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By Bill Schrier: Making technology work for a city government.

A Chicken in Every Pot, a Smartphone in Every Pocket

January 12, 2011 By Bill Schrier

A Chicken in Every Pot"A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage" - election slogan for Herbert Hoover, claiming that the everyone will be prosperous under a Hoover presidency.

The 2010 election is over, the winning politicians are now being magically converted into "elected officials", and technology in government is marching on, sometimes with different elected and CIO leadership.   I’ve blogged before about the difficult intersection of politics and technology.

Being a Chief Information Officer in government is, in many ways, similar to being a CIO in any other organization - public, private, non-profit.   We worry about budgets, business applications, operating a data center, beating the competition (yes, even in government), and worrying about how to adapt the latest consumer fad technology (Kindle, Android phone, iPad) for use by our workforce.

But there's also a significant difference - CIOs in governments work for elected officials, and those elected officials get a report card at least every four years.   A report card from the voters.   If they've been doing a decent job delivering service, responding to constituent needs, and clearing the snow (alas poor Mayor Bloomberg), they'll probably be re-elected.   If not, a new politician wins the election and becomes Mayor (or Governor or County Executive).

Just as in the Federal government, a change in the Chief Executive will often result in a change in the Cabinet - the department directors - including the CIO.   And much of that is happening this month, with the departure of good technology leaders such as Bryan Sivak in the District of Columbia and Gopal Khanna in Minnesota as well as a large group of others.

But to some extent, we government CIOs also help choose our elected Chief Executive.   Clearly we've applied for the CIO job and gone through an interview process so we know to some extent the potential that the voters will toss out the boss.  But also, in some cases, we've actively campaigned (on our own time, of course) and contributed financially to see a good politician win the election.

Government CIOs also have a legislative body of elected officials - a City Council, County Council or State Legislature - to help give us direction, set policy and review our budget.   Sometimes balancing the wishes of the chief executive versus the legislature - just as in the President versus the Congress - can be a daunting task!

From a CIO's perspective, what makes a good elected official?

I'll sum it up succinctly:    good elected officials see technology as an integral part of everything government does - as a way to enhance productivity of government workers and improve the delivery of service to constituents.     Less enlightened elected officials see technology as a cost to be contained: "Why do we have so danged many cell phones?" or "We spend way too much money on these computers."

Wise elected officials - from a technologist's point of view - ask questions such as "do government employees have the tools they need to do their jobs (cell phones, computers, applications)", "are we duplicating costs between departments or functions" or "what technology investments today give us the greatest return on investment and service to constituents tomorrow"?    

And sometimes even more specific questions such as "why don't we allow employees to use their own smartphones, rather than having taxpayers buy them?" or "gee, why does every department have a different budgeting system" or "how come our police records management system doesn't connect with our court case management system"?

Of course rarely are such questions asked in the heat of an election.    Voters are much more concerned about filling potholes and crime on the streets.  

Amazingly, Seattle presently has a Mayor - Mike McGinn - who ran on a platform which included a significant technology:   getting better broadband networks to homes and businesses.

And increasingly the "voter on the street" has become tech savvy.    Gee, it seems like everyone - even the homeless - has a cell phone. And over 45.5 million of us have "smartphones".  And almost everyone uses the Internet - in Seattle, 88% of have a computer and 84% have an Internet connection.   If you don't have a computer at home, you can use one at the library or a community technology center.

The way we live is changing as well, as witnessed by the increasing amount of online commerce (thank you Amazon.com and Jeff Bezos) and social networking. The time may be coming - soon - when voters are just as concerned about the usability of a government website from a mobile device, the ability to send video and photos to 311/911 centers, and being able to electronically find a parking space as they are with keeping the potholes filled.

Maybe the day will come when a politician promises a "computer on every desk, fiber broadband in every house and a smartphone in every pocket".


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Thanks and Turkeys 2010

November 25, 2010 By Bill Schrier

Apologies to the Virgina Tech Hokies for using their LogoThis week Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier has a LOT for which to be thankful. But I also have a few turkeys to carve.

My most significant thanks go to the phenomenal people who work in information technology in local government, especially here at the City of Seattle. Most City and County CIOs, such as those who are the 60 members of MIX (the Metropolitan Information Exchange) will agree with me and give thanks for their employees as well. While some members of the public think government employees are 8 to 5 clock-watching bureaucrats, that's decidedly NOT true of most employees, especially our technology workers.

This fact slammed home to me again this week - Seattle had a snowstorm. Two inches. Those of you in Chicago, Boston or Washington DC are probably laughing. Two measly inches? What's the big deal? But here in Seattle, because of the uniquenesses of our weather systems/geography and the rarity of snow in the lowlands, it was a real show-stopper. Monday night many of my employees spent four, five or nine hours commuting home on jammed icy freeways. I and several of my staff walked home five miles in the snowstorm (video of commuters walking across the West Bridge here).

In Seattle’s Department of Information Technology, we had staff who worked all night Monday, or slept at their workstations Monday night, or stayed in hotels downtown, or turned right around and came back to work Tuesday morning after the long commute home. They did this because they know the work of a City government and the safety of the people of Seattle depend now, more than ever, on reliable technology: websites, data networks, e-mail systems and much much more. For these two hundred dedicated people working in the City of Seattle's technology department, I give thanks.

(My colleagues elsewhere have similar stories, whether in Houston and Mobile, Alabama, who have suffered through hurricanes, or Los Angeles and Riverside who have suffered through earthquakes, or Chicago and Washington DC, with their snowstorms.)

As I attend conferences and talk to my counterparts across the country, I find similar dedication to keeping the public safe and our governments operational. As just one example, we have twenty cities and states around the nation who have authority from the FCC to build fourth generation wireless networks. Over the past 11 months I've been working with officials from these twenty jurisdictions, as well as the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, the Public Safety Communications Research Program of the Department of Commerce, and Homeland Security's Office of Emergency Communications. Every one of these agencies and the people involved have been working tirelessly to build a nationwide public safety network, a vision which sprung out of the September 11th World Trade Center disaster. This year we've made real progress, despite a number of hurdles. Now the first networks are under construction. For all these dedicated government officials and technical staff, I give thanks.

I also give thanks to the many private companies who are doing extraordinary work with technology – Microsoft and Windows and Office, Google with Android and search, Apple with iPhones and iPads, IBM’s Smart Cities Challenge, and a few more who not only want to make money, but also want to use a significant part of that money make the planet a better place in which to live and work.

Finally, I give thanks for my elected officials - Mayor and City Council - and the department directors running City departments here in Seattle. This year of the Great Recession they have faced terrible choices with budget shortfalls of $67 million in Seattle. And precipitously falling tax revenues. And urgent needs from the public for safety nets for our jobless citizens and the poor and homeless. My own department's budget was cut by over 17% and I've laid off over 10% of my workforce over the past two years. These are all tough choices, and they are done in the glare of publicity with many competing demands by constituents for the ever-shrinking pot of money. But we have a sustainable budget and services going into 2011. Thank you to the officials who stepped up and made these tough choices.

Now on to the turkeys - at least the ones I'd like to carve and serve.

First are some of our technology vendors, a few of whom have ever increasing appetites for money. Some of them are resorting to "compliance audits" to make sure we are paying for every last danged software license we are using. One vendor even demanded to have access to every one of the 11,000 computers at the City of Seattle to see if their software was installed. Others absolutely refuse to negotiate reduced pricing or flexible maintenance plans. These few money-grubbing vendors get my "tech turkey" award.

Next there are a few of our public employee unions. Many public employee unions here in the Seattle area realize we are in an unprecedented recession. Those unions have willingly forgone raises which were in their contracts, understanding that few workers in the private sector get raises, and many private sector workers have lost their jobs and retirement money. But a few public sector unions have held out for their contracted raises, which are far larger than inflation. This, frankly, can make all city and county governments and our workers look greedy and foolish. The public backlash was evident in our recent elections where few tax increases were passed and many revenue sources were cut. These few unions get my turkey award as well.

My final turkey award goes to those politicians who want to whip the public into a frenzy about supposed fraud and waste in government, or think we can continue tax cuts, increase defense spending, and balance the budget all at the same time. How do they think public schools, parks, police and fire departments, child protective services, streets or public health are funded, or how do we pay the dedicated people who provide all those services? I’ve blogged about this at length before, and will just leave these politicians with my tea-party-turkey award.

All in all, however, at this Thanksgiving of 2010, I’ve got a lot more reasons to give thanks than to carve!


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ePark, gooPark, noPark

November 16, 2010 By Bill Schrier

Travelers' Information mapConcrete and asphalt are everywhere in the Naked City or in any City for that matter.  I was startled to learn that up to 50% of any City is paved or tarred over to provide space for transportation - autos, trucks, buses and trains.  I certainly know about intelligent transportation systems (ITS).  But streets can't be very intelligent, can they?  They are just slabs of concrete supporting the movements of vehicular contraptions of metal and rubber with fume-spewing internal combustion engines?

 

So I was quite surprised when ITS snuck up on me and bit me right in the tailpipe.  The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), mirroring the work of similar organizations around the country and the world, actually has built an intelligent street grid right under my nose.

 

The latest iteration of intelligent street grid is SDOT's travelers' map, which displays actual travel times between major points in the City.  This map also shows video from every traffic camera in the City and real-time alerts for transportation issues and construction.   All of this can be viewed from smartphones as well as the web. 

 

The travel times are calculated through license plate recognition A traffic camera in one place records license plates of cars passing through its field of vision.   A camera a little ways down the road does the same.  The computer compares the two, calculates the elapsed time, which is displayed on the Travelers' Information Map.  A set of dynamic signs hoisted above roadways in the city shows similar information to motorists.

 

Another major use of concrete in cities is for parking.  SDOT is also bringing intelligence to parking, with EPark.  A significant source of motorist frustration and air pollution on downtown streets is cars circling the streets looking for on-street parking.  Epark brings automation to this, as downtown parking garages automatically catalog available parking spaces and the City's website and on-street signs direct motorists to places with parking.  Seattle Transportation also has a map cataloging most of the parking lots and garages in the City.  That same map also shows on-street parking zones, street-level views of the spaces, and more. 

 

San Francisco is taking this intelligence to a new level, thanks to a $20 million federal grant.  The other "City-by-the-Bay" (Seattle is on a bay too) is trying to track on-street parking spaces in real time, dynamically cataloging the open spaces to help circling motorists (presumably with a smartphone) find them on the street.   

 

Many cities have ripped out their parking meters at each space in favor of parking kiosks on each block.   The kiosks take credit cards and spit out a piece of paper to put on the car's window.  To me, however, the logical step would have been to automate the parking meters - give them each detection technology to determine if the space was occupied or not, and then wireless technology to communicate that back to the traffic computer in the sky.  Then you could see an open space from your smartphone, pay to reserve it online, a little yellow flag goes up on the meter to show it is reserved, and then you drive to the space.  No fuss, no muss, no waiting.  Of course if any City wants to implement that, it means ripping out the new parking kiosks and putting the meters back in, but that's life in the ever-changing world of high technology.

 

Seattle is also taking parking ticket technology to the next level.   Already Seattle police cars with special cameras cruise the streets employing license plate recognition to find stolen or wanted cars.  The same police cars can also enforce two-hour parking restrictions.  They drive down the street once, drive down the same street two hours later and then parking tickets can be issued to overtime parkers.

 

The Boot is coming to Seattle as well (it has already arrived in a number of other cities).  Today cars with more than four parking tickets are towed by private companies.  But in an odd twist of bureaucracy, you can pay the towing bill to get your car out of hock but you don't have to pay the tickets.  So some people are racking up dozens or hundreds of tickets.  The new Seattle system will have the parking enforcement officer Boot the car.  To get unbooted, you call a 1-800 number, pay all your tickets, then get a code to unlock the Boot.  Then you will, being a good citizen, dutifully drive the device back to the police precinct.  This might make the towing companies mad, due to reduced business.  Except that if you don't pay and remove the Boot expeditiously (say within 8 hours), the car will be towed.  Then you'll have to pay the towing company to get the car back, and the Booting company to get the Boot off, and then drive the Boot back to the Precinct.   Or maybe just leave the car as a donation to the City.

 

The ideal situation for commuters and traffic engineers, I suppose, is the self-driving automobile, which, we all are surprised to learn, has actually been traversing our streets for some time, thanks to Google.  In the ultimate scenario, you might not even need to own a car.  You could "call" for a car which would drive itself to your house and then drive you to work, then drive itself away to pick up the next passenger.  Kind of a combination of the Google driverless car and the Zipcar concept.  A ZipGoog program.  Perhaps the ZipGoog cars can, when not in use, park in special GooPark parking spots until they get their next call.  

 

I suppose some users of the program would end up trashing the ZipGoog cars just like they spray paint graffiti and drop cigarette butts on buses and trains today.  But knowing Google, there will be graffiti-detection and trash-detection technology in the cars, probably with automatic door locks to prevent the scofflaw’s exit until the mess is cleaned up.

 

Of course what I (and many others) would like is the "no park" City, where every home and business is connected by fiber optic cable ("fiber to the premise")  Then really high speed Internet, two-way HDTV and two-way 3D TV become possible.  With such connections, many people could work from home, attend school or college classes from home, shop from home and even visit friends and family without long times wasted traveling in automobiles and on buses.  Grandparents could "virtually" eat dinner every evening with their grandchildren.  Seniors in nursing homes could have virtual visits from relatives every day.

 

Future technologies will include rooms with projectors and video so you could actually attend meetings for work, or even feel like you are sitting in someone else's home while visiting virtually.  Somewhat like a Star Trek Holodeckbut probably more like Cisco's Telepresence And the entertainment/gaming possibilities are endless.  Many progressive cities and nations (Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Australia, Amsterdam, Chattanooga) have built or are building such fiber-to-the-premise networks.  Because of entrenched monopoly cable and telecom companies, with legacy copper-wire networks, most places in the United States will be the last  to realize the benefits of such fiber networks, which also include less greenhouse gas and carbon emissions, less use of precious fossil fuels, and less dependence on foreign oil.

 

Streets and parking won't really go away, of course.  We'll still need to move freight and goods and even have our physical bodies travel occasionally.  It is hard to visit the beach or the zoo or attend a dinner party (and actually eat the food) via telepresence. 

 

But until the days of ubiquitous fiber networks and telepresence come to pass (and probably for some time afterward) we'll need license plate recognition, the Boot, Travelers' Information Map and ePark.  They are great innovations thanks to forward-looking transportation agencies like Seattle's.


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The 2010 Tech Terror Watch List

October 30, 2010 By Bill Schrier

Tech Terror Watch ListWe are at the end of this quite frightening year of the Great Recession 2010, and at the eve of another frightening Halloween filled with tiny goblins ringing the front door shouting “trick or treat”.  But what are the “real world” goblins knocking at the door, and facing the chief information officer who opens it?

It is time for me to update my 2008 list of nightmares which frighten a CIO. 

Tablet computers (and smartphones). Tablets were on my 2008 list, but are on my 2010 list for an entirely different reason. They’re everywhere. They’re invading! They’re unmanageable.  And every employee wants to use their own. CIOs have long practiced the mantra of standards standards standards.

You need a computer? Yup, we give you a standard HP model with Windows XP, Office 2007 and Anti-Virus loaded on it. You need a smart phone to do your job? Yup, here’s your BlackBerry connected to Outlook and locked down from installing any dangerous applications which present a security threat.

All of a sudden it’s “HELLO Mr. CIO” – the iPhone explodes on the scene, then it’s the iPad, and soon it will be the Windows Phone 7 and Android phones and the RIM Playbook and the Samsung Galaxy. And employees LIKE them and wonder why Mr. CIO is the Grinch and won’t connect them to e-mail and the network.

The CIO GrinchBut of course the Outlook sync doesn’t work exactly right on the iPhone and appointments get dropped. Oh, and someone loses their Android smart phone with all the home and cell numbers of half the police command staff but gee we can’t remotely wipe its contents because installing the remote wipe software is the bureaucratic Sign of the CIO Grinch. Oh, and all of a sudden a public disclosure (FOIA) request comes in and the employee needs to cough up all the documents and messages on their personal iPad, even though some of them are quite personal or even relate to the employee’s personal business or political activity. And oh, gee, by the way, the employee “forgot” to back up all those docs on that personal device, violating not just the public disclosure act but the records retention act as well.

In the meantime, the budget of the IT department has been cut 13.3%, and I’ve laid off 5% of my workforce, but still we’re the Grinch because we can’t support this exotic stew of personal devices.  Arggh!

(I’m convinced we’ll eventually support personal smart phones and tablets, but we need better tools and more staff. For 2010, they remain on my Tech Terror Watch List.)

CyberterroristCyberterrorists and Malware. There is much new to fear on this front in 2010. There is the Stuxnet worm, apparently written by a nation to infiltrate and damage Iran’s nuclear program, but sophisticated enough to attack many industrial or electrical control systems, and hard to find and eliminate. This is only the tip of the iceberg of a new set of computer viruses and malware written by nation-states to attack each other.

Then there was a rash of Trojan viruses and keystroke loggers which infiltrated some government and school sites.  These viruses stole passwords for financial employees at these firms, and those passwords were used to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And there is the appearance of malware on legitimate websites, so even innocent employees doing their job on the Internet could get their computers infected.  Cyber threats go onto my Terror Watch List.

Stop and Think, before Connecting (and also have a good firewall and anti-virus program!).

Smart Phone Apps. One problem with Smart Phones is that anyone can write an app for them, including criminals, hackers and cyberterrorists. Apple, at least, reviews and tests Apps before allowing them into the iTunes store. Such testing doesn’t happen for BlackBerry or Android apps. I really hope Microsoft does thorough testing on its Windows Phone 7 apps before releasing them into the wild. Smart Phone Apps go onto my Terror Watch List.

Water. And Fire. These remain on my watch list for the same reason as in 2008 – a broken water pipe or a fire in my data center can put it out of commission for a considerable length of time. But this year there is hope – “the cloud”. And no, the Cloud doesn’t rain on the parade of my technology. It means that many of our services and applications might eventually live in the Cloud of servers and storage in distant data centers, much less susceptible to earthquake, fire, water and other disasters.

Speaking of Fire, I have a very recent story to relate. Early on Sunday morning, October 17th, someone started a fire (probably to keep warm, as it is a place homeless are often found) behind a rented City building near 3rd and Main. That fire raced up a conduit burning through fiber and copper cables, bringing down phone and data network services to Seattle’s Fire Administrative Headquarters and main transportation department dispatch center.

The outstanding information technology staff of my department, with support from cabling contractors and Fire/Transportation department staff restored most services within 18 hours, but it illustrates why Fire remains on the Watch List.  And why skilled, dedicated, employees are the best defense against such terror.

Customer expectations. Most terrifying of all is the rise of customer expectations in the midst of the Great Recession, falling IT budgets and reduced staffing. Government employees use computers at home, use tablets and smart phones. They bank online, download apps, text message and use Facebook and blogs. But with reduced technical staff, plus a whole series of requirements like HIPPA and CJIS and the public disclosure act, the CIO Grinch has fewer and fewer resources to meet the expectation that those same tools and applications can all be used at work.

On Halloween, 2010, it is those increased expectations which really terrify me as a CIO.


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Dang Guvmint Bure-crats

October 18, 2010 By Bill Schrier

Dang Guvmint Bure-Crat“Dang Guvmint. Takes too much of our hard-earned tax dollars and hires all those danged burecrats to waste taxpayer money feeding at the public trough pushing paper and regulations keepin’ us hard-workin’ Americans down. “

Certainly there is a movement in the United States today which believes government is too big, too wasteful and burdens the economy on the backs of the “average” American citizen. This attitude is certainly a central tenet of those who believe the “Tea Party” line of thinking.

The truth, of course, is almost exactly the opposite.

Who are those “dang guvmint bure-crats”?

Are they the 1.4 million members of the active duty armed forces who regularly spend 12 to 18 months fighting our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as being deployed throughout the world in places as diverse as Kazakhstan and Bosnia and South Korea? Or maybe they are the 848,000 National Guard and Reserve soldiers who are regularly uprooted from their families for two or three deployments overseas? People like Major Aaron Bert of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department who has deployed three times, once each to Iraq, Afghanistan and now Djibouti. (I have a special affinity for Reservists, having served 22 years in the United States Army Reserve retiring as a Reserve Major).

Are those bureaucrats the two million police officers, firefighters and paramedics (many of them volunteers) who respond to our urgent calls to 911 for help when we are having heart attacks or are struck by drunk drivers or have our purses snatched or are trapped in burning buildings? Bureaucrats like the 394 firefighters who died running up the stairs of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001?

Perhaps the bureaucrats are the 3.5 million public school teachers who barely make a living wage and yet are expected to educate classrooms too full of often-disrespectful kids who sometimes are undisciplined at home? Or the tens of thousands of employees at our premier public universities such as the Unviersity of Washington who have made those schools the best on the planet – so much so that thousands of students are attracted from nations across the world.

I’m sure we could do without all those bureaucrats who maintain our highways and plow the snow from them in the winter (pushing snow rather than paper), or those pencil-necked geeks who maintain our water reservoirs, pipes and systems so we have safe drinking water or those desk-jockeys who staff our parks and recreation centers so we and our families can have fun after a day full of labor to pay our taxes.

Gee, why do we need those building officials and permit inspectors? Can’t we all be trusted to build our homes and businesses so they are earthquake-proof like the buildings in Haiti? And then there are those danged public health officials and nurses who run community health centers, and folks in the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration who inspect our food and our restaurants – they are obviously just harrassing wonderful businesses like the Wright-County Farms in Iowa who never ship salmonella-laden eggs, serve tainted food or prepare it in dirty kitchens.

Perhaps we can live without those State govmint bure-crats like child protective services workers or nursing home inspectors who cannot make a single mistake because if they do a child may starve to death or an elderly person may perish. Then there are those Federal government bure-crats like the Environmental Protection Agency who have to clean up the superfund site toxic messes made by private capitalist companies who made their money, polluted the environment, and left the cleanup burden to taxpayers. Why do spend tax dollars on a National Park Service or State Parks Service or Seattle Parks and Recreation Department? Good, honest tax-paying citizens can take care of those parks themselves and leave them in pristine condition, right?

Certainly we can do without the infernal Revenue Service and similar agencies that collect taxes, beating them out of poor hardworking Americans so we can pay the soldiers and firefighters, and those other pencil-pushers who maintain our roads and public spaces. Dang bureaucrats like Vernon Hunter, a 68-year-old Vietnam War veteran who was doing his job collecting revenue so we could pay our soldiers when a domestic terrorist, Joseph Stack, killed him while at the same time endangering the lives of 200 other American citizens.

And that tax burden! Why did you know that almost 50% of Americans pay no income tax? That indivdual income taxes take a smaller portion of the economy (6.4%) than any time since 1950 and corporate tax rates are the lowest they've been since 1936? (The source for these facts can be found here.)

Yup, those dang guvmint burecrats need to keep their hands off my Social Security and my Medicare and my god-given right to drive a car whether I have a license or not and no matter how intoxicated or high I am. We need to fire all those danged accountants who make sure the budgets are balanced and the money is honestly spent. And get rid of all those information technology bureaucrats who maintain the websites for government information or maintain the public safety radio networks for dispatching cops and firefighters, or who maintain the servers and software which prints all those useless Medicare and Social Security checks.

That Timothy McVeigh, he knew the right way to handle big government. He drove right up to that government building in Oklahoma City 15 years ago and blew it up taking out not just 159 of the bure-crats but nineteen of their innocent kids in the childcare on the first floor too.

But you know, the FBI agents and information technology professionals and electric utility lineworkers and solid waste collectors have families too. They live in neighborhoods right next to people who don’t work in government. They mow their lawns and worry about paying their bills (and they pay their taxes, too). They worry about losing their jobs (if they haven’t already) in the Great Recession. They worry about the huge (and growing) federal deficit, and wonder if they will be able to survive in retirement. They attend church and buy groceries at the local store and have their kids in local schools. They want a good life for their children, and are proud of the quality of life they provide for all of America. They are dedicated to operating great libraries and museums, schools and colleges, transit and highway systems. You would not want to live in a nation without these "bureaucrats".

We are proud citizens of cities like Seattle, states like Washington and the United States of America.

And none of us are “dang government bure-crats”.


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