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FCC CIO David Bray on social media, open source, agile development and more

David Bray

Federal Communications Commission Chief Information Officer David Bray participated in our first GitChat, an open Q&A with civic innovators, that leverages GitHub as a discussion platform.

Bray discussed extensively on topics ranging from social media, open data and open source, agile development, IT procurement and more.

Here are key excerpts of the conversation.

On how C-level government executives can leverage social media:

“Pick a few channels to invest in, learn from, and monitor. You don’t have to be everywhere (because your hours are limited) but you do have to be open to inputs and ideas from the public and other partner organizations. Social media is much more than “broadcast” — it is being #open2ideas and #learning&listening from folks … I find I learn a lot from hearing from the views of others, and then have a chance to also share some of the day-to-day challenges facing us in modernizing IT within an existing organization.”

On why gov CIOs aren’t more social:

“Good question — it might be a combination of concerns about ensuring the agency’s message is consistent and uniform. There’s also a lot of pressure right now on public service folks to not take too many risks, because there does seem to be an element that is quick to point out those who take risks and have them not always work out as planned.

I also think there’s a huge pressure on the time commitments for CIO. More of them might be more social if they felt like they had a supportive environment and that them taking the time to do it was valued by their agency leadership.”

On personal vs. public social media usage and voice:

“personally I feel like as a public servant, I have a responsibility to recognize I’m always serving the public and thus under the public view. The role of a public servant requires that we aspire to be available to the public and operate with (1) benevolence, (2) competence, and (3) integrity.

I try to embody these three things wherever I go. What I do and say in-person is the same I would do and say online.

As for content – I do think I have a responsibility to recognize that an in-person context conveys tone of voice, emotion, facial expressions, and eye contact. Online takes that a way so the opportunity for misunderstanding increases.

Also if a question is asked that isn’t in my area of responsibility, I’ll defer and say I’m not the one who can best answer that question for you. Or if it is a case where someone on my team is the better expert than I, I’ll also defer to that individual – as I firmly believe any Agency leader should #empower-your-coders”

On the challenges of being a federal CIO:

“So being a CIO in the public sector requires you to be a “digital diplomat” internally and externally on these challenges and the need to change cultures plus reward mechanisms. It also requires you to be a “human flak jacket” as you work to address these challenges, work horizontally, change cultures, and reward mechanism. Sometimes being that flak jacket means taking metaphorical bullets from all angles.”

On attracting talent:

“I’m working on my end to ensure our HR processes are chugging as best and as fast as they can, and our Procurement processes are also chugging as best and as fast as they can. We’ve 18 months to do something great that’s never been done before, so now is the time to make it happen.

If there are altruistic, dedicated folks who want a reverse IPO = OPI = Opportunity for Positive Impact @FCC … we’re your place, and we’re actively looking for great, proven #Rockstar talent to enable this transformation to happen.”

On open data:

“Some of our data could be made more open in a better fashion, or in some cases a better draw. So as we modernize our systems, we will be planning and implementing both thin UIs as well as APIs to make the data more open to the public and partner organizations. The vision is the FCC is a trusted broker of data in and out appropriately, so that others can remix and analyze the data that we share in new ways.

@GigiBSohnFCC is here and a great advocate for #opendata which I 100% support. Also part of our on-going strategy will be regular engagement with the public and our partners on what data would be most valuable for us to focus our energies first, and go from there. The FCC Chairman’s Process Reform just sought public comment on elements of this and that will help inform what we focus on as top priorities: http://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-seeks-public-comment-report-process-reform”

On open source:

“In general, public service should use existing code — ideally open source code — if what the code provides fits their needs.

If public service is developing code, I generally would like to recommend the code be open source unless there is sufficient legal or mission integrity reason to not make it so.”

On the role of data officers:

“It is also why you’ll note the FCC Information and Data Officers are just that — Information and Data Officers, as separate tracks doesn’t make a lot of sense since the data is in information systems. Plus, since access to the data is tied to modernizing our legacy systems, you will see we have a FCC Chief Enterprise Architect — a new position since my arrival — since frankly the FCC was lacking an enterprise view to either its information systems or its data.

The FCC Chief Enterprise Architect has a Lead for Enterprise Information and Data Integration which is serving as what you might call a CDO, however we opted to call this role that because it emphasizes what we need to do to get the data in a usable form: Enterprise Information and Data Integration.”

On the new 18F:

“I am watching the news reports and want to remain optimistic, however my observation is 18F has not does a great job communicating to other government agencies what they’re doing. In fact, it appears to have been fairly secretive, which seems curious and somewhat odd for an era of increased transparency and open endeavors? Maybe an approach that includes going to other agency CIOs and asked what the big issues you need fixed are, and having that dialogue with other #PublicService CIOs help inform the issues — would be a great one?

To be honest other agency CIOs & I have commented that we hear more about 18F from outside news reporting than inside the public sector itself — that may need to be fixed? :-) Also, naming your endeavor after your street address seems curious in an age where the internet means great #PublicService does not need to be location-based seems puzzling?”

On agile development:

“The good news is FCC has been doing agile and lean since my arrival. We’ve had at least 4 different FCC-wide training sessions on agile, through our IT contractors to both IT staff and programmatic stewards (the folks who the mission-centric systems are being built for) on agile, as the process needs to involve them in tandem, working together. Another reason why I believe you can’t abstract too much from the programmatic stewards and succeed with IT. It’s why I’m encouraging Intrapreneurs — entrepreneurs on the inside — at FCC.”

On IT procurement:

“Lastly, if I was to urge where to place attention and energy, it would be on educating Procurement shops — and the General Counsels of agencies that provide legal guidance on what can and cannot be procured — as to what’s possible. If you want people to take risks, be lean, be agile, and do great stuff taking these steps to #empower-the-edge and #empower-your-coders are great first steps!”

Read the full discussion.

GitHub and the C-suite social

GitHubIn the early days of Twitter, it was easy and common to dismiss the infant social network as a simplistic tool that served a whimsical and nerdy niche.

Today, Twitter has gone from the technorati tweeting hipster conference minutiae to a platform driving the new world digital order. This didn’t happen overnight. But, when the flock of civic technologists set flight, the social government migration happened quickly and collectively.

Much like we pooh-poohed Twitter in those early days, GitHub, in its early crawl, is today dismissed simply as a tool for the diehard developer. However, as with any tool with great potential, innovators find new ways to leverage emerging technology to communicate, and government chief information and technology officers can effectively do this with GitHub.

There’s the obvious use case, such as contributing code and commenting on projects, much like Veterans Affairs Chief Technology Officer Marina Martin does via her GitHub account. It’s probably asking a lot for the C-suite to dive deep into code on a daily basis, there are other, more conversational ways GitHub can be leveraged.

Case in point, a few weeks ago, Federal Communications Commission Chief Information Officer David Bray and I had a Twitter exchange about the utility of GitHub. Immediately, I created a repository (think “folder”) on my personal account, and set up a new “What questions do you have for FCC CIO David Bray?” issue (think “discussion”).

To Bray’s credit, and perhaps surprise of his public affairs office, he humored me by immediately joining GitHub, posting replies to a number of questions about FCC open data, open source, cloud hosting and web operations. Over the course of an hour, there was a genuine, real-time conversation between a federal CIO and the community at large.

Despite wide adoption of social tools by public sector innovators, most of the C-suite remains decidedly analog in terms of engagement and sharing of relevant information about the inner workings of our public sector institutions. A cursory survey of government chief information and technology officers shows they abstain altogether or, when they do, generally give random personal updates or staid posts with a heavily-sanitized public affairs filter.

The emergence of GitHub may change this for the government technologist, especially those willing to engage fellow coders and citizens on projects in an open, fluid environment.

Former Presidential Innovation Fellow and current GitHub government lead Ben Balter has since followed suit and created a government-focused “Ask Me (Almost) Anything” repo featuring Q&As with Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd and staff from the newly-minted 18F.

GitHub’s repo and issues features are natural communication tools for C-level technologists who fancy themselves innovators leveraging emerging tech in new, creative ways.

For the IT C-suite, the GitChat is the new Twitter Townhall, a way to instantly and directly connect with peers and the general public and be asked anything.

Well, almost anything.

GovFresh WP: building a government WordPress theme

GovFresh WP

Despite the fact that millions of websites around the world today are powered by low- and no-cost open source content management systems, nearly all small city governments remain trapped in the 90s.

It’s not that they don’t want great websites to serve their citizens. They just don’t have the technical prowess to understand what their options are and how to deploy and manage them.

Continue reading

White House opens huge opportunity for designers, developers to increase We the People engagement

Photo: Pete Souza/White House

Photo: Pete Souza/White House

The White House will soon open a limited beta test to developers on a new We the People Write API that allows third-party applications to submit information to official petitions.

“One of the things we’ve heard from the beginning is a strong desire from our users to be able to submit signatures and petitions from other sites — and still receive an official response. Up to this point, we haven’t had a way to accept signatures submitted from other sites, but that is about to change,” writes White House Associate Director of Online Engagement for the Office of Digital Strategy Ezra Mechaber.

According to the White House, more than 10 million users have signed nearly 300,000 petitions.

We the People was built in Drupal and the source code is available on GitHub.

The Read API was opened earlier this year (sample projects here).

While We the People is fairly intuitive and easy to use, there’s huge potential for great designers and developers to essentially build a truly innovative and engaging platform.

Apply to the We the People Write API Beta.

FreshWrap: CfA Summit, procurement, healthcare.gov and more

A wrap-up of this week’s civic technology and open government news.

Must-watch video of the week:

Chicago launches first comprehensive, public data dictionary.

Oakland is looking for a chief information officer.

Liveblog of Code for America Summit …

… and videos.

Five ways to make government procurement better.

What are your ideas for improving government procurement?

Why U.S. government IT fails so hard, so often.

Healthcare.gov: How The First Internet President Produced The Government’s Biggest, Highest-Stakes Internet Failure

New book: Beyond Transparency

Louisville gets an open data policy.

Oakland does, too.

Changes in Texas open government law.

NASCIO report: The Enterprise Imperative: Leading Through Governance, Portfolio Management, and Collaboration

TechAmerica: Fed IT spending to plateau over next five years.

Global Integrity has a new website.

GitHub goes deeper into government.

Making a living with civic tech.

The openwashing of Healthcare.gov

Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Perhaps the old saw “lipstick on a pig” is the best description for the information technology fiasco that was Healthcare.gov on October 1, 2013.

A project hyped in open government circles for its innovative content delivery architecture and use of open source frameworks became almost unusable for the first week of the launch, as the beautiful website failed more often than not when clicking through to the “Log in” link.

Or maybe the best way to describe the rollout of the site is “openwashing.”

Behind a thin veneer of Jekyll, a simple yet-elegant GitHub repository and a hot boutique consulting firm, Healthcare.gov was upon launch a bloated and badly designed project reportedly led by a giant government contractor.

In March, Development Seed, the brilliant DC team behind MapBox and active on projects such as the Google Election Center, was touting the initial Healthcare.gov site as “completely new and open source.”

“We’re going to build it and then buy insurance through it,” the firm’s co-founder said in a June profile of the project. Development Seed reposted parts of that profile on its blog, including a key quote from Bryan Sivak, the Health and Human Services chief technology officer:

“The goal is get people enrolled. A step to that goal is to build a health insurance marketplace. It is so much better to build it in a way that’s open, transparent and enables updates.”

But last week, as angry reports flooded out about folks unable to navigate the sign-in and marketplace features of Healthcare.gov, HHS and its subagency, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, weren’t commenting on what went wrong. On Friday, Reuters reported that CGI, a sprawling professional services contractor out of Canada that delivers everything from payroll setup to websites and turns up in $1.15 billion in contracts with a simple search on USASpending.gov, was responsible for the site.

Greenwashing describes misleading and deceptive practices meant to “green up” corporations and their business practices to gain public approval. Green PR has gained popularity along with public support for the environment, so I guess it’s to the open government movement’s credit that we regularly see openwashing at all levels of government (read here for a thorough critique of openwashing in government).

Openwashing in government is spin that deceptively promotes IT projects and policies as “transparent” and “innovative” when actual practices and spending are not.

It’s openwashing when President Obama claims his is the “most transparent administration in history” while ushering in an era of ubiquitous government-sponsored digital spying on private citizens and regularly rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests.

It’s openwashing when the mayor of San Francisco gives large tax breaks to the portfolio companies of one of his biggest campaign backers and calls it “tech policy.”

And it’s openwashing when the tech head of a giant federal agency rolls into SXSW talking about innovation while the guts of his biggest web property are rotten on launch.

SF mayor helps cut tape on new GitHub HQ, posts muni code repo

GitHub

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee helped social coding platform GitHub open the doors to its new 55,000 square foot headquarters in the city’s SOMA district and, in tandem with the event, announced the city posted municipal code on the site “to make it more accessible to our public.”

From the release:

Mayor Lee celebrated the opening of GitHub’s new office space as he announced that, for the first time, the City’s municipal code previously inaccessible in modern, programmer-friendly formats, will be available for anyone to view and for coders to build applications for online. Making the municipal code available in this new format will make it easier for the public to navigate, understand and access the laws of San Francisco. The work of expanding access to the Municipal Code is the result of the efforts of many partners including American Legal Publishing, the OpenGov Foundation and GitHub. For more information, go to sfmoci.github.io/openlaw.

See also San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation on GitHub.

‘GitHub for gov’ GovHub to build open source repository for government

GovHubRecently launched GovHub is a new ‘GitHub for government’ that aims to be the comprehensive repository for government open source development projects (update: see related efforts such as CiviCommons and forge.mil – HT @digiphile). GovHub will beta test to a select group at the end of November and open up in late December. I asked one of its founders, Greg Lind, to talk more about GovHub’s focus and future plans.

What is GovHub?

The general idea is a collaboration space for local or regional governments to collaborate on software needs with other government agencies as well as the local open source software community. A lot of open source developers in Portland and really all over the world have small get togethers or hack-athon meet ups similar to a user group where they get together and work on civic projects, and almost exclusively use open source tools. These are highly organized and talented groups whose only real goal is to write great software that benefits the end user and the community. We feel like the opportunity right now is to help organize more of these groups as a force to promote open source software as well as community driven development by helping to fulfill specific needs at local government agencies. Anything from exposing useful government data thorough easy to consume data API’s to creating full fledge front end software for use on government or co-branded web sites. A lot of this could be done through refinements to the procurement process that most governments use to be more inclusive of open source solutions as well as organizing open source developers to be able to respond to these RFP’s and provide some intrinsic value for their projects. We see this as one of the biggest hurdles to open source adoption in the misunderstanding the “free” software can not last because they think the developers are working for free or that it is just a hobby.

What the code strategy?

I’m guessing you are referring to our GitHub or GovSource repositories we are planning on hosting. The idea here is to help provide a single place for these smaller mostly Web-based projects with civic or community driven ideals to be found by government and non-profit agencies. We want to help keep these projects sustainable over the long haul by providing free hosting and direct communication with the government agencies who would be interested in them. On the government side, we want to provide easy options for governments to open source their own internal projects as well as share with other government agencies through build in site intergovernmental agreements.

What’s your outreach plan?

The first thing we hope to do is work with a lot of the regional governments here in the Portland area. We have some direct contacts through previous working relationships that we hope to use to get a few started on some regional proejcts and data sharing ideas. The primary long-term goal is to use things like GOSCON and OpenGov West as opportunities to promote our ideas and build momentum. We also think the CivicApps contests that the City of Portland, San Francisco and New York have started could be expanded to other regions and we are working on ways to host contest like this on our own.

Watch GovHub founders’ IgniteGov presentation at GOSCON2010:

Lockheed goes open source. Blankenhorn hates it.

I was really pleased to read the announcement that Lockheed Martin's social networking platform, EurekaStreams, was released as an open source project today. Lockheed is a very conservative company, and while they're happy to use open source internally and on projects for their customers, this is their first experiment with actually running a project themselves. I think it's a big deal, not just for Lockheed Martin, but for large corporations who are considering a more open, more innovative approach to software development. And yet, Dana Blankenhorn hates it:

I don’t see anything in Eureka Streams I can’t do in Drupal, or a number of other high-quality open source projects that have existed for years. Lockheed has reinvented the wheel — why?

So here's the nice thing about the open source community: competition. If I think I've come up with a better way to solve a problem, it can easily compete with the incumbents. Low barrier to entry, we say. Let the best ideas win. Unless, apparently, the best ideas come from a company I don't like.

Then things start going sideways:

The author of Eureka Streams, who goes by the name Sterlecki at Github, has left no previous tracks there. Linkedin lists the same picture as belonging to Steve Terlecki, a Lockheed software developer.

The stuff’s legit, so we’re left again with the question of motive. Is the military-industrial complex reaching out to open source, is this just proof of press reports showing our spy efforts have more bloat in them than a Macy’s Thanksgiving float, are we being co-opted, or am I just too suspicious?

Wait, what? Open source advocates have, for years, been trying to encourage more code to come out from behind corporate skirts. Where companies can build business models around governing and supporting open source projects, we want them to take the plunge. If more code is open, that makes everyone smarter. And that, my friends, is exactly what Lockheed Martin did today. Someone who probably never contributed code in their lives just gave the community a project they've been working on for months, or even years. I think that's amazing. In return, this brave developer gets painted as a nefarious secret agent out to steal our thoughts and bug our laptops. Or whatever.

So here's the great thing about open source: we can prove Blankenhorn wrong. They use the Apache license, and it's on Github. We can go through the code and find backdoors, secret plans, and mind-control rays. This reminds me very much of the reaction to the release of SELinux. Conspiracy theories everywhere, but code is auditable and now it's in the mainstream Linux kernel. Do we really want to throw out these contributions, when code doesn't lie? When it's so easy to ensure there's nothing nefarious inside?

You can feel however you like about Lockheed Martin or the US Department of Defense. You can choose to contribute to the project, or not. You can choose to use the software, or not. But is it in the community's interest to summarily dismiss contributions based on those preferences? Lockheed's thousands of developers are sending up a trial balloon. If they fail, we lose access to those developers forever.

I think this kind of fearmongering is exactly what prevents large corporations and government agencies from releasing their code. These knee-jerk reactions harm the open source community at large. We pride ourselves on our meritocracy. A 14-year-old in his mom's basement is the same as a 30-year-old Lockheed developer is the same as a UNIX graybeard. You are just as good as your contributions. We need to welcome Lockheed's contributions, not throw them back in their face. Whether the project is useful or not, they've enriched the open source community. Let them succeed or fail on their own merits. If they do fail, we hope that they'll do better next time. Maybe this is a Drupal-killer. Who knows? Let's give it a try.