Way Ahead and Far Behind

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!

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11 Responses

  1. Welcome to the bureaucracy, Mr. President! Some of us having been living with it for years and wouldn’t be sad at all to see lots of change where technology policy is concerned!

  2. “Way ahead and far behind” is so true. The same inequity exists in local gov, where we have shot-spotting technology but not everybody has office e-mail.
    I wish Obama and Co. success in putting together a comprehensive technology plan for 3 million employees.

  3. So sadly and very true. At least the WH now has leadership that wants to be connected and understands the issues. Typically federal leaders are too old and out of touch to even know what connected means in today’s world, and avoid connectivity out of ignorance and the irrational fear that comes with it.

  4. It wasn’t the White House that hindered the transition at federal agencies to modern and integrated technology. I was a federal CIO responsible for implementing the President’s e-government initiatives – yes, this President wanted to modernize government IT! – and my biggest obstacle was entrenched career civil servants who either didn’t want to follow the lead of the IT staff because it meant relinquishing control, feared losing their jobs or importance due to advancements in technology, or were just afraid of change because they had a nice, comfortable gig going and didn’t want a lot of disruption. Oh, and let’s not forget the 535 princes and princesses on Capitol Hill who think they own selected federal agencies and to whom the career force runs and tells whenever they’re not happy.

    Clinton had no better success with Reinventing Government. I wish President Obama well but unless he’s willing to punish agencies who don’t play well with others by withholding funds or firing people, and unless he’s willing to butt heads with a Congress that can cut off funds for his technology initiatives if they’re not convinced of the value (i.e., what’s in it for them), he won’t get any further than his predecessors.

  5. Hi Ron – I understand & endorse what you’re saying. While I was at another government agency (2003-07) I faced the same dichotomy of “strong desire to reform” vs “entrenched obstacles to reform.”

    I wrote a bit about that in those previous posts, and Ron you might also enjoy the little story at the beginning of this:
    http://lewisshepherd.wordpress.com/2009/01/07/swap-panetta-and-blair-a-modest-proposal/

    Thanks – and keep in touch, I’d like to hear more about what you’re doing now – lewis

  6. Thanks, Lewis. I read your article and I agree with it wholeheartedly. Much of the inertia we experienced centered around the mythology that what a particular agency did was unique and therefore couldn’t be aggregated/integrated with like functions within the agency or across the federal government. We in the IT business have the know how, however, to make it happen if the folks on the business side would work with us to make it happen. It requires a champion with clout at the top and some deft relationship-building at the peer level for federal CIOs to move things forward. A lot of career federal CIOs don’t have those skills because they were promoted from purely technical jobs into what is essentially a management and thought leadership role.

    As to what I’m doing these days, it’s been an up and down road since I left my appointed position with the government. I’m currently with ManTech awaiting my suitability to return to DHS and support the director of the National Cyber Security Division, but it’s been six months now without any progress on that front and I could be facing my third layoff in 15 months. Quite a change from being a federal CIO and helping to stand up DHS as the de facto deputy CIO under Steve Cooper. I like your articles and the insight they contain – I look forward to keeping in touch! BTW, Casey Coleman is a dear friend of mine – thanks for highlighting her!

  7. Your “way-ahead, far-behind” formulation is spot on. If we stop and take stock of all the technological marvels across the government, it’s pretty impressive, from defense to shuttle launches to finance. The issue now seems to focus more on whether the worker-bee desktop is adequate to the task, or even familiar looking. Scores of Gen Y’ers streaming in with years of experience with sleek consumer products like MacBooks, iPhones, soc media applications and PlayStations are going to be shocked at a USG desktop setup. But then, very real government issues like security, support, record-keeping and funding affect enterprise deployments in a way that consumers never have to contemplate. I think that goes a long way to explaining (though not necessarily justifying) the gap.

  8. Steve – I know you’re right (unfortunately) about the GenY new hires… I used to have a little spiel I’d give new people in my group, sort of a variant of the “way ahead, but sadly far behind in areas refrain. Thanks for commenting – I’m enjoying reading your new blog as well. -lewis

  9. Lewis:
    As the former head of a research organization, do you think that fed acquisition regulations impede our ability to perform research?

    Ron:
    I call your problem (career civil servants) the “tyranny of the 15s.” It’s incredible how they can stand in the way of modernization and innovation.

    • On whether the FAR and its equivalents impede “our ability to perform research” – not directly. But they certainly impede our ability to identify, adopt, and deploy modern software and systems from commercial companies, particularly research-heavy startups. There’s a cyclical effect, therefore, in which the organization’s baseline of software & systems is inevitably dated and sub-optimal, which winds up distorting the ability to prioritize and resource properly new research. So, vicious cycle. Really a shame.

  10. Wow. I didn’t want to bias your answer, but I think the FAR is disastrous for commercial technology insertion. That is something I’d like to see a Federal CTO work on.

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