Author: Luke Fretwell

What went wrong with the open data movement

It's what you do with the data
Photo: Code of America

Kin Lane offers insightful commentary on what went wrong with the open data movement, and why it failed to live up to initial exuberance and expectations.

Particularly pointed are his comments on open data portals, which haven’t innovated much on user experience since the first iterations created by private and nonprofit organizations. Kin doesn’t talk about the poor experience of data portals, but I think a substantive part of this failure is open data movement’s inability to capture the imagination and interest of the design community.

“Today, there are plenty of open data portals,” writes Kin. “The growth in the number of portals hasn’t decreased, but I’d say the popularity, utility, and publicity around open data efforts have not lived up to the hype.”

Secondarily, a truly sustainable, open community of open data leaders never materialized. Harvard’s Civic Analytics Network and GovEx are available, but largely inaccessible to the broader community.

Kin’s opinions are a little more anti-entrepreneurial and punk rock than mine, but it’s hard to have experienced the energy of bright technologists at the early stages of the open data movement and — seeing where it stands today — not think it’s all now extremely incremental in realizing its true potential.

Hopefully, those who consider themselves open data leaders will take the time to meditate on Kin’s thoughts and use them to reinvigorate the next iteration of the movement.

Read more: Why the Open Data Movement Has Not Delivered as Expected

NSF to governments: Science must be open, transparent, collaborative

Graduate students Erzsebet Vincent (left) and Paul Klimov (now at Google) investigate quantum bits in semiconductors at the University of Chicago’s (UChicago) Institute for Molecular Engineering. The institute is heading a new, nationwide graduate student training program for quantum science and engineering called Quantum Information Science and Engineering Network (QISE-Net), funded by the National Science Foundation.
Photo: National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation issued a statement admonishing governments that “endeavor to benefit from the global research ecosystem” and fail to uphold the agency’s values of openness, transparency and collaboration.

In the statement, NSF said:

“The values that have driven NSF and its global research partners for decades are openness, transparency, and reciprocal collaboration; these are essential for advancing the frontiers of knowledge.”

Actions NSF took to encourage governments to better cooperate with these values:

  • policy guidance for researchers on requirements to disclose foreign and domestic support
  • a study that will provide recommendations for NSF to better protect its merit review system and for grantee institutions to maintain balance between openness and security of scientific research
  • new policy requirement that NSF personnel employed can’t participate in foreign government talent recruitment programs “that may jeopardize the integrity of NSF’s mission and operations”

Statement on NSF’s commitment to secure, open international research collaboration.

Is the cloud saving government money?

Clouds over the Capitol
Photo: Architect of the Capitol

The U.S. Government Accountability Office published a bullish report on the impact cloud services has had on federal government agency technology savings.

Thirteen of 16 agencies reviewed indicated they saved $291 million between 2014 and April 2019 from cloud services use. Because of a lack of reporting standards or guidance, “it is likely that agency-reported cloud spending and savings figures were underreported,” GAO wrote in its analysis.

Read more on the GAO blog.

Coast Guard alert shows that even commercial vessel security is just basic government security

U.S. Customs & Border Protection Air & Marine Boat patrols past shipping containers.
Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Based on recent cyber incidents aboard commercial vessels, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a security alert to vessel and facility owners and operators that is essentially basic security practices, even ones that could potentially save governments from the ransomware attacks we see happening more frequently.

The report puts in perspective that basic security issues are universal and the real-world scenario documented by the Coast Guard is eye-opening and relatable to everyone:

In February 2019, a deep draft vessel on an international voyage bound for the Port of New York and New Jersey reported that they were experiencing a significant cyber incident impacting their shipboard network. An interagency team of cyber experts, led by the Coast Guard, responded and conducted an analysis of the vessel’s network and essential control systems. The team concluded that although the malware significantly degraded the functionality of the onboard computer system, essential vessel control systems had not been impacted. Nevertheless, the interagency response found that the vessel was operating without effective cybersecurity measures in place, exposing critical vessel control systems to significant vulnerabilities. Prior to the incident, the security risk presented by the shipboard network was well known among the crew. Although most crew members didn’t use onboard computers to check personal email, make online purchases or check their bank accounts, the same shipboard network was used for official business – to update electronic charts, manage cargo data and communicate with shore-side facilities, pilots, agents, and the Coast Guard. It is unknown whether this vessel is representative of the current state of cybersecurity aboard deep draft vessels. However, with engines that are controlled by mouse clicks, and growing reliance on electronic charting and navigation systems, protecting these systems with proper cybersecurity measures is as essential as controlling physical access to the ship or performing routine maintenance on traditional machinery. It is imperative that the maritime community adapt to changing technologies and the changing threat landscape by recognizing the need for and implementing basic cyber hygiene measures.

The Coast Guard security recommendations include:

Implement network segmentation.

Create network profiles for each employee, require unique login credentials, and limit privileges to only those necessary.

Be wary of external media.

Install anti-virus software.

Keep software updated.

Read the alert.

Find the truth. Tell the truth.

Washington's Inauguration, 1789 (Photo: Architect of the Capitol)
Washington’s Inauguration, 1789 (Photo: Architect of the Capitol)

“Find the truth. Tell the truth.” is a core value of the U.S. Digital Service, and Ben Damman uses the mantra to share his sentiments on how it applies to California technology projects, particularly related to the nascent Office of Digital Innovation.

While Ben’s context is California, the gist applies to governments everywhere.

The traditional operating public sector principle is to shut down the hard conversations. This is common in command and control leaderships that discourage open discussions or questioning of authority. We see this dynamic within the bureaucratic hierarchy, but also with the relationship between government and vendors.

This is important, because when digital projects fail, it’s often not the technology, but the underlying culture that sets the precedence for success or failure. Operating inside a culture of fear will inevitably lead to digital project failure.

As Ben notes, especially in this day and age, “Eventually the truth does come out, but there are usually severe consequences for kicking the can so far down the road.”

Ben’s comments here are especially important for anyone in a government leadership position:

Telling the truth creates the space necessary to actually solve a problem. It allows decision makers to see what is really happening and decide to make necessary changes. It can unleash teams; empowering them to work with confidence and clarity.

When creating a results-oriented culture, truth-telling is fundamental. I have observed that teams pursuing the truth are more focused on results.

Teams that prioritize project optics over reality usually struggle to produce desired outcomes. State leaders must recalibrate incentives. If consultants and staff are punished for telling the truth, they are not going to tell the truth — putting projects in jeopardy. Instead, truth-tellers must be rewarded. They have to feel safe and be empowered.

In my experience, teams that face facts are more able to trust each other. Low truth environments produce low trust teams. On IT projects, where collaboration and coordinated iteration are paramount, low trust translates to low performance and high conflict communication.

It turns out that telling the truth is not just a moral imperative. Over time, it is more efficient than hiding the truth. Dishonesty creates friction.

I am reminded of times when I’ve seen government employees struggle to tell the whole truth without getting into trouble. They performed verbal somersaults; twisting events to formulate a positive spin on project status, misconduct, or some obvious collective failure.

Read the full post.

Code.gov gets a U.S. Web Design System refresh

Screenshot of Code.gov

Code.gov — the platform that makes it easier to find open source code developed by the U.S. Government — announced updates that includes aesthetics aligned with the U.S. Web Design System and better adherence to accessibility standards.

We are thrilled to begin this new chapter of innovation and creativity with you. Our new approach to a definitive online presence provides Code.gov with a differentiated visual identity system to complement updated content and streamlined user resources. By no means, though, does this mean that this website is “done” and will not change. We have said before that “Technology is always in a state of flux…” and we believe in always improving our platform in order to provide a better experience for you. We will continue to review and update key elements of our website as the Internet evolves. This redesign is part of “America’s Code” so that we can offers everyone a chance to fulfill a civic duty on a digital platform, one line of code at a time.

Read more about the updates on the Code.gov blog.

Government open innovation labs

Policy Innovation Exchange – Argentina and the UK (Photo: UK Government)
Policy Innovation Exchange – Argentina and the UK (Photo: UK Government)

I’m a big proponent of the open labs concept in government, because it creates space for a more inclusive approach to innovation beyond just a position or department.

The United Kingdom and Argentina governments are working on what they call the Policy Innovation Exchange that creates the potential for a much-needed, broad-scale government-to-government open collaboration organization that addresses common issues each — and others — have.

Ultimately, what this can enable is better sharing of policies, technologies and culture exchanges, helping innovation to holistically be free beyond localized innovation bubbles.

Government labs around the world are finding ways to improve the decisions that public officials take. We are generating evidence that enables co-creation of public policies, we have an interdisciplinary perspective of problems and we prototype before implementing in order to reduce risk.

But we need to remember that our efforts are part of something bigger. Labs are changing the paradigm of thinking, designing and implementing public policies.

Perhaps it is time to move from labs learning from each other, to labs working together and executing projects jointly?

Read more about this collaboration in English or Spanish.

California levels up on digital, seeks director for new innovation office

Code California

California is officially for looking for its first director of the newly-established Office of Digital Innovation.

Individuals who aspire to lead the office can complete the interest form on the California Government Operations Agency website.

From the job description:

The Director of ODI will build a world-class team, create the culture, build the institution, and deliver real results. The Director will also become the de facto community leader and convener of innovators across the state. This is a tremendous opportunity to build a movement, and develop capabilities statewide. The Director will also provide advice and guidance to senior government officials grounded in deep experience and an understanding of what works.

In January, California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed the new innovation office as part of the state’s 2019-20 budget.

The office will reside under GovOps and “have the authority to develop and enforce requirements for departments to assess their service delivery models and underlying business processes from an end-user perspective.”

This line in the job description — placed at the end — stands out as a red flag and will cause potential external candidates or folks with little government experience from applying: “Bureaucracy-savvy. You know what it means to work in a large bureaucracy, and understand how to deliver in one.”

I’m not sure the value of requiring or communicating this, even if it looks like an afterthought, but perhaps the message is that the state does just want that experience for this first-time role. It should be noted that both the U.S. Digital Service and United Kingdom Government Digital Service were first led by outsiders who had no previous government experience.

Having said that, this is a civic technologist’s dream job, especially if you’re a Golden State resident who wants to have a major impact on how your state governments serves your fellow Californians.

Help spread the word

Idea: Procurementeers, an open, collaborative government procurement community

Procurementeers

It’s cliche to say that government procurement needs to be fixed, but much of the conversation around this topic happens randomly on social media, in a vacuum through exclusive or elusive groups, or through traditional organizations that operate in a closed, dated mindset with respect to broader inclusion or true innovation.

There are so many smart, passionate people sincerely dedicated to changing government procurement. What’s missing in this effort is a truly open, collaborative, specialized community focused on supporting one another, facilitating ideas for improvement and delivering a knowledge base of best practices.

What’s needed is stronger leadership within the disparate government procurement community to lead on these fronts. For government officials, it can’t be about how much you know about the nuances of procurement and the endless blockers that create the innovation stopgap. For vendors, it can’t be about how your product will solve all the problems. It must be about all aspects of the ecosystem coming together to have the conversation, cultivate the community and holistically transform government procurement at scale.

To help facilitate this, here’s my idea: Procurementeers, a volunteer-based, open community of civic innovators working to modernize government procurement. I’ve set up a simple website, Slack community, handbook, Twitter account, GitHub organization and starter ideas, such as a Procurement Camp and working group, for moving this project forward.

I’m not a government procurement enthusiast, but I do see a critical need for something like Procurementeers to move this much-needed transformation forward. I do not need or want to own or manage this community. I simply want to propose a way to facilitate this, so we can change procurement at scale.

My fear is that if the government procurement community — especially those who champion themselves as leaders — don’t address this topic in an open, inclusive, collaborative way, we’ll continue to experience the fixed, reductionist and incremental mindset and momentum we’ve seen to date.

Procurementeers is my attempt to inspire those who are passionate about changing government procurement with the hopes that this helps jump start your efforts.

If you’re excited about leading government procurement transformation and would like to take over Procurementeers and run with it, email me at luke@govfresh.com.