Congress

New center wants to help Congress grok deep space, deep fakes

U.S. Capitol

The U.S. Government Accountability Office launched a new Center for Strategic Foresight to help Congress better understand issues related to emerging notorious technologies, such as deep space and deep fakes, that impact a well-functioning democracy.

From the announcement:

“The Center for Strategic Foresight helps to keep us agile by encouraging creative and critical thinking on the latest trends facing government and society. Our goal is to stay focused on Congress’ top policy priorities and to help prepare policymakers for future challenges.”

GAO created the Center to enhance its ability to identify, monitor, and analyze emerging issues. Located in GAO’s Office of Strategic Planning and External Liaison, the Center is a unique entity in the federal government, one that reflects the non-partisan independent watchdog agency’s broad mandate to provide Congress with reliable, fact-based information for overseeing federal agencies and programs. 

Details: Deep Space & Deep Fakes: New “Center for Strategic Foresight” Launched

GAO tells Defense Department to ‘fully implement’ open source pilot program

Photo: U.S. Defense Department
Photo: U.S. Defense Department

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report assessing the lackluster status of the Defense Department’s open source pilot program, saying that until the agency effectively implements this, “the department will not be positioned to take advantage of significant cost savings and efficiencies.”

The Office of Management and Budget issued its federal source code policy in August 2016 requiring federal agencies to improve the way they buy, build, and deliver software solutions through the use of open source code. Part of the policy includes implementing agency-specific open source software pilot programs. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 mandated that DOD initiate its pilot by June 2018.

Key excerpts:

A program manager from the Defense Information Systems Agency reported that the agency had identified an OSS solution that provided more functionality at less cost than the commercial solution provided through a vendor. The program manager explained that when the agency implemented the new OSS solution, it realized $20 million in annual savings over the commercial solution that had been maintained by a vendor.

A program manager from the Defense Information Systems Agency reported that the selection of an OSS solution rather than a COTS solution contracted through a vendor had resulted in increased efficiency. The official explained that the use of the OSS solution allowed the agency to develop and maintain in-house skills that would not have been available had they opted to contract with a vendor providing a skilled workforce.

In interviews with GAO, DOD personnel expressed mixed views on open source software with respect to security, however, “an official in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics reported that, as long as OSS is properly vetted to ensure it is secure and free from malware, it offers an opportunity for the department to achieve cost savings and efficiencies.”

According to GAO, DOD says it will “update its OSS memorandum by the end of the 2019 calendar year and issue it as policy.”

Full report: DOD Needs to Fully Implement Program for Piloting Open Source Software

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.

Federal government progress in IT reform

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a status report on federal government technology reform progress, and it’s an insightful read more than anything on the the lack of synchronization between agencies and GAO.

The report is part of ongoing modernization efforts reviews related to the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, enacted in December 2014 to hold agencies accountable for cutting costs and reducing redundancies in federal technology projects.

FITARA addresses seven areas of federal IT:

  • Federal data center consolidation initiative
  • Enhanced transparency and improved risk management
  • Agency CIO authority enhancements
  • Portfolio review
  • Expansion of training and use of IT acquisition cadres
  • Government-wide software purchasing program
  • Maximizing the benefit of the federal strategic sourcing initiative

Because of the seeming discrepancies between what agencies have (or haven’t) reported and what GAO has assessed, it’s difficult to determine what’s truly the state of federal government IT. Nonetheless, the report is insightful in that it gives a great overview of the FITARA objectives and how success is being measured.

From GAO Director Information Technology Management Issues David Powner in his testimony to the House of Representatives Subcommittees on Government Operations and Information Technology, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

These and other failed IT projects often suffered from a lack of disciplined and effective management, such as project planning, requirements definition, and program oversight and governance. In many instances, agencies had not consistently applied best practices that are critical to successfully acquiring IT investments.

Federal IT projects have also failed due to a lack of oversight and governance. Executive-level governance and oversight across the government has often been ineffective, specifically from chief information officers (CIO). For example, we have reported that not all CIOs had the authority to review and approve the entire agency IT portfolio and that CIOs’ authority was limited.

Full report: Improved Implementation of Reform Law Is Critical to Better Manage Acquisitions and Operations

GAO to lean more on analytics for government accountability

U.S. Government Accountability Office announced it will create a Center for Advanced Analytics to bring a more data-driven approach into its work.

GAO says the new center’s primary goals are to:

  • enhance access to data sources
  • assess, customize, and help deploy new technologies
  • promote novel analytic approaches
  • strengthen analytical skills

“In future years, we are hoping to improve our capabilities so that we can analyze even larger data sets,” says GAO on its blog. “We are also increasing the use of text analysis. This would allow us to look for key phrases, matches, and similarities in unstructured data—such as large text documents—to help identify patterns, such as those that might indicate potential fraud or improper payments.”

GAO needs a better digital strategy. Here’s how 18F and USDS can help.

gao.gov

Source: gao.gov

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on the fiscal and administrative state of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, both established to make federal government digital services work better for users, and it appears the agency could use some help from the two on its own website, gao.gov.

Here are four ways GAO’s digital operations must be rebooted to meet the needs of today’s web user, and how 18F and USDS helped us better understand all of this.

HTTPS

The GAO website is not secure for users visiting gao.gov.

As 18F has emphasized, HTTPS protects visitor privacy with a secure, encrypted connection and is an important practice for .gov domains to adhere to.

The move to HTTS for all .gov websites began more than a year ago, yet gao.gov still remains unencrypted.

Fortunately for GAO, 18F and USDS created a number of HTTPS resources for governments and agencies having difficulty understanding its importance and quickly adopting it.

Mobile-friendly

The GAO website is not mobile-friendly.

Whether it’s a phone, tablet or laptop, gao.gov doesn’t adapt to the device you’re using. As billions of people around the world are now using mobile devices to access information, it’s requisite that all government websites are mobile-friendly so their services are accessible to everyone.

Fortunately for GAO, 18F and USDS created the U.S. Web Design Standards that makes it easy for anyone creating government websites to build mobile-friendly sites (including accessible color schemes, which GAO does a mediocre job on).

Update:

Alex Howard notes that GAO has a separate mobile version (launched in 2010) of its website and an app (launched in 2012). While these were great technological enhancements at the time, they no longer meet today’s standards around responsive design and streamlined development practices.

Rather than building one site that adapts to all devices, GAO has created two development environments and duplicated development costs.

While an app is certainly mobile, it doesn’t qualify in this case, as it’s a secondary outlet to the website.

Open data

GAO does not have a comprehensive open data strategy.

While the site provides a great list of RSS feeds, not all reports are in data-friendly formats (all are, however, in PDFs). There also appears to be no public application programming interface (however Sunlight Foundation has created one via its Sunlight Congress API).

Unsurprisingly, GAO’s report on 18F and USDS isn’t available through an open, accessible, digital format.

Fortunately for GAO, while not directly created by 18F or USDS, but done by many who now serve in each, there is Project Open Data to help it get started on executing an effective open data strategy.

Analytics

GAO doesn’t participate in the federal government’s Digital Analytics Program.

As the agency that provides oversight on federal government activities, it would be great to have more transparency into its website analytics.

Given that gao.gov is already using Google Analytics, and familiar with its tools, this is easily resolved with a simple snippet of code provided by DAP.

Thoughts

I get nervous when policymakers take a myopic approach to assessing technology, especially in a politically charged environment like Washington, D.C., where there are behind-the-scenes personal and business relationships that impact motivations around critiquing new initiatives like 18F and USDS.

I especially get nervous when an agency charged with overseeing federal government technology practices fails the digital test.

If GAO is serious about modernizing its own digital strategy, 18F and USDS can surely help.

Measuring 18F’s value

18FAccording to NextGov, the Government Accountability Office is working on a report related to 18F’s financial operations, and the tone of the article reads as if the current status is less than optimistic.

From NextGov:

The unit, which operates on a fee-for-service basis, has struggled to balance revenue and spending since its founding in 2014 and is currently facing a projected fiscal 2016 shortfall of nearly $15 million, according to a draft GAO audit.

While 18F’s quarterly revenue has grown three-fold since its inception, its expenses have outpaced revenue. 18F is currently spending an average of more than $1 million per month more than it recovers from the use of its personnel and programs. In fiscal 2016, 18F is projected to receive approximately $33 million for its services, but will spend almost $48 million.

I’ve mentioned before my thoughts on giving it time to incubate and hope GAO doesn’t focus solely on deconstructing 18F’s work in a skewed negative light, adding fuel to the government technology peanut gallery’s fire.

Of course, GAO has an important obligation to ensure agencies are operating ethically and fiscally responsible, the tendency to focus primarily on financial shortcomings without taking into account the potential and unrealized added value can be harmful.

Unfortunately, there’s no reliable way to holistically quantify the innovation and entrepreneurial contributions 18F has made, including unpaid work that’s been re-purposed by other cities or helped make citizens safer when accessing federal government websites.

It’s very easy, especially in a political environment, and especially for a high-profile organization like 18F, to be critical of its operations. There are a long list of items I’d like to see GAO look into and, right now, 18F isn’t one of them.

I’ve always admired GAO’s work and, hopefully, its assessment is fair and doesn’t reflect the tone of the article (the author of whom I also admire).

Every Silicon Valley startup that sees 18F’s revenue-expenditures ratio and customer adoption rate over the past years would be envious.

As I’ve said before, let’s give 18F some space.

Update

I just received the following message from Atlantic Media (NextGov’s parent company):

As you continue to report on the contentious inspector general audit that revealed the Obama administration’s tech-consulting team 18F may have caused a data breach, I wanted to flag another investigation—this one by the Government Accountability Office— that will shine a light on 18F’s finances.

In a NextGov exclusive, Frank Konkel finds that 18F, which operates on a fee-for service basis, has struggled to balance revenue and spending since its founding in 2014 and is currently facing a projected fiscal 2016 shortfall of nearly $15 million, according to a draft GAO audit. Per its own projections, 18F is not expected to break even until at least fiscal 2018 and according to a source familiar with the draft GAO audit, the report is critical of 18F’s cost-recovery plan, saying it lacks specific goals and measures.

The full report is available here: http://www.nextgov.com/cio-briefing/2016/06/18f-tech-team-struggles-balance-its-books-soon-be-released-report-shows/128780/

I don’t want to turn this into a bigger issue than it is, or that they’re making, but to get an email “exclusive” with the subject “President Obama’s highly praised tech team is actually losing A LOT of money” is frustrating to see.

While $15 million is a lot of money, I just think journalistic and investigator general time would be best spent on programs that are impacting millions of people who depend on federal government services that costs hundreds of millions (and billions) of dollars and show no hope for progress or success.

18F doesn’t fit into that category. In fact, my bet is that 18F is helping the federal government (and those it serves) save time and money by introducing more sustainable, agile processes, and I hope costs savings is also accounted for in the report.

It’s important for media outlets like NextGov and agencies like GAO to pursue and shed light on oversight issues, but this just feels small potatoes in the bigger scheme of government technology things.

GAO: State, local governments should cut expenditures by 18 percent

State and Local Simulated Operating Balance Measure, as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Source: GAO)

State and Local Simulated Operating Balance Measure, as a Percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Source: GAO)

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released its 2014 state and local fiscal outlook model that indicates state and local government need to cut current expenditures by 18 percent to achieve fiscal balance over the next 50 years.

The outlook indicates an increase in revenues from income sales taxes from 2009 to 2014, however, a decline of one percent in receipts from the second quarter of 2013 to the second quarter of 2014. Much of the cause for expenditures is related to rising healthcare costs.

Key excerpt from the GAO podcast transcript:

In its simplest form, the state and local fiscal outlook looks at the revenues, or the receipts, coming in to all state and local governments compared to the expenditures going out for these governments. The difference between receipts and expenditures is what we refer to as the operating balance of state and local sector as a whole. In other words, the simple version of the model is to think of a math problem where expenditures are subtracted from receipts, and the difference is the operating balance. The model then simulates the state and local sectors ability to cover expenditures with receipts. One way of using these data to illustrate the long-term outlook for the state and local government sector is through a measure we refer to as the fiscal gap. The fiscal gap is an estimate of the action that would be needed today and then maintained for each year going forward to achieve fiscal balance during the next 50 years from 2014 to 2063. Closing this gap would require state and local governments to make policy changes to assure that receipts are at least equal to expenditures. So, we calculated that closing the fiscal gap would require action to be taken today and then maintained for each year going forward, roughly equivalent to an 18% reduction in state and local government current expenditures. Closing the gap through revenue increases would require action of a similar magnitude through increases in state and local tax revenues. More likely, closing the fiscal gap would require some combination of revenue increases and expenditure reductions.

To compile its projections, GAO uses data from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census Bureau, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Congressional Budget Office, Office of Tax Analysis and Social Security Administration.

GAO has published the outlook model since 2007.

Listen

GAO Director of Strategic Issues Michelle Sager discusses the report in an agency podcast (transcript):

Read the full report (.pdf).

Darrell Issa may have just lost the open government vote

Todd Park (Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Chris Smith)

Todd Park (Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Chris Smith)

With a single subpoena to one of the most admired public servants in America, Congressman Darrell Issa has managed to rankle the ire of open government leaders and alienate a key constituency in a movement he co-founded his own organization around.

The subpoena is in response to the White House’s refusal to allow U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park to testify before the House Oversight Committee related to technical issues that continue to plague a reliable launch of healthcare.gov.

A group of Park supporters have rallied behind him and created a website, “Let Todd Work,” where citizens can pledge their support.

“Mr. Park is a fantastic civil servant, who cares about making government more effective and accountable, just like Mr. Issa,” states the petition. “We hope that they can work together on solving the policies that enabled healthcare.gov to fail in the first place, by working with the Senate for passage of Issa’s own bill, the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act.”

FITARA is Issa’s bill to reform federal technology management and procurement, an issue many see as the fundamental breakdown to the healthcare.gov implementation and a general symptom of the government’s inability to deliver IT projects on time and on budget.

“If the people in government technology were made up of characters in the marvel universe, Todd Park would most assuredly be Captain America — someone who selflessly serves, has a strong moral compass, and has an uncanny ability to always be optimistic and see the best in everyone,” writes Former White House Presidential Innovation Fellow Clay Johnson on Google+. Johnson is one of the supporters leading the petition effort.

Issa’s own open government organization, OpenGov Foundation, that he co-founded and serves as chairman, is focused on solving many of the same issues Park has become a key champion for, including open, accessible public data.

“Information and technology are disruptive,” the organization states on its website. “But data-driven disruption is what will ultimately break down the barriers of closed, inaccessible, unaccountable government … We’ll bring the sledgehammers.”

Given the open government community’s focus on collaboration over political conflict, it will be interesting to see how the fallout will impact long-term sentiments towards his own organization’s efforts.

It appears many think Issa should focus his energy, and hammer, on an issue beyond Park’s superpowers.

Letter to U.S. CTO Todd Park from Congressman Darrell Issa

BillTrack50 wants to make it easier to search, engage with legislation

GovFresh highlights the products and start-ups powering the civic revolution. Note: This is not a product promotion or endorsement. Learn how you can get featured.

BillTrack50Karen Suhaka shares her vision for BillTrack50.

Give us the BillTrack50 elevator pitch.

BillTrack50 provides convenient and user-friendly 50-state legislative data to both citizens and those with a professional interest.

What civic problem does BillTrack50 solve?

We are making it easier for citizens to research what their state legislature is doing about topics of interest to them, and look at trends and across the country generally.  We’ve also given them the information they need to follow up with their representative, if they like.  More importantly we have tools to help individuals and organizations more easily share information about pending legislation.  For example see: http://missoulainsession.com/stakeholder.php  The embedded bill tracker is our stakeholder page tool; we keep the basics updated — add relevant bills that get introduced, keep up with the latest status, votes, etc. Then the mayor of Missoula can add whatever additional information they would like to share with their residents, such as their position on each bill.

What’s the story behind starting BillTrack50?

I am a serial entrepreneur, and most of my businesses have revolved around compiling publicly available data from state governments, and making it useful to consumers and businesses. After selling my last company I started looking for ideas for a new business. I came across the concept of online legislation tracking, and thought it would be great to break it wide open, and make it available for free for everyone.

We launched in March of 2012, and already have close to 2,000 registered users. However anyone can read bills on the site, registered or not, and in January of 2013 we passed 1,000,000 bills read on the site. People are embracing the ability to share bills they think are important; some share privately to an internal group, but most share publicly.

I think there are lots of smart people in our country, and somewhere someone has a good idea about every challenge we face. I want to get those people informed, and connected, to build a better country for everyone. It especially behooves people in government to stay aware of, and participate in, the democratic process as it relates to their area of expertise.

What are its key features?

Anyone can search for bills or legislators for free, and get a wealth of up-to-date information.  Subscribers can save searches, set up alerts, and share their bill feed with others. The key feature that make all of our services useful is that the bill text and other information is open to everyone. So it’s easy to put our widget on your page to share bills you care about, and your readers can click through and learn more without any barriers. We also have a tool to make it easy to rate legislators and create a graphical, interactive scorecard on your site.

We have also processed all of the bills into uniform structured xml, which allows us to so some neat tricks, like comparing bill texts to see what has changed between revisions.  Having the bills as data also allows me to do fun mathematical analysis, which I share on my blog.

What are the costs, pricing plans?

Basic access is free. Searching for bills requires you to register, which is free, you just need to give us your name and email. Subscriptions to save searches and user our other tools start at $500/year. See our product comparison matrix for more details.

How can those interested connect with you?

Videos