility smartgrid using FirstNet spectrum.
FirstNet has a long way to go to become more engaging and transparent.
And the staffing challenges remain enormous. FirstNet is hiring just a few contractors who are vitally needed to evaluate RFIs, write RFPs and build a design for each state. But it needs many more. The names of the existing hires – as well as the roadmap or even job descriptions to hire additional staff – are shrouded in secrecy.
Overall, however, FirstNet appears to be in first gear. Just first gear: we’re not barreling down the public safety broadband highway yet by any means. You crawl before you walk and run. And it will take more staff and better plans to get into overdrive.
But at least we appear to be back on the highway.
February 22, 2014 By Bill Schrier
Today, February 22nd, is the second anniversary of the Spectrum Act. Congress passed that law on February 22, 2012. It created the First Responders’ Network Authority. The law was the culmination of over a decade of advocacy by many public safety officials who saw the inadequacy of responder communications in the wake of disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and many smaller incidents. In these incidents cops and firefighters and paramedics and other responders found themselves unable to adequately communicate and protect the public.
FirstNet’s mission is grand: to build the first nationwide public safety communications network for responders, especially first responders to both daily incidents and larger disasters.
Here we are, two years into the ten-year mission authorized by Congress. It has been a slow start, and lately – over the past 6 months – FirstNet’s progress appears to have either stalled or is undergoing a reboot.
This is very frustrating for those of us in states and cities who are trying our best to evangelize and support FirstNet’s mission.
I’m the FirstNet State Point of Contact (SPOC, commonly pronounced “spock”) here in the Other Washington on the west coast. I’ve been speaking to groups of public officials and police chiefs and emergency managers and firefighters and other responders in Washington State about FirstNet since May, 2013.
Lately, the mood of the audiences is starting to change. “Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard you say that before, Bill, but what’s happening now? Where’s the beef?”
I’m starting to feel a bit like a computer software salesman pushing vaporware. “Oh yes, that feature will be in our next release slated to come out in 2017”. So here’s my take on what’s going on Inside-the-Beltway.
1. Here come the Bureaucrats. There is one phrase in the Spectrum Act which causes a lot of confusion: “There is established as an independent authority within the NTIA the ‘First Responder Network Authority’ or ‘FirstNet’” (47 USC 1424 Section 6204).
An “independent authority” “within” a long-established bureaucracy? What the hell does that mean?
Well, I’m sure lawyers at NTIA and the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security and the FCC have all been spending thousands of hours trying to figure that out.
I know if I was a head bureaucrat at Commerce or NTIA that I’d interpret it as having another function (or office or directorate or whatever the bureaucratize is) within my organization. In other words “You report to me, FirstNet. Start acting like all other NTIA offices.”
I suspect there is an epic struggle going on within the Beltway for the control of FirstNet and its $7 billion in funding. I don’t have direct evidence, but if you look at job descriptions which have been posted, e.g. for the Chief Information Officer, they clearly stated the FirstNet CIO would report to the NTIA CIO on a dotted line and would enforce NTIA information technology policies. We know FirstNet is subject to all Federal personnel procedures for hiring staff, issuing RFPs and doing procurements. FirstNet Board members have publicly said it will take them a full year to develop and issue and receive RFPs.
So much for the “independent” part of that law.
2. Contract staffing. FirstNet’s already had a scandal. Story County, Iowa, Sheriff and FirstNet Board member Paul Fitzgerald spoke out at the April 23, 2013, Board meeting. Sheriff Fitzgerald protested, among other things, conflicts of interest between board members and contract technical staff hired to do the real meat-and-potatoes work of designing and building the nationwide network.
I’ve heard – but cannot verify – that some of the contract staff hired in late 2012 and 2013 were paid $300 an hour.
Now hiring contract staff for engineering and technical work at market rates is done all across the federal government. Federal employee pay scales are compressed and have been kept low for a number of years by Congress. So hiring outside technical staff is a prudent action.
The allegations of Sheriff Fitzgerald go far beyond just cost, however. They also relate to the contract vehicle used, how the staff were identified and hired, and more. And the conflict-of-interest allegations are still open and under investigation by the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce.
But here’s the net result: the contract under which the staff were hired expired in October, 2013. Most of the existing 35 or so contracted staff (who were quite competent, by the way) were laid off. Three new contracts were established in October. But as of this writing – four months later - no technical contractors, and only a handful of public relations contractors, have been hired.
How do you create a nationwide design and individual state-specific plans for a wireless network without technical staff?
I suspect #1 above is at play here – the typical reaction of any government bureaucracy to allegations or scandal is to circle the wagons and lay on the rules, regulations, oversight, multiple approvals by multiple levels of officials.
This doesn’t bode well for either the short-term or long-term ability of FirstNet to get the staff support it needs.
3. Full-Time Staffing. I think FirstNet has about 25 federal employees working for it. Their goal, I believe, is to have 100 or more full-time staff to do the work.
Gee, two years into a $7 billion project and only 25 full-time staff have been hired!? And, frankly, most of those folks are transfers from other federal departments such as Commerce and Homeland Security. In the Federal personnel system, it is relatively easy to hire and transfer existing federal government employees.
It is much harder to hire from the non-Federal staff – especially folks with on-the-ground responder experience. Multiple interview panels and layers of human resource review, not to mention background checks and financial disclosure.
There have been a few major hires from the outside – General Manager Bill D’Agostino with commercial/Verizon background, T.J. Kennedy with Utah State patrol background, and Bill Casey formerly of the Boston Police via the FBI. But key positions go unfilled, such as the CIO and CTO positions.
Despite the difficulties, every full-time person working at FirstNet who I personally know – no matter what their background - is very committed and competent.
But, again, #1 is at play, and at this rate it will be years before FirstNet gets its complete complement of full-time staff.
4. Stiffing your friends. Eight cities, regions and states around the country were funded for about $400 million under the Federal stimulus (technically the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, ARRA/BTOP, a mouthful) or similar grants to build public safety LTE networks compatible with FirstNet.
Many of these networks were well along – Harris County (Houston) is operational. Charlotte, North Carolina and Mississippi (statewide) were substantially deployed. The San Francisco Bay area (BayRICS) was moving rapidly in planning and site development.
But when FirstNet was created in 2012, NTIA abruptly stopped seven of these projects, restricting their construction until FirstNet could review them and authorize them to be completed. FirstNet started negotiations with them, but in the case of Charlotte and Mississippi, those negotiations have fallen apart and the LTE part of the networks is shut down. Motorola, vendor on the BayRICS project, was unable to reach accord with FirstNet and gave up its BTOP grant in December, 2013.
I don’t know specifically why each of these negotiations failed. In some cases I believe it was FirstNet’s refusal to promise to incorporate the local network into its overall nationwide plan. In other words, FirstNet might actually overbuild the BTOP-funded network in the city, region or state. Such an overbuild would not give the local agencies time to recoup their investments. In other cases FirstNet refused, I think, to allow the local network the ability to expand over time and improve coverage in its geographic area, which could hamstring the use of the network by responders. Each of these jurisdictions invested considerable local funds and political capital, not to mention time and effort, into these projects.
The projects, if completed, would have been showcases for the promise of FirstNet. More importantly, FirstNet would have created a cadre of mayors, elected officials, Sheriffs, police chiefs, fire chiefs and others singing the praises of public safety broadband.
Maybe the states were asking too much of FirstNet. Perhaps the lawyers got things tied into legal knots. Maybe the business plan for funding and operating these networks wasn’t going to work under any circumstance. All I know is that now, in these jurisdictions, there is simply bitterness over a failed effort and promise.
And there are four jurisdictions which DO have spectrum leases with FirstNet, although their timelines and deliverables are still murky. Undoubtedly there are lessons to be learned and advocates to be created via those projects.
5. Overpromise and under-deliver. We’ve had a number of false starts. At the very first Board meeting, in September, 2012, member Craig Farrill announced a “conceptual network design”. Really? Where was the collaboration with the public safety community before this announcement? At regional meetings in May and June 2013, FirstNet Board members were talking about coming out to states and meeting with Governors within 60 days. Yeah, right. In the fall of 2013 we in the states were hoping to have a lot of specifics in terms of materials and data requirements to conduct outreach and education for potential users in our states. We’re still waiting. Even minor things like having a viable website at www.firstnet.gov branded for local and state public safety has been promised since summer, 2013. Today that website has still got the NTIA brand all over it, and is only minimally functional. Gets us back to #1, I guess.
Still, I'm hopeful.
I’ve listed a whole set of concerns and issues, but I also see some positive signs. This coming week and in early March, FirstNet and NTIA staff will hold two workshops for the SPOCs and our staff in the Eastern and then the Western U. S. We’re hoping to see a clear roadmap for the FirstNet’s ahead. Deputy Manager T. J. Kennedy recently laid out much more detail on how the consultation with states will occur. FirstNet has published a number of Requests for Information (RFIs) seeking a lot of information from potential vendors and others on a number of aspects of the network ranging from devices to network design to applications and apps stores (although, with the staffing shortfalls mentioned above, I’m not sure who is reading the responses). General Manager Bill D’Agostino says his plan for the year ahead “will make your head spin”.
There are hundreds of us out here, FirstNet, who still believe in you, believe in the mission, and want to help make it happen.
January 12, 2014 By Bill Schrier
One of my philosophies, working as a senior level public official in a local or state government, is that the boss - the elected official - is always right.
Most State, City, County and other non-federal CIOs either work for a city/county manager or for a Governor or Mayor. That official is the "boss". We give the boss our best advice, but if they decide to do something different, then I invoke "nobody elected me". In other words the elected official is responsible to the citizens and constituents of the city, county or state. And that elected official will receive a report card every two or four years in the form of an election. If the electorate doesn't like the way the government is running, they’ll make their wishes known at the ballot box The Mayor or Governor was elected to make the decisions, not me.
I’ve got two reasons for writing this blog post. The first one is to try and reflect upon the stupidity of what happened in New Jersey in September. The second reason is to demonstrate how "nobody elected me" plays out in information technology.
Nobody Elected Me in New Jersey
One potential issue with the "nobody elected me" philosophy is ethics.
If I recommended a course of action, and my boss decided to do something different - and his decision was either unethical or illegal, what would I do? There is really only one answer to this quandary: it is my duty to resign. Such instances are, thankfully, far and few between.
One of my heroes is Bill Ruckelshaus, who resigned as deputy United States Attorney General. He resigned rather than carry out an order from then-President Richard Nixon to fire the special prosecutor in the Watergate affair.
As any reader probably knows, staff members of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered the closure of all-but-one traffic lane on an approach to the George Washington Bridge in early September, 2013. Governor Christie was conducting a campaign for re-election, and the closure was apparently ordered to "punish" the Mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey.
If you were an employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and you were actually ordered to set up the traffic cones and shut down traffic for no apparent reason, what should you do? Refuse to obey the order? On what grounds?
I can't judge the employees of the Port Authority because I don’t know what they (or their supervisors or their managers or their directors) were thinking as the traffic cones went into place and all hell broke loose for three days of traffic on that bridge. Perhaps they invoked "Nobody Elected Me" or "the boss is always right". Perhaps they feared to question the order in order to preserve their jobs. Somebody in New Jersey government, however, should have been asking questions in September, not now in January, 2014.
Nobody Elected Me and Information Technology
"Nobody elected me" is useful when explaining otherwise inexplicable decisions to technology department employees.
For many IT employees, the "right" decision often appears to be obvious.
Many such employees don’t see the nuances of political reality (especially when it comes to funding).
A few years ago, when I was CTO of the City of Seattle, I reported to Mayor Greg Nickels. Mayor Nickels and I and a third department head - responsible for the central customer service at the City - jointly decided a 311 system was needed in Seattle.
311 seems enormously logical to me. What phone number do you call if you see a fire or are having a bicycle accident (like I did) - 911, of course. But what number do you call if you want to report a backed-up sewer or you want to complain about taxi service or your cable bill? In some forward-thinking cities like Chicago and New York and Louisville that number is 311. But in Seattle you search through six pages of 8 point font in the phone book (if you even have a phone book) or search a website (if you have Internet access) to find some incomprehensible number.
That sort of stupidity made no sense to me as CTO and it made no sense to Mayor Nickels.
Alas, the Seattle City Council didn't see it quite that way, and rejected Mayor Nickels' proposal because they didn't see a need equal to the $9 million cost to implement.
I’m convinced the problem in Seattle was lack of Council member districts. All nine Seattle City council members are full-time members and all are elected at large. In that situation citizens don’t know which council member to call to complain about something, so they end up calling the Mayor. The Mayor and his staff "feel the pain" of citizen complaints and see the need for a 311 number and system. City council members don't.
But the electorate has recently spoken. Two months ago, in November, 2013, Seattle constitutents voted to start electing council members by district. When that law takes effect in two years, council members will start feeling the pain of citizens in their district complaining and will, I think, be much more supportive of 311.
Yup, nobody elected me, but there’s always an alternative path to the goal.
November 21, 2013 By Bill Schrier
In a similar way, 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Centers may have robbed the rest of us (even those of us in now in our 60s) of our youth.
When Oswald killed John F. Kennedy, he also killed – or at least damaged – the "youthful outlook" of the "Greatest Generation" – those who had survived the Great Depression and put their young lives on hold to fight World War II. That generation – which included my parents – came back to peacetime, after WWII, and immediately married, had kids (lots of kids – the Baby Boomers) and became engaged in work and business.
This generation saw Kennedy as a hero. He was, indeed, a bonafide war hero from PT-109. But he also had an eloquence and a youthful outlook on the world symbolized by his goal to put a man on the moon and his speeches including "ask not what you can do for your country …".
Oswald killed all that.
And afterward, of course, my own generation would not "trust anyone over 30"; the nation became bogged down in the Vietnam War; and my parents suddenly became "old fogies". Bill Flanagan on CBS Sunday Morning eloquently described the disillusionment which followed November 22, 1963.
Something similar occurred, I fear, after September 11, 2013.
For over 230 years, the United States survived on isolationism. We were separated from Europe and Asia by vast oceans as well as centuries in time. The United States was the "young democracy" on the globe. Sure, we lived in fear of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War. But "bombs dropping invisibly from the sky" is an abstract concept. And, of course, that nuclear war never happened.
September 11, 2001, changed all that.
The war came to our shores. Americans died – by the thousands – in Manhattan.
And, I think, to a great extent, the "youthful outlook" of the generations who lived through and remember 9/11 died also.
Now we have a National Security Agency which tracks our phone calls and our social media and probably tracks our email and web browsing. We’ve built a giant security apparatus worthy of George Orwell’s 1984. Our drones strike at people around the world. We fear the Chinese have completely cyber-infiltrated our government systems and private businesses. Every time we go through a TSA line at an airport we are personally reminded that terrorists live among us. We’ve wasted trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives (including the lives of the dismembered) on foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Every month another mass-shooting born of mental illness and despair seems to occur. And we are constantly reminded that our passwords are not secure, our financial information is not secure, and our very identities may be stolen.
I have great cause for hope, as well. There’s a whole generation growing up now who do NOT remember 9/11. The wars are winding down (although the debt they left us has not). We've got a vigorous non-profit sector of hackers (in the good sense of the term) who are building applications from open source and demanding open government data. A whole set of technologies is sprouting which will enrich our lives: network-connected glasses, autonomous vehicles, tablet and smartphone computers, and other wonders yet to be unveiled.
Lee Harvey Oswald robbed a generation of its youth.
9/11 robbed more generations of our youth.
Can our next generation perhaps live out its dreams?