Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Memo to Our New Federal Chief Information Officer

By Dennis D. McDonald

Vivek Kundra, Washington DC’s own CIO, has been appointed Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO). According to a Washington Technology article, Kundra

“… plans to make the massive volumes of government data that isn’t sensitive available to the public through a new Web site, With more data available to the public, he said more participant would be helping to solve the nation’s difficult challenges. “

This is good news. This post covers some of my own Federal IT “wish list” items that I think the new CIO might want to address:

  1. Ensure basic cross platform access.
  2. Regarding standards, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
  3. Don’t just dump data over the fence.
  4. Pay attention to procurement.

1. Ensure basic cross platform access

I recently helped a friend apply for a Federal job via the web site. This site serves as a standardized front end to many Federal agencies’ recruiting operations.

While the process was lengthy given the structure of the application itself, we also had problems uploading her scanned college transcripts. We finally submitted the application without the transcript spending our figuring out why scanned transcripts were not uploading.

I tried multiple machines (one XP, one Vista) but no luck. It wasn’t till one hour before the cutoff date for her application that I discovered the reason: we were using Firefox as a browser. The application system required use of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to upload the scanned transcript. Since I’ve been using Firefox as my browser of choice for so long I had forgotten that some web sites still require Internet Explorer.

Anyway. Mr. Kundra, one very basic step in making government data — and services — accessible should be to test out critical processes on multiple browsers and multiple operating systems.

2. Regarding standards, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Many standards exist for the electronic storage, transmission, and representation of different kinds of data. One of OMB’s first pronouncements in the new Administration was its 54-page memo describing initial standards and policies for reporting stimulus package budget data. That’s a good sign. Mr. Kundra; as you make progress in making Federally sourced data more accessible, the value of standards in organizing, publishing, and accessing data of all types is bound to grow.

Two realities of electronic standards for managing data need to be considered:

  1. It is not unusual for multiple and/or overlapping standards to exist for managing data.
  2. The process of developing and agreeing upon standards can be complex, lengthy, and fraught with politics.

You’re aware of this but, as you have found out working in DC, sometimes it also pays to just get the data “out there.” In other words, don’t let important goals like transparency and public access get lost through adherence to too much deliberation about standards.

I’d even say it can be worthwhile to tolerate some inefficiency and difficulties with version control by releasing data that may be in a format you might feel is less than perfect.

As noted in the title of this section, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Get the data out there while you simultaneously work on developing and implementing standards.

3. Don’t just dump data over the fence.

Related to the above, be careful about just “dumping the data over the fence.” When data are released to the public, be sure to include not only documentation about the data, their structure, and their meaning, but also include access to basic tools for analyzing and viewing the data. I suggest this for two reasons:

  1. Many folks who might benefit from access to Federal data don’t have the skills or experience to manipulate or analyze data when in its “raw” form.
  2. Many of the folks who do have the skills have an axe to grind.

This is not intended to prevent the private sector from building commercial tools to access or manipulate the data in its original or commercializable ways.

One rule of thumb should be the following:

“In order for a citizen to take advantage of a legally available government service or benefit, it should not be necessary for that citizen to buy a commercial service to receive that benefit or service.”

4. Pay attention to the procurement process.

As suggested in Can Government Procurement Be Streamlined By Using Collaboration Technologies and Social Media?, I think it would make a lot of sense for government to increase its use of collaboration technologies, social media, and social networking tools in order to help make the procurement process more open, accessible, and efficient. I’ve gotten both positive and negative responses to that idea.

One procurement officer took umbrage at my suggestion that the systems could be improved this way and was convinced I had never done any business with the Federal government. Another pointed out that social networking tools, even when used in support of the procurement process, can still be used in ways to keep the bidder “at a distance” from the decisionmaker who has the knowledge of requirements and budget that are so critical to a bidder’s effective response. A third colleague,  a “grey eminence” in government management improvement circles, suggested that the Federal procurement process is a about as complex a beast to change as the Federal personnel hiring process.

Entrenched habits, regulations, business practices, processes, standards, and policies that have evolved over the millenia may not respond easily to proposed improvements in efficiency or transparency. 

He may be right, Mr. Kundra. Old ways die hard.

Still, as you approach making changes to how the Federal government operates by making data more accessible to the public, I suggest that you also track, and make public, your own experiences with managing the interface between your efforts and the Federal procurement process. As you work through rules and regulations that help or hinder your efforts, make that information public so that others can learn from your experience. Maybe you’ve already thought of this, but how about starting a blog on this topic?

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald


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