Archive for February, 2009

Web 2.0: White House and Whitehall

February 27, 2009

The appointment of the new Chief Technology Officer is eminent, and the OMB e-government and technology administrator, Vivek Kundra, is already busy at work.


What should be on their agendas to drag the government into the 21st century?  Wired Magazine has a great story by Evan Ratliff that frames the challenges: “Can Obama Really Reboot the White House?”  But there are several interesting reports just out that can help point the way.


National Academy for Public Administration.  One of them I showcased last week, by the National Academy for Public Administration:  Enabling Collaboration:  Three Priorities for the New Administration.”  In addition to recommending an open technology environment and fostering a collaborative culture, it recommended treating government data as a national asset to be used effectively by and for citizens.


But an overseas perspective is worth looking at as well, for inspiration:


UK’s “Power of Information” Initiative. The British government is currently developing its own White Paper on how to improve “Digital Britons’ online experience.”  Its “Power of Information Taskforce” has developed a series of recommendations, including encouraging government employees to add their expert advice to supporting on-line peer support forums, such as education specialists in parenting forums, noting: “This is a culture shift for people who work in public services and for civil servants in particular.”  A true understatement!


Some of its other recommendations:

·         Provide civil servants access to social media on the internet as part of their job.

·         Create an innovation space allowing the public and government staff to co-create information-based public services, such as the UK’s Show Us a Better Way or DC’s Apps for Democracy.

·         Engage citizens in policy development using web tools; update traditional citizen participation requirements.

·         Make geospatial and other government data more easily accessible, and encourage mashups.


Rethinking Government Contracting

February 25, 2009

George Mason University and the IBM Center released a report today by Allan Burman, “Six Practical Steps to Improve Contracting.” 


This report is based on a series of sessions held by an Acquisition Reform Working Group over the course of several months last year to find common ground among a range of acquisition, procurement, and contracting experts, both inside and outside the government.


One of President Obama’s fiscal responsibility summit breakout groups earlier this week focused on procurement problems, and Senator Claire McCaskill is leading a congressional oversight panel.  Also, Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that fixing the procurement system will be a top priority for him, as well.


So, while there is a great deal of attention on the topic, so far there has not been much focus on solutions.  The Working Group examined a series of problems, such as the role of contractors, the use of performance-based acquisition, and post-award contract management.  But the value of the Group was its articulation of series of very actionable steps that can be taken now, administratively, without waiting for statutory changes.  These include:


·         Providing agency chief acquisition officers sufficient accountability and authority to oversee both the contracting and program management communities in their agencies.  Currently, there is a gap between the two, and that oftentimes is where the fault lies.


·         Designate career senior procurement officers as deputies to the politically-designated chief acquisition officers to ensure continuity and coordination.


·         Plan more strategically for the talent needed to act on an agency’s mission.  Too often, chief human capital officers only look at the talent recruited for civil service positions, even in cases where contractor talent is needed to successfully meet an agency’s mission.


·         Invest in the right talent to carry out the acquisition function.


·         Create agency business councils, chaired by a deputy secretary, to bring all the key mission support players to the table – the chief acquisition officer, the chief financial officer, the chief information officer, and the chief human capital officer – to address mission challenges collectively.


The report also recommends a relatively straightforward statutory change, as well:  give OMB’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy a broader role, by including agency program managers under its policy purview.  Only by knitting the two communities together will there be real progress and less finger-pointing.


This report follows on the heels of a call by the Professional Services Council, which represents large contractors, to create procurement “tiger teams” to quickly act on the many contracts that will stem from the recently-passed Stimulus Bill.


Fiscal Sustainability Project

February 24, 2009

Yesterday President Obama hosted a “Fiscal Responsibility Summit” around five issues: Health Care, Social Security, Tax Reform, Procurement, and Budget Process.  The first three are largely policy; the last two focus on two elements of improving government management.  The 130 attendees to the conference participated in breakout groups that addressed each of the five issues.  Here are reports from the two management-related groups:


The procurement breakout group seemed to focus on Defense procurement over-runs and providing additional oversight.  The focus seemed to be on prevention of overruns, not fixing the broken process.


The budget process breakout group unanimously agreed that the existing process was broken.  However, there was no solution proposed.  The group seemed to focus more on creating a commission to examine things, and whether that was a good idea.


Two things that seemed to stand out to me:  first, that all five of these issues will be “on the table” together; and second, it looks like there’s going to be follow up.  Here’s what the President said:


I want to make sure that the conversation doesn’t end when we go home today.  We’ve got a lot of hard choices to make.  We need to build off this afternoon’s conversation and work together to forge a consensus. 

So one of the things that I’m hoping to do is that my team, each of whom were taking copious notes during the course of these respective breakout sessions, will issue a report or a summary of the conversation.  It will be distributed to each of the participants in those respective discussions.  We will then ask for concrete ideas, either about substance or process, and we will ask that you get those back so that we can then issue a final report coming out of this conversation in 30 days.

And we’re — I think somebody just dubbed this the “fiscal sustainability project,” so that’s as good of a name as any.  And the idea then is, is that there will be a constant loop between the White House and all of you about how we should move forward on this, and hopefully this will start breaking down into some concrete takeaways and tasks.

It’ll be interesting to see if another “czar” is appointed to lead this effort! 

RAT Board Chair Named

February 23, 2009

The Stimulus Bill is big on accountability and action on this front seems to be moving quickly, maybe even quicker than action on implementation of the bill itself!


Last week, President Obama set the tone in a meeting with mayors:


So I want to be clear about this:  We cannot tolerate business as usual — not in Washington, not in our state capitols, not in America’s cities and towns.  We will use the new tools that the recovery act gives us to watch the taxpayers’ money with more rigor and transparency than ever.   If a federal agency proposes a project that will waste that money, I will not hesitate to call them out on it and put a stop to it.


Today, President Obama is expected to send a similar message to governors in town for their annual meeting.


Also today, according to blogger Marc Ambinder, the President is expected to announce the appointment of Earl Devaney as chair of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (RAT Board).  The Board, comprised of at least 10 agency inspectors general, will have a budget of $84 million.  In addition, the inspectors general received an additional $233 million in increases in their budgets under the Stimulus Bill.


Devaney is the former inspector general of the Department of the Interior where he led the investigation to uncover the Jack Abramoff scandal. He had a long federal career “putting away bad guys.”  In 2006, he talked to the Federal Times about his approach to  measuring an IG’s effectiveness:


 It’s unfortunate that over the years success has typically been measured in numbers. I think it’s a whole different world now. I think we should be able to articulate the value our audits and investigations have on changing behavior and the practice of the department in a way that makes it work better.”

Avoiding a Parallel Government

February 20, 2009

 The Stimulus Bill contains an enormous number of reporting requirements. For example, Stimulus dollars have to be accounted separately, and agencies must separately report on who gets the dollars, including subcontractors or sub-grantees, and how many jobs are created.  Programs, agencies, OMB, and the new, $84 million Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board (see p. 175 of the bill) are all required to report on the progress of spending, often on different timetables.  In fact, according to new OMB guidance, there are eight levels of reporting that are now required, with the first report from agencies due March 3rd!


There is a risk of creating, at least on paper, a parallel government – the regular government and the Stimulus government — programs (and dollars) being funded via Stimulus dollars.  The Stimulus spending ($787 billion) is almost the size of a “regular” annual budget (about $990 billion in discretionary spending in 2009, once you back out interest on the debt and entitlement programs).


The Bill includes over $300 million in additional oversight monies to make sure the Stimulus funds are being spent appropriately.  In addition, millions more have been set aside for administrative tracking of funds by federal agencies, and even more has been set aside to support administrative tracking requirements at the state and local levels.


In many cases, Stimulus dollars are being dumped into existing, ongoing programs in order to get the dollars out quickly.  But this creates a dilemma – how do you separately account for Stimulus dollars being used to accelerate an existing construction project, including accounting for which subcontractors are being paid with which pot of dollars?


This could be seen as an enormous reporting burden, or an opportunity to completely rethink how reporting is done.  After all, Team Obama – the campaign staff – was rated as the most innovative organization in 2008 by FastCompany magazine.  Can they bring this spirit into the government?  Here are some possible directions:


A recent McKinsey Quarterly article, “Six Ways to Make Web 2.0 Work,” offers some approaches that may provide some useful strategic direction.  For example, the only way an organization can successfully employ Web 2.0 tools – which require bottom-up participation – is for leadership to become role models and lead in its use through informal channels.


Yesterday, OMB convened hundreds of agency personnel from across the government at the DOI auditorium to explain their new reporting requirements.  The statutory requirements are complicated, but they are using new approaches, such as the MAX Budget Community wiki, to share information and move quickly.


In addition,  is an exciting new approach.  If you haven’t looked at it, it’s worth the visit.  Will agencies move toward real time reporting of contracts?  The law requires reporting within 30 days, but why not when the contract is signed?  What about the use of wikis to share best practices and to draft common administrative requirements?  What about allowing others to download the spending data and create their own mashups?  These and other ideas will likely float forward.  In fact, these kinds of ideas may be the only way the government can actually meet the requirements of both getting the money out to quickly create jobs, and ensuring the monies are not wasted.

Missing White House Documents

February 19, 2009

A story on Politico by Josh Gerstein, “The White House’s Missing Documents,” notes that presidential directives, memos, proclamations, etc. are not consistently appearing on the White House website.  There is a tone in the article of there being a selective use of transparency.  But at a lunch with a close observer of the White House operations, the reality may be that this is less of a problem of transparency and more of a problem of the lack of a consistent process for handling presidential documents.  If White House staff  do an end-run around the President’s Staff Secretary, or the Staff Secretary does not have a routinized process, then whatever the President signs may not afterwards get into the hands of all the right people for subsequent distribution (e.g., Federal Register, White House Web Master, Cabinet Secretary, Press Office, etc.).


This is more likely a symptom of the shakeout of a new White House staff than it is a sympton of nefarious behavior.

Appointee Gridlock

February 18, 2009

The Washington Post’s Al Kamen notes in “Jobs, Jobs Everywhere, But . . . “ that only 36 of the top 480 positions in the Obama Administration have been nominated.  While this is ahead of several immediate predecessors, the agenda the new Administration faces is far more complex.  From what I can tell, it doesn’t look like any new nominations have gone forward since the initial tranche.  And there’s a slow-down in the number of announced candidates as well. So far, 56 have been announced; none since Senator Judd Gregg withdrew his name as nominee for Secretary of Commerce.


While the list seems slim, there’s a new Washington Post  feature to keep track of new appointees, called  The site launched shortly after the Inauguration and is managed by Rachael Van Dongen.  It provides profiles of political figures, mainly in the executive branch.  See the pull-down bar on the right to get a sense of the scope they plan to cover: Administration Officials, Likely Administration Officials, Obama Advisors, etc.  The Post is also adding these to a Facebook and a Twitter site.


In the Bush Administration, the White House created “Results.Gov” with a list of the top administration officials, by agency, and a short bio for each.  It looks like the media will do it now, and the Obama folks can focus on the bigger problems! 

Stimulus Implementation: The Chokepoint

February 17, 2009

President Obama signs the Stimulus Bill today.  Even though agencies have not known the details behind it, they’ve been madly scrambling for weeks to prepare for its implementation.  There are many deadlines and procedural elements that must be met.


The biggest challenge, though, may lay in the capability of government agencies to be able to actually deliver on the promises made in the bill. That capability – to make and monitor grants and contracts – has been seen as being on the verge of administrative collapse even before the Stimulus Bill.


Last year, the IBM Center co-sponsored with George Mason University a series of acquisition reform seminars with leading figures in the federal acquisition community.  They found that “the federal government spends almost half a trillion dollars a year on contracted support.  This comprises over two-fifths of all discretionary spending.”  The Stimulus Bill will nearly double that activity. 


More importantly, though, “. . . many observers feel the federal government’s contracting system is broken . . . those operating within the system see the environment as ‘toxic,’ characterized by fear and mistrust, and with oversight bodies such as agency inspectors general second-guessing their every action.”  The Stimulus Bill adds a quarter billion in spending for additional oversight by inspectors general and creates an oversight board, as well.


Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, reinforces the sense of a contracting system in trouble in a recent Washington Post editorial, noting:  the current federal contracting system is in serious disrepair, and has become a losing proposition for our government, for the American taxpayers, and even for the contractors who have to navigate through these dysfunctional waters.”  He recommends that President Obama:

  • Put someone in charge of government-wide workforce planning.
  • Make sure we don’t outsource our brains.
  • Devote adequate resources to manage contractors.
  • Look to achieve results, not make arbitrary changes.
  • Work with Congress to improve budgeting process.

But these are long-term fixes that will take years to act upon.  They don’t solve the immediate need of spending stimulus monies to get Americans back to work.


Steve Kelman, former head of procurement reform in the Clinton Administration, observes in his blog that, while Congress has set aside money for agency implementation, “. . . given the speed with which equipment is supposed to be bought, there’s not enough time to hire and train new contracting officials.”


So what can be done?  Kelman says there are two immediate actions:  First, use pre-competed contracts as much as possible, and second, use the experience of Katrina where agencies can borrow contracting talent from other agencies that are not involved in implementing the Stimulus Bill.  Being able to identify and take action on ways to streamline the contracting process will require leadership from the yet-to-be appointed head of procurement policy at the Office of Management and Budget.  Finding ways, like Kelman suggests, to streamline the contracting process will help, but will likely not be enough.


The White House issued a directive to agencies on February 9th to begin putting the workforce resources in place to implement the Stimulus Bill.  But in many cases, there are no resources to be shifted from one function to another.  The Office of Personnel Management may be the key to addressing some of these issues, for example by allowing retired contracting officers to return to work without giving up their pensions.  Here too, there is no appointed agency head yet in place.


So the implementation success of the Stimulus Bill may lay in the hands of the yet-to-be appointed officials.  And the clock on the deadlines in the Bill is  now ticking. 

First 100 Days: Terry Sullivan

February 13, 2009

Dr. Terry Sullivan, in his study, “Presidential Work During the First One Hundred Days,” analyzes the work schedules of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower through George H. W. Bush during their first 100 days in office. With 50,000 observations of 20,000 events over nearly four decades, the report takes on two tasks: describing the president’s workday and drawing conclusions about commitment, engagement, isolation, organizational choices, and effectiveness.


In an interview with Government Executive’s Michelle Williams, he says “it’s an easy standard to hold every president against, to compare every president to.”  In this vein, several media outlets are monitoring “the first 100 days.”  These include:  BBC’s Obama Diary, CNN’s First 100 Days, and Huffington Post’s Obama’s First 100 Days. 


Dr. Sullivan’s data, which took a number of years to compile from a variety of official records, shows that presidents experienced a 30 percent increase in their workdays since Eisenhower.    His look at details, such as the amount of time on the phone, in one-on-one meetings, in groups, events, or on travel, showed interesting patterns between presidents during their first 100 days and, in some cases, dispelled some historical myths.  For example, Reagan, not Nixon, was the most isolated.  Sullivan also found that president’s with greater hierarchy in their operations had not only more productive work days but also had increased ranges of engagement with outsiders.


It will be interesting to see how future scholars rate the more recent presidents.  They’ll have to add a new time-tracking category for President Obama – time spent on email and his Blackberry!

From Here and There

February 12, 2009

Here’s an interesting insider’s account from the Presidential Transition policy team that dealt with Technology, Innovation, and Government Reform.  It’s by a former IBMer, Irving Wladawsky-Berger.  He provides some of the context behind the directive on Transparency and Open Government that President Obama signed shortly after taking office.


Separately, the federal chief information officers’ council released a transition guide, according to Chris Dorobek.   The 52-page guide provides a great overview as to the structure and initiatives of the council.


The Center for American Progress and OMB Watch jointly published “After Midnight: The Bush Legacy of Deregulation and What Obama Can Do.”  The report examines ways a new administration can address “midnight regulations” left behind by a departing administration.  The report may have contributed to the regulatory review order by President Obama.  While that order will not examine individual regulations, it will look at the regulatory review process.