Today’s Washington Post has a story on its front page: “Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages.”
Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.”
“What does that mean in 21st-century terms? No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking.” -Washington Post
Some say that whoever has been responsible for information technology in the White House itself should be fired — but then perhaps the change of Administration just took care of that :-)
Overall, this situation is familiar to anyone who has worked in what I call “Big-G IT” or the information technology of a federal government agency. I’ve argued about its challenges and sub-optimality before: see my previous pieces on “Roadmap for Innovation: From the Center to the Edge,” and more specifically “Puncturing Circles of Bureaucracy.” In that latter piece back in March of 2008, I wrote about the “the defensive perimeters of overwhelming bureaucratic torpor,” and the frustrating reality within much of Big Government: “Federal employees have an entire complex of bizarrely-incented practices and career motivations, which make progress on technology innovation very difficult, not to mention general business-practice transformation as a whole.”
Here’s the truly frustrating, mind-bending part: it isn’t always true! Other elements of the White House have cutting-edge, world-class technologies operating day in, day out.
Deep in the White House, the Situation Room is replete with bleeding-edge communications capabilities. And the traveling presidential bubble is a secure and powerful web of instantaneous connectivity.
In fact, right in the Oval Office, it’s no secret that the President has instant-on access to a world-class Desktop Video Teleconferencing “face-phone” (DVTC) tied in securely to the world-wide Top Secret JWICS network. My old outfit (DIA) ran the network and provided the system to the White House as well – and I had the same system in my office.
President Bush routinely used his DVTC to call his Ambassador in Baghdad and senior U.S. military commanders in Iraq – with a quality of service that is astonishing (no drops, high frame rate) - you’d be pleasantly surprised and more than happy to have the same QoS in your place of work.
All this supports an argument I’ve made so often that I should trademark the phrase: the federal government is “Way Ahead and Far Behind” in technology.
From DARPA, which so often puts the edge in “cutting-edge,” to the Intelligence Community’s pockets of blazing invention and speedy deployment, to far-flung military early-adopters on the front lines, there are shining examples of invention and outside-the-box thinking within the federal government. In their specialized uses of high tech they are way ahead of the rest of the world – even Silicon Valley – and it is a shame that in large part their advances are highly classified, of necessity, because the real innovators within government rarely get their due.
And yet, right alongside, there is the mostly lumbering ox of bureaucracy, where federal workers as a whole are left far behind in access to the simplest tools of modern “knowledge work.” Outfits like GovLoop, “the premier social network connecting the government community,” are evangelizing Enterprise 2.0 practices and technologies aggressively and virally across agencies. Visionary CIOs like GSA’s Casey Coleman are implementing day after day. But for the most part such efforts are blocked in agencies and departments by short-sighted and clueless leaders who must think “2.0″ has something to do with doubling their budget.
(One corporate aside – it’s nice to have a Microsoft product like Xbox cited in the Post article as a shining example of the desired cutting-edge; spokesman Bill Burton said his move-in was “like going from an Xbox to an Atari.” But as the article also pointed out, why were the Bush White House staff left without modern desktop tools – why didn’t the White House simply upgrade its versions of Microsoft Office to Office 2007? There’s no good answer – and yet if they had, they could have used its XML framework to share information easily, power widgets, RSS feeds, and mashups just like the rest of the information-centric world is doing, even in classified environments.)
In the two earlier blog articles I referenced above from last year, I provided strategies to overcome the bureaucratic impulses and constraints on innovation and modernization. That’s really just a start. I’m excited that the new Administration – and its new Chief Technology Officer – should have carte blanche for aggressive action to close the gap between “way ahead” and “far behind,” and like the rest of the tech world I’m eager to help!
Filed under: Government, innovation, Intelligence, Microsoft, Society, Technology Tagged: | 2.0, atari, Bill Burton, blog, blogging, bureaucracy, Bush, business, Casey Coleman, collaboration, computer, computers, CTO, DVTC, Enterprise 2.0, Government, GovLoop, information, information technology, JWICS, Microsoft, Obama, political, politics, presence, security, social media, social network, social networking, social networks, tech, Technology, video teleconferencing, videoteleconferencing, VTC, Washington Post, Web 2.0, White House, Xbox