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The DorobekINSIDER Reader: The open government policies and plans

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When there are big events, I like to pull together resources in one place — and, of course, this has been open government week — the Office of Management and Budget issued a series of policies, while agencies issued their open government plans.

Federal News Radio’s Max Cacas reports on the plans and policies:

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You can find Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s ongoing coverage of the open government initiative here.

Before the plans were released, I posted DorobekINSIDER: Assessing transparency and open government.

The top level resources:

* The DorobekINSIDER reader from May 22, 2009 on the open government and transparency initiative — yes, this all is a work in progress

* The White House open government site, which has a lot of good information but buries links to agency open government plans in the open government dashboard.

* OMB director Peter Orszag blog post: OMB and Open Government, which includes a link to the four OMB open government policies — also listed below — and to OMB’s open government plan.

* White House Office of Science and Technology Policy blog post by Norm Eisen, Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform:
Open for Change, which he says will “strengthen our democracy and promote accountability, efficiency and effectiveness across the government.”

* GovLoop has a great chart of all the agency open government plans

OMB policies

* Social Media, Web-Based Interactive Technologies, and the Paperwork Reduction Act [PDF] [Flash version]

* Information Collection under the Paperwork Reduction Act [PDF]

* Increasing Openness in the Rulemaking Process – Use of the Regulation Identifier Number (RIN) [PDF]

* Open Government Directive – Federal Spending Transparency [PDF]

Discussion about the policies and open government:

* Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller: Idling in the driveway: “Sigh. I feel like a disappointed parent.”

* Sunlight’s Jake Brewer has told open government advocates:

Put simply, it’s increasingly clear government is not going to become more open and transparent without extraordinary public pressure. And WE are going to have to be the ones to put that pressure on them.

You can help right now by joining our campaign for open government and signing the pledge to demand all public government information be available ONLINE and in REAL-TIME.

http://PublicEqualsOnline.com

* GovLoop has a fascinating discussion, “What Do You Think about OMB Soc Media and PRA Guidance?”
Much of that discussion has revolved around the Paperwork Reduction Act — and a strong frustration that it really hinders agencies flexibilities.

A sample of some of the discussion:

This is fairly far from awesome. I’d actually label it fairly disappointing. Not only are both documents written to be as vague as possible (the PRA primer, for instance, spends most of its text simply repeating statute), this doesn’t really get us where we need to be…

More disappointing from my standpoint, it keeps in place the notion that citizen interaction with the government is essentially a “burden” and still codifies the position that significant interaction with the public should be minimized (this is clearly contrary to open government).

The discussion has spurred me to actually print out the Paperwork Reduction Act and read it for myself to get a sense of what it actually says. My sense is that some of what OMB is trying to do is work within the constraints of the law — a law enacted in the early 1980s before hardly anybody even had e-mail addresses.

* More on the Paperwork Reduction Act and its role from OnDotGov.com: A Few Things on the New Paperwork Reduction Act Guidance

* GovLoop also has a discussion on the open government plan: Open Gov plans cheers and jeers

* GovTwit’s blog: Open Government Day brings new guidance from OMB

* InformationWeek: Government Social Media Restrictions Eased
The guidance makes it easier for agencies to use social media and requires steps to ensure better rule-making and spending transparency.

* TechPresident’s Nancy Scola: Use Social Media Freely, White House Tells Agencies [April 7, 2010]

* TechPresident’s Micah Sifry: Open Govt: Does the Govt Know What the Govt Knows? [April 7, 2010]: “Let’s remember that announcing a plan isn’t the same thing as getting the job done”

* Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy: Major Milestone Reached in Open Government Initiative: “We should recognize that the 120 day mark is really just a starting point, not an endpoint.”

Meanwhile, how would you grade the Obama administration’s open government initiative so far:

Previous DorobekINSIDER readers:

* The DorobekInsider transparency, openness and data.gov reader [May 22, 2009]
* The DorobekInsider reader: Obama cyber policy review [May 29, 2009]
* The DorobekInsider Reader: National Security Personnel System recommendations [August 31, 2009]
* The DorobekInsider Reader: Veterans Day [November 11, 2009]
* The DorobekInsider reader: Howard Schmidt as cybersecurity coordinator [December 23, 2009]
* The DorobekInsider Reader: Martin Luther King Jr. [January 18, 2010]

DorobekINSIDER: Assessing transparency and open government

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Last weekend, open government advocates gathered in Washington, DC for the second Transparency Camp — an un-conference, which is one of these events where bright people come together and decide what they want to talk about. Read the Twitter feed from that event by checking out #tcamp2010 — and even the Washington Post wrote a story about the event this year.

I could only be there on the second day, but there were great folks with great ideas…

I have been fascinated by the Obama administration’s transparency and open government initiative. Among previous posts:

The DorobekInsider transparency, openness and data.gov reader [May 22, 2009]

DorobekInsider: The first draft from the Open Government and Innovations conference [July 21, 2009]

DorobekINSIDER: On NewsChannel 8 talking government openness and transparency — the liner notes [February 25, 2010]

Signal magazine column: Why Transparency Matters [May 2009]

Signal magazine column: Contract Transparency Poised to Open Up [September 2009]

And O’Reilly media has just published a book Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice. I’ve just started it, but… the early parts of the book are well worth reading.

And this coming week will be a big week for the open government as the Office of Management and Budget and agencies will issue their open government plans.

There were several interesting aspects that came out of transparency camp.

* Most agencies get transparency: Most of the employees I know get transparency and open government. They understand why it matters and how it can help. In theory, they get that one of the powerful parts of transparency is the acknowledgment that more wisdom exists outside any organization than it does inside an organization. That being said, there is a difference between theory and practice. At Transparency Camp 2010, there were a number of staffers from Capitol Hill, which, by and large, is horrible at transparency. And some of the Hill staffers even suggested that if bills are created in a more open framework, well, that’s what staffers do. And the argument is that they know more then… well, those people out there.

Even still, the theory of transparency is one of those ideas that goes against the grain. It’s akin to the Mike Causey example that he uses for investing: When a car starts sliding on ice, you’re supposed to turn into the slide. It just doesn’t feel natural. In many ways, transparency is unnatural.

Furthermore…

* Transparency and open government still isn’t fully defined: As I said last year, transparency continues something akin to a Rorschach test — everybody sees transparency very differently. Each person has very different ways of defining what transparency means and how it can be implemented. A lot of that is good at this point — it is important to note that we are still very early in this and everybody is still learning. But it will be interesting to see how it actually gets implemented.

* Transparency and open government moves a lot of cheese around… and I’ll take a simple example: Freedom of Information Act Requests. It has always seemed to me that this is a process that is just made for openness and transparency. Why can’t all FOIA requests be posted in a public fashion… and agency responses be posted online. One reason: We journalists don’t want others knowing what we are working on.

* Open government and transparency needs to help government operate better: If this is going to take hold — if this is going to be real, I continue to believe that it needs to help agencies do their jobs better.

* Open government and transparency aren’t just a bludgeon: In many ways, Recovery.gov is the poster child for transparency and open government. In fact, Earl Devaney, the chairman of the Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board told Federal News Radio that the transparency of the site actually has helped the Recovery Board operate more effectively. But it has been difficult at times. We remember the stories about the recovery dollars that were listed in phantom congressional districts. And everybody went nuts. The fact is that incorrect data was probably always there. We just didn’t know it before. Now we know — and it has been fixed. In fact, that is the power of open government, transparency and collaboration. Yet too often we use it as a bludgeon.

The fact is, this is new — and there are going to be mistakes.

But there are real opportunities out there. One of my favorites is the Better Buy Project. This is an innovative initiative by GSA, the National Academy of Public Administration’s Collaboration Project, and the Industry Advisory Council. And the goal is to build a better acquisition process by tapping the wisdom of the crowds, something I had discussed last year. They are actually trying it. The Better Buy Project started in the GovLoop Acquisition 2.0 community, then evolved to a way of having people suggest ideas (hear GSA’s Mary Davie talk about it on Federal News Radio) … and it is now a wiki where you can actually help GSA build a better contract both for Data.gov and for the replacement of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service’s mainframe computers. More on this later this week, but… it is such a remarkable way of seeking people’s ideas.

We’ll be talking to the folks at GSA who are leading this project later this week. You can also read more on the Better Buy blog.

There are many examples and ideas how transparency and open government can help agencies do their jobs better. It is fun to watch!

DorobekINSIDER: On NewsChannel 8 talking government openness and transparency — the liner notes

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UPDATE: See the video of me on NewsChannel 8 here.

I will be on DC’s NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Tonight — and we’re going to talk about the Obama administration’s transparency and open government initiative.

Of course, on January 21, 2009, President Obama, in one of his first acts, signed the open government directive. That set out a process that took longer then many people expected, but agencies from February 6 through March 19 are in the process of looking for citizen input on their open government plans.

This is part of a pretty amazing change in mindset for agencies — asking for help.

But there is a broader question about the open government initiative: Does it help agencies accomplish their missions better?

The poster child for transparency is the Recovery.gov Web site — it is the Web site for the Recovery, Transparency and Accountability Board to demonstrate how the $787 billion stimulus bill is being spent. And in many ways, the recovery board has been bludgeoned by transparency — and we all remember the stories about the incorrect congressional districts that were on the Recovery.gov Web site. But many open government advocates suggest these kinds of incorrect data are the reason for transparency — the data was fixed because it was identified and highlighted. It was part of the idea behind transparency and open government –crowdsourcing oversight. And open government advocates suggest that those kinds of data errors are there, but it often will go un-fixed. In the case of Recovery.gov, it has been fixed because of openness and transparency.

Last week on Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, we spoke to Jake Brewer, director of engagement at the Sunlight Foundation, about his piece, 9 assumptions at the heart of open government. His take was that this is important for government — and you can hear that conversation here.

But if open government is to really take hold, it has to be more than theory — it has to be more then apple pie. It has to actually enable agencies to better accomplish their missions. And there is some early evidence that transparency and open government does have an impact on how people view their government.ForeSee Results, the company that does assessments of how well citizens trust government Web sites, has recently completed the first of its kind survey of how people — citizens — view transparency and open government. They call it the E-Government Transparency Index [registration required]. And Larry Freed, the president and CEO of ForeSee Results, tells Federal News Radio that there is a very real  impact.

If you make your Web site more transparent — if you make government more transparent — not only are you going to have the feel-good things that are so important about how citizens feel and how they trust government, but it’s actually going to lower the cost of delivering information, because more and more people will utilize the Web to get that information.

Hear our conversation with Freed here.

But there is a larger concept at play here — the concept of “we the people.” It is part of the concept behind government 2.0 and, without being too melodramatic, democracy — that is that all of us are smarter then each of us individually. There are now tools out there that enable people to tap into the wisdom of crowds — and that demands openness and transparency.

And tonight on News Channel 8’s Federal News Tonight in the 7:30p ET half-hour.

Meanwhile, some resources on the Obama administration’s open government and transparency initiative.

* The Open Government Tracker — a “dashboard” of the open government initiative tracking ideas, comments and votes from most agency open government forums… created by feds during “snowmagedon.”

* The DorobekINSIDER Reader: Transparency, open government and data.gov [[May 22, 2009]

* The White House Open Government page

* Federal News Radio: ‘Trust framework’ adoption makes federal agencies more open

* Government Executive: Analysis: Transparent leadership starts from within

Written by cdorobek

February 23, 2010 at 6:25 PM

DorobekInsider poll: Grade President Obama’s first year — from a insider’s perspective

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Today, of course, marks the anniversary of the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States — and there are all sorts of assessments of his first year going on right now. (Some of the assessments have been muted because of the coverage of the Haiti earthquake and, of course, the Massachusetts Senate race.)

But what is your assessment of the Obama administration’s first year — the government community? The insiders who have seen presidents come and go…

So it’s time to grade.

How has President Obama done overall?

How has President Obama done on technology issues and open government?

How has President Obama done on management, government performance and procurement issues?

Written by cdorobek

January 20, 2010 at 2:59 PM

DorobekInsider: The Better Buy Project — the liner notes

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I have mentioned that I will be moderating a panel on Wednesday morning talking about the Better Buy Project, which is an innovative collaborative platform for improving the government procurement process. Find more at betterbuyproject.com. There is more information on the ACT/IAC Web site here.

Here are the details:

We are pleased to announce the next IAC Executive Session featuring The BetterBuy Project on December 16th, 2009 from 9:00am – 10:30am at The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), 900 7th Street, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20001.

The BetterBuy Project, a collaborative initiative between the General Services Administration (GSA), the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) and the National Academy for Public Administration (NAPA), has become front page news and has captured the attention of both government and industry acquisition professionals. The initiative is focused on collecting ideas that will make the federal acquisition process more open, transparent and participatory through the implementation of collaborative processes and collaborative technology.

Come and learn more about this dynamic project and how it could change – for the better – the way the government buys products and services.

BetterBuy Panelists:

  • Chris Dorobek, Managing Editor of FederalNewsRadio.com and Co- Anchor of the afternoon Federal News Radio program (Moderator)
  • Mary Davie, Assistant Commissioner of GSA’s Office of Assisted Acquisition Services
  • Peter Tuttle, Senior Procurement Policy Analyst with Distributed Solutions, Inc.
  • Chris Hamm, Operations Director of GSA’s Federal Systems Integration and Management Center (FEDSIM)
  • Esther Burgess, SVP and Deputy COO of Vistronix, Inc.
  • Lena Trudeau, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the National Academy for Public Administration (NAPA)

On Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, we spoke with Davie about the Better Buy Project. Hear that conversation here.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Steve Kelman wrote about the Better Buy Project in his FCW.com blog The Lectern under the headline, Better Buy: Crowdsourcing at work in acquisition forum:

The basic idea behind the Better Buy project is so-called “crowdsourcing.” The Better Buy Web site invites people to propose ideas for improving the procurement process. Others are then invited to vote on which ideas they like best — each computer from which a person votes is allowed a total of up to 20 votes, of which up to three may be allocated to a given proposal. People may also post comments about the proposals.

Read more from Kelman here.

Some details of what has happened so far:

  • 88 unique ideas submitted
  • 223 voters
  • 761 votes cast

At the forum, we’re going to talk about how this came about and how difficult it was… and what has worked well and what can be improved.

I love this project because it is a group of people talking in the GovLoop Acquisition 2.0 community who decided to make something happen — and they are trying it. I think there will be many lessons learned.

If you have thoughts, I hope you will share your ideas.

Some FAQ information from the Better Buy Project:

Why the Federal Acquisition Process?

On his first day in office, President Obama challenged leaders in government to “use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.” The acquisition process represents one of the most important areas of collaboration between government and the private sector.

Unfortunately, it is also among the most complex and least transparent. The Better Buy Project is an experiment dedicated to the belief that there’s a lot of room for improvement in the way government buys products and services. We’re testing this hypothesis by asking for your ideas on how to make acquisition process more open, transparent and collaborative.

The best part of this project is that the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) GSA would really like to adopt some of your best ideas. Promising ideas will be selected by GSA to be piloted on an upcoming acquisition, where lessons learned will be captured for future implementation. But that really depends on us, and the ideas we’re able to produce.

What Topics Are At Issue?

This project is concerned primarily with the pre-contract-award stages of the acquisition process—the activities that take place before the government “signs on the dotted line” to buy a product or service. Those areas are:

  • Market Research and Requirements Definition Phase—Includes publicizing agency needs and requirements, and refining them based on further input and research about current capabilities.
  • Pre-Solicitation Phase—Includes web-based research, discussions with other federal agencies, meetings and open discussion forums with the private sector to discuss potential solutions, and requests for information soliciting input and ideas. The requirements are also further refined at this stage in the process.
  • Solicitation Phase—Includes the government notifying the private sector of the requirement through various channels such as E-Buy and FedBizOpps, holding open forums to discuss the requirement and answer questions (e.g., Industry Days), a review of the solicitation by interested companies, the written exchange between government and the private sector of questions, answers and clarifications on government requirements, and proposal submissions.

The ultimate goal is to improve how government learns about and chooses what it buys—in other words, to make government a more informed, more effective consumer.

What Kind of Feedback Are You Looking For?

We are looking for ideas to make federal acquisition more open, transparent, and collaborative. What does that mean?

  • Open—Raise awareness of upcoming needs government is trying to fulfill, in order to assemble a pool of qualified providers who can compete on specific requirements.
  • Transparent—Give the public and interested parties timely data on upcoming and ongoing buying activities, with the goal of promoting fair and high-quality competitions.
  • Collaborative—Find ways for the government to engage in more ‘open’ conversations with the private sector on topics such as best practices, emerging technologies and innovations, and market conditions.

We believe that making the process more open, transparent and collaborative will make government more likely to end up with the right item at the right price.

Written by cdorobek

December 15, 2009 at 1:42 PM

DorobekInsider: The liner notes: Why blog — or Web 2.0 — anyway?

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On Monday, I am part of an event focused on the use of Web 2.0 in the government market hosted by government marketing guru Mark Amtower titled, Social Networking for B2G: Who’s Doing What, Why and How Can It Create a Fuller Pipeline for your Company in 2010. Specifically, I’m on a panel talking about blogging with Debbie Weil and Mark Drapeau. Other topics through the day include Twitter and Amtower favorite LinkedIn.

As I said, they have me scheduled to talk about blogging — and I guess it is because I’ve been doing it for a long time now, at least for this market and in terms of this market. I started blogging at Federal Computer Week more than four years ago… that blog has now morphed into theDorobekInsider. And more than a 17 months ago, I wrote a post headlined, Some tips to bloggers. I’ll amplify on it here… and alter some because, as we know, 17 months is near a lifetime in the Web 2.0 world… even the gov 2.0 world… And in January, even before theDorobekInsider moved to FederalNewsRadio.com, I wrote: Why blog? And welcome to another government CIO blogger: GSA’s Casey Coleman.

So in preparation for the Amtower event, I’ll just review the ‘why blog’ question… and then update some of my tips… and I’d love to hear your take on them.

First — why blogs?

Blogs have been around for awhile — at least I don’t have to explain what a blog is anymore.

They seem so simple, but from a journalistic standpoint, what an absolute revolution — putting publishing into the hands of… anybody… everybody. Absolutely remarkable.

But blogs also fit into the Dorobek definition of Web 2.0 — these are tools that enable information sharing. We have always understood that information is power, but what we are learning is that the real power of information comes when that information is shared. Blogs are one way to broaden that conversation. And in the government space, we have seen that with Rob Carey, the CIO at the Department of the Navy, the first government CIO to blog… Linda Cureton, now the NASA CIO, who is a regular blogger… and GSA CIO Casey Coleman, who has both a private blog within GSA and a public blog titled, Around the Corner : Innovation in the Business of Government: A GSA Blog. We spoke to Coleman on Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris about the blog and why she does it.

In fact, Cureton wrote a very thoughtful blog post about blogging… and that spurred me to invite her to chat about it on Federal News Radio 1500 AM. Cureton clearly uses her blog as a way of thinking about issues in a very public — and very transparent — way. Again — my definition of Web 2.0: These are merely tools that tap into the theory that all of us are smarter then each of us individually. They tap into the theory that information is power — and that shared information becomes exponentially more valuable when it is shared. So Cureton thinks about issues and problems — and decisions that might otherwise seem out of the blue are suddenly clear… there can be buy-in… and it makes our decisions very human. Transparency and accountability — and, I would argue, leadership — require courage. It takes intestinal fortitude to step out and make your ideas very public. People can disagree — and there is still the ‘got ya’ culture out there. So I give these leaders a lot of credit. Carey and Cureton and Coleman are demonstrating that this tool can be an important part of leadership.

So I think blogs are an important step towards transparency and tapping into the wisdom of the crowds.

Cureton listed her reasons for blogging:

The truth of the matter … that I am not comfortable and I am afraid.  So, why do I blog?  Here are my reasons:

  • To learn and demonstrate the value of Web 2.0 technologies supporting the spirit of innovation that should be required of a NASA CIO
  • To communicate to stakeholders and customers the activities and issues related to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center IT Transformation
  • To focus my thoughts and learning to the things that matter in my role as the CIO

A very different example is the TSA blog, which has helped TSA improve their processes.

How to actually do it?

As  I mentioned, more than 17 months ago while at Federal Computer Week, I posted tips for bloggers. I have tweaked them below:

* Content is king… Write about something that matters — to you, to the community, to your organization — I mean that in the broadest sense of the word, but…

* Have a notion… Have an idea why you’re doing this and what you want to get across and the audience you’re trying to reach. Who are you writing this for? It makes a big difference.

* Understand that notion will change… My experience is that blogs evolve. And how you use them will evolve.

* Post regularly… If a blog is going to work, you have to post regularly. Find some regular interval and make the time. But realize that this does take time. The corollary to that is… And yes, regularly can mean daily… or monthly, but do it regularly.

* Integrate your blog into your life… This one is important. If it is going to work and be sustainable, you need to work it into your life. So, for example, if you are working on a security policy, blog about it. What better way to show people that you are pondering the issue — and get others insights. The same can be true about whatever you are working on. Ponder how much time you spend on documents and — god help us — e-mail messages responding to one issue or another. Rather then just sending an e-mail message, turn it into a blog post and send others the link to that post. Blogs are an opportunity to be real — and I think people will appreciate the work you do and the challenges you face much more.

* Don’t let perfection get in the way of the good… We hear this so often, but it is particularly true in the blogging world. Blogs are iterative. I often kick myself because I’ll think about some post several times. Well, just break it up into pieces. Don’t write the great American novel. Write the OK chapter or the not-bad paragraph. It is about sharing thoughts — and the people who are expecting perfection in a blog have come to the wrong place and, frankly, should go somewhere else.

* Appreciate comments… Even critical ones. Yes, bosses. It isn’t always easy, but… relish in the discussion. It is going on. It’s it better to be a part of that discussion rather then having it go on without yo ? (And in the government world, comments can be hard to come by. Know your audience and realize that feds have been burned before for speaking. It takes time.)

* Time management… The one thing you will hear from any blogger is frustration about time. And you need to realize and understand that this does take time. I have found that it works best if I have a time that I blog — each and every day. Some people have done multiple-user blogs to defray the time cost.

* Don’t discount what you do… This one frustrates me the most — and I’ve heard it from CIOs. They say, ‘Who would want to read what I work on?’ And most government folks will probably have this notion. Have you looked at some of the blogs out there? If you build a community of even a few hundred people and get a few new notions of a better way of doing your job or creating a policy, it could be worth it. This community works on important issues and important programs. Please don’t discount that.

* Just do it… Really — just do it. By doing it, you will learn… and this stuff isn’t as difficult as you make it out to be.

* Share… Share your lessons learned, share your ideas, share your thoughts. Be open to what might happen.

Written by cdorobek

December 7, 2009 at 10:44 AM

DorobekInsider: USDA gets push back on massive management reorg, GovExec reports; USDA remains silent

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We have been telling you about a number of management reorganizations going on at a number of federal agencies — the Department of Health and Human Services… the Department of Veterans Affairs has named W. Todd Grams to be VA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Management… and just yesterday, Federal News Radio’s Max Cacas was on the Daily Debrief with an update from OPM Director John Berry on that organization’s management shuffle, which I assume is tied to a yet-to-be-named OPM CIO, who will apparently get more authority at the Office of Personnel Management. (I’m not hearing a name yet. You?)

But the one that has created the most consternation is the massive reorganization at the Agriculture Department that essentially create a uber-USDA “Departmental Administration” — including operations such as procurement, IT, human resources and finance. You can read the documents and the new organization chart here… and read the USDA statement on the management reorg here.

I’ve been pushing USDA to talk about it — to no avail. But I have been getting all sorts of e-mail about it — and it was the subject of much discussion at ACT/IAC’s Executive Leadership Conference recently — even for the short time I was there. The big concern: Unlike the other reorganizations that are going on, the USDA plan seems to be a significant downgrade for both the CIO and the CFO — without any real explanation. And there had already been concern when the Obama administration decided to downgrade the USDA CIO from a political to a career post — again, without explanation.

And Government Executive’s Robert Brodsky has a good get — apparently the USDA CFO, Evan Segal, has “left his position, at least temporarily,” GovExec reports. Segal had been nominated in July.

From the GovExec story:

…Shortly after the [reorg] announcement, Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed, who will run the new office, told Government Executive the plan has the support of the workforce and “the vast majority of employees feels that this was the right thing to do.”

But some employees oppose the effort. In November, Evan Segal, who became chief financial officer in July, objected to the management structure during a meeting with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, according to sources whose offices are affected by the reorganization. Those sources spoke on condition they not be identified…

Segal has left his position, at least temporarily. “Mr. Segal has requested a leave of absence and he may choose to leave USDA to pursue other opportunities, but we have granted him time away to decide what he wants to do,” a USDA spokesperson told Government Executive. Segal did not respond to requests for comment, and an automated reply to his USDA e-mail account said he is “out of the office and will not have regular access to this account.”

Employees in the offices of Operations, Civil Rights and Human Capital Management — now renamed the Office of Human Resource Management — also have spoken out against the changes.

“Things are absolutely chaotic,” said one veteran USDA staffer whose office is affected by the restructuring. “I lived through previous reorganizations, and they are usually clear-cut. But there is no plan in place here. It seems to change day by day.” Another employee, who has been with the agency for several decades, said people are “unbelievably rattled, upset and disoriented.”

Read the full GovExec story here.

USDA has done an awful job of handling this entire process — and it is failing because of that. Their press organization, frankly, ought to be embarrassed.

They argue that they have been transparent — and, to be fair, USDA has created a portal with information about the management reorganization. But it is not available publicly — and despite numerous attempts to offer up a platform for officials to talk about what they are doing and why, they simply refuse. And the hole just keeps getting deeper.

Inherently, this seems to violate the upcoming, soon-to-be-released Obama administration openness and transparency initiative, which suggests that information should be released publicly unless there is a legitimate reason. What possible reason is there to not discuss these moves in a open and public way?

The USDA CIO and CFO organizations have been widely seen as in disarray for years now — and they are widely seen as the place nobody wants to work. And none of this is helping.

I continue to hope that USDA officials will try a different strategy and talk about what they are trying to do openly… tap into the remarkable wisdom of USDA — and of this community.

Federal News Radio continues to offer an open platform for USDA officials to talk about their strategy. As we always do, we will bend intopretzel shapes to be fair — but at this point, there are real questions out there that need to be answered.

Written by cdorobek

November 18, 2009 at 9:00 AM

DorobekInsider: USDA officials offer more details on management reorganization

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We told you about the major reorganization of the Agriculture Department’s management structure.

The plan — and you can read all the documents here — essentially creates an uber-USDA “Departmental Administration” that includes most of the management functions — procurement, IT, HR, finance and budget — all under one umbrella.

I haven’t been able to get somebody at USDA to talk about it officially yet — we’re still working on it. But USDA spokesman Justin DeJong provided me with this statement:

We take our responsibility to ensure we use hard-earned taxpayer dollars wisely, and these changes will help us to serve more people and in a more efficient and effective manner. By optimizing and streamlining the various operations, we plan to eliminate duplicate functions; improve quality of services and communications; and streamline processes and improve transparency to our customers. Ultimately, effective USDA management means effective results for taxpayers and the people USDA serves.

We began having discussions with employees and unions in the early months of the new administration. On June 18, all employees received a letter from Secretary Vilsack about the pending reorganization. This letter was followed by further discussions, meetings and additional outreach to employees and unions, in addition to the required notifications.

The CFO and CIO will continue to have the opportunity to report directly to the Secretary on core responsibilities as outlined in statute. There will be no Reduction in Force (RIF) associated with this reorganization. No employee will lose pay or grade.

I’m happy that USDA is talking about this in a more public, transparent way…. and I continue to hope that they will come on Federal News Radio 1500 AM to discuss the thinking behind the really massive change.

And before focusing on the specifics of the plan itself, I think the way that it is rolled out is important.

To be fair, DeLong and I had a discussion about the transparency of this initiative. And he correctly notes — both in our conversation and in the written statement — that Secretary Vilsack sent out a letter in June to employees and all of the documents about the reorganization are posted on the agency’s Intranet. But this specifically want not discussed in any kind of public way.

My point to him is that this is not just a USDA internal matter — it has broad ramifications about how USDA is run and, frankly, there are people who have ideas and thoughts outside of the agency. It seems to me, that is at the heart of the Obama transparency initiative — agencies should only keep information locked down if there is a reason for that information to be locked down. Frankly, I spoke to several people on Capitol Hill yesterday and they hadn’t heard of the reorganization. Using the Obama transparency and openness measures — transparency, participatory, and collaborative — it sure seems like business as usual.

I think USDA missed out on an opportunity to tap into the collective wisdom — and build support for the idea of a changed management structure. And management issues are ones that particularly touch the employee, so I certainly hope that USDA will not use this as a model for how they view openness and transparency. In the end, if transparency is only within your organization, it fails — and, in the end, it isn’t any different then what has been done in the past.

On the issue of the reorganization itself…

There are still a number of questions out there:

  • How does USDA envision this working?
  • Nobody disagrees that agencies need to spend money wisely. How does this reorganization spur that?
  • What spurred this kind of massive change?
  • What data demonstrates that a single organization works better then a diversified one? Or is the decision based on philosophy?
  • What will this mean for the agencies within USDA? Will they all be using this uber-management organization for procurement, HR, IT, budget and finance?
  • If the organization chart specifically shows that the CIO and CFO report to the UDSA manager, how does this comply with the CFO Act or the Clinger-Cohen Act — in letter or spirit?

Furthermore, Congress Daily spoke to Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan who said she would still have budget authority, which would seem to undercut this actual management organization from the very top.

And then there are questions about the early retirements, which I understand are more complex to address.

In the end, nobody disagrees with the need to spend money wisely… and most everybody agrees that the head of an agency gets to decide how to run their organization — and different management styles work for different people. But leadership and management necessitates that people know where they are going — and why.

My concern is that USDA seems to have missed an opportunity. We have all seen many previous management overhauls that were conducted just the way this one has been so far — largely behind closed doors with, frankly, token efforts to make information available. Most of them go on to fail because they didn’t convince people that it was the right direction. They didn’t see questions as opportunities to improve the plan.

I don’t think anybody disagrees with the plan on the face of it. But buzz I keep hearing is deep concern about the role of the CIO and CFO… and why the determination was made.

Again, as I have re-read this post, it sounds harsh. I don’t mean it to be — and we look forward to getting more information.

Meanwhile, here is Congress Daily had report:

Deputy secretary asserts control over Agriculture budget
By Jerry Hagstrom
CongressDaily
October 19, 2009

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan is planning to continue running the USDA budget, despite an organizational revamp that has placed the budget office under Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed….

“I will be running the budget process at USDA,” Merrigan told CongressDaily on Friday, adding that she had presented USDA’s fiscal 2011 budget to the Office of Management and Budget and will make the presentations of future budgets.

The deputy Agriculture secretary has traditionally been in charge of developing the budget and received reports from the budget officer. But since the reorganization, which went into effect Oct. 1, farm lobbyists have worried that if an official below the level of deputy secretary made the presentations, USDA would be at a disadvantage.

Read the full story here.

Written by cdorobek

October 21, 2009 at 8:25 AM

DorobekInsider: The era of e-mail is over — or ending, the WJS says — and we are terrified

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The WSJ Monday featured a special technology section… and the lead story was about the end of e-mail.

Why Email No Longer Rules… [WSJ, Oct. 12, 2009]
And what that means for the way we communicate
Services like Twitter, Facebook and Google Wave create a constant stream of interaction among users—for better or worse.

By JESSICA E. VASCELLARO

Email has had a good run as king of communications. But its reign is over.

In its place, a new generation of services is starting to take hold—services like Twitter and Facebook and countless others vying for a piece of the new world. And just as email did more than a decade ago, this shift promises to profoundly rewrite the way we communicate—in ways we can only begin to imagine.

We all still use email, of course. But email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging off and on, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected, whether we are sitting at a desk or on a mobile phone. The always-on connection, in turn, has created a host of new ways to communicate that are much faster than email, and more fun.

Why wait for a response to an email when you get a quicker answer over instant messaging? Thanks to Facebook, some questions can be answered without asking them. You don’t need to ask a friend whether she has left work, if she has updated her public “status” on the site telling the world so. Email, stuck in the era of attachments, seems boring compared to services like Google Wave, currently in test phase, which allows users to share photos by dragging and dropping them from a desktop into a Wave, and to enter comments in near real time.

Little wonder that while email continues to grow, other types of communication services are growing far faster. In August 2009, 276.9 million people used email across the U.S., several European countries, Australia and Brazil, according to Nielsen Co., up 21% from 229.2 million in August 2008. But the number of users on social-networking and other community sites jumped 31% to 301.5 million people.

Read the full story here… and read the WSJ editor’s note about the piece here.

The story is good — and has started a wonderful conversation with more than 168 comments when I last checked — and most of them fairly angry and recalcitrant.

The WSJ story doesn’t fully capture why these other tools are expanding in popularity, particularly for businesses — it’s the collaboration aspect. Many of these tools tap into the ideas that all of us know more then each of us individually… and information is more powerful when it is shared.

I wrote about this in June in my Signal magazine column:

The First Step Toward Collaboration Is to Stop E-Mailing
E-mail works well for person-to-person communication but today there are better options.

And much of criticism of these new collaborative platforms is part of the reason why I think it is so important that we move away from the term “social media.”

There are corollaries here with the introduction of e-mail… and maybe even the introduction of the telephone. In my Signal column, I recalled when the General Services Administration, under then-administrator David J. Barram, was one of the first agencies to provide each and every person in the organization have e-mail — in fact, they made it a big deal and launched the initiative on Flag Day 1996. I remember covering this issue and I remember people asking, ‘Why would everybody need an e-mail account? Why would everybody need access to this InterWeb thing?’

GSA, thankfully, still has the press release online under the headline, “GSA Employees Join Super Information Highway through Intranet.”

That release, dated June 14, 1996, quotes Barram defining what the Internet even is. Really! How delicious is that?

The “Internet is known as the global communications network and it is being called by many experts the most promising avenue for business in existence today. Through the use of Internet, companies and government agencies worldwide are finding exciting new ways to serve their customers and communicate with each other.”

E-mail revolutionized the way we communicate… and e-mail definitely has a “social” aspect to it, but… it isn’t “social media.” It is a tool that enables organizations to do their job better and more effectively.

Unfortunately, since then, we try to use e-mail as a collaboration tool. (We send out these e-mails with 75 people cc’ed… and with some attachment. That attachment gets changed by individual people — and then we have to bring all those pieces together. Or even worse — when you are number 72 on the cc list and you may have been copied more as informational.

Today, there are better tools out there that enable real collaboration.

What is interesting are how people react to this changing landscape — mostly negatively.

Here is one comment on the WSJ piece by Jorge Diaz:

The 20 somethings (and younger) use Facebook as a tell all, as an “analog” generation guy, I find it unseemly, I don’t care about the kids’ dates, how much they drank, who they met, and so on, this is small-minded, tabloid stuff.

As an employer, facebook “history” reflects peoples character, I will not hire someone who lives an outrageous lifestyle away from work.

I have always found this assessment baffling — and, frankly, just uneducated. In fact, Facebook — or any of these tools — are not just about dating or how much they drink. And, in fact, it isn’t just kids. So this just sounds like somebody who refuses to try something new or different.

And I’ve never understood using collaboration and transparency as a bludgeon. The fact is that people do date and they do drink — and a lot of our lives are taken up by “small-minded, tabloid stuff.” So people are doing these things. This is really going to be the determining factor in hiring? Really?

Furthermore, people simply don’t talk about drinking or dating in their work environment out of context. (We are generalizing, of course, but… in general, it has been the case.) In fact, what one finds is that in work situations — enterprise 2.0 — people don’t talk about dating. They talk about work. It isn’t anonymous. It is work — so ones name is tied to what one is saying. People get that — and they take it seriously.

But there is also a real apples-to-oranges comparison that goes on with these tools. So Mr. Diaz, you are saying that none of your e-mail is about personal matters? There is no e-mail that involves “small-minded, tabloid stuff”?

I’d recommend you try some of these collaborative tools before you throw stones at them.

The other comment that struck me is this one by Jerry Cole:

Not for business. While at work, I don’t have time to watch or respond to people’s questionable quality chatter on all of these various services. Email lets me work in a disconnected fashion and respond “in bursts” when I am ready.

If you have time at the office to read about constant updates such as where a person is going to dinner, or who’s dating who then watch out, you might find yourself downsized.

Again, it seems like an apples-to-oranges comparison — there is a reason why people are connected to their CrackBerry. And I see people all the time who put their lives aside when their PDA buzzes with a new e-mail.

If you don’t like the information that people are sharing, then you are probably following the wrong people.

Over all, people’s fears seem disconnected from reality — people complain about e-mail, the amount they get, the number of unnecessary e-mails, their inability to keep up with it — and yet terrified of looking at new ways of doing business.

E-mail isn’t going away. What we’re talking about is using the right tool for the right purpose — and today, we have greater access to a wider variety of tools. I guess I remain baffled about why one would simply reject those tools outright.

Again, in my Signal magazine column, I challenged people to look at new ways of putting out information.  For managers, rather then sending out an e-mail blast, why not blog it? — put it out there for everybody to see and read and reference — and even discuss.

Written by cdorobek

October 13, 2009 at 11:19 AM

DorobekInsider: The hottest ticket in town — Roger Baker speaking at Input

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The hottest ticket in town — by far — is Input’s breakfast on Thursday, Oct. 8 featuring Roger Baker, the CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The event has more than 425 people registered already, Input insiders tell me — and we are still a few weeks out.

Yes, VA is the second largest federal agency — and it has had a history of having troubled IT systems. But, as you probably heard, Baker has just a few high profile issues on his agenda:

* The scathing IG reports: Everybody is still buzzing about the VA IG reports that came out earlier this year — and there was a congressional hearing earlier this week. Frankly, I don’t expect Baker to address these much — other then some well crafted joke about how he can’t address it. We’re hearing a lot of talk about this issue — still. (The DorobekInsider has asked many insiders for their thoughts.)

* Update on programs put on hold… Earlier this year, Baker took the somewhat unusual step of putting 45 IT programs on hold pending review. (Baker on was Federal News Radio’s In Depth program talking about it. Hear that here.) What’s the status of those… and how much of a role did the Federal IT Dashboard really play in making that decision?

* VA’s Innovation competition… In asking employees for their best ideas, the VA has come up with a few of its own. An internal competition for innovation is seen as a benchmark process ready to spread far beyond the agency’s firewalls and across the federal landscape.

It should be an interesting presentation, regardless.

Written by cdorobek

September 25, 2009 at 12:28 PM