Category Archives: elections

Nobody Elected Me

Nobody Elected MeOne of my philosophies, working as a senior level public official in a local or state government, is that the boss – the elected official – is always right.   

Most State, City, County and other non-federal CIOs either work for a city/county manager or for a Governor or Mayor.   That official is the “boss”.     We give the boss our best advice, but if they decide to do something different, then I invoke “nobody elected me”.    In other words the elected official is responsible to the citizens and constituents of the city, county or state.    And that elected official will receive a report card every two or four years in the form of an election.   If the electorate doesn’t like the way the government is running, they’ll make their wishes known at the ballot box  The Mayor or Governor was elected to make the decisions, not me.

I’ve got two reasons for writing this blog post.   The first one is to try and reflect upon the stupidity of what happened in New Jersey in September.  The second reason is to demonstrate how “nobody elected me” plays out in information technology.

Nobody Elected Me and New Jersey

ChrisChristieOne potential issue with the “nobody elected me” philosophy is ethics.   If I recommended a course of action, and my boss decided to do something different – and his decision was – in my opinion – either unethical or illegal, what would I do?    There is really only one answer to this quandary:   it is my duty to resign.  (I won’t address the issue of “going public”, e.g. Edward Snowden, as that is a difficult and thorny subject.)

Such instances are, thankfully, far and few between.  One of my heroes is Bill Ruckelshaus, who resigned as deputy United States Attorney General.   He resigned rather than carry out an order from then-President Richard Nixon to fire the special prosecutor in the Watergate affair.

As any reader probably knows, staff members of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered the closure of all-but-one traffic lane on an approach to the George Washington Bridge in early September, 2013.  Governor Christie was conducting a campaign for re-election, and the closure was apparently ordered to “punish” the Mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

If you were an employee of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and you were actually ordered to set up the traffic cones and shut down traffic for no apparent reason, what should you do?   Refuse to obey the order?    On what grounds?

I can’t judge the employees of the Port Authority because I don’t know what they (or their supervisors or their managers or their directors) were thinking as the traffic cones went into place and all hell broke loose for three days of traffic on that bridge.    Perhaps they invoked “Nobody Elected Me” or “the boss is always right”.   Perhaps they feared to question the order in order to preserve their jobs.    Somebody in New Jersey government, however, should have been asking questions in September, not now in January, 2014.

Nobody Elected Me and Information Technology

“Nobody elected me” is useful when explaining otherwise inexplicable decisions to technology department employees.

For many IT employees, the “right” decision often appears to be obvious.    Many such employees don’t see the nuances of political reality (especially when it comes to funding).

311-wordmap-NYCA few years ago, when I was CTO of the City of Seattle, I reported to Mayor Greg Nickels.   Mayor Nickels and I and a third department head – responsible for the central customer service at the City – jointly decided a 311 system was needed in Seattle.

311 seems enormously logical to me.   What phone number do you call if you see a fire or are having a bicycle accident (like I did) – 911, of course.   But what number do you call if you want to report a backed-up sewer or you want to complain about taxi service or your cable bill?    In some forward-thinking cities like Chicago and New York and Louisville that number is 311.    But in Seattle you search through six pages of 8 point font in the phone book (if you even have a phone book) or search a website (if you have Internet access) to find some incomprehensible number.    That sort of stupidity made no sense to me as CTO and it made no sense to Mayor Nickels.

Alas, the Seattle City Council didn’t see it quite that way, and rejected Mayor Nickels’ proposal because they didn’t see a need equal to the $9 million cost to implement.

I’m convinced the problem in Seattle was lack of Council member districts.   All nine Seattle City council members are full-time members and all are elected at large.   In that situation citizens don’t know which council member to call to complain about something, so they end up calling the Mayor.    The Mayor and his staff “feel the pain” of citizen complaints and see the need for a 311 number and system.  City council members don’t

But the electorate has spoken.   Two months ago, in November, 2013, they voted to start electing council members by district.    When that law takes effect in two years, council members will start feeling the pain of citizens in their district complaining and will, I think, be much more supportive of 311.

Yup, nobody elected me, but there’s always an alternative path to the goal.

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Filed under 311, customer service, elections, ethics

A 10 point Tech Plan for Mayors of Large Cities

Ed-Murray-Dively-Choe

Ed Murray (center), with transition team leaders Dwight Dively and Martha Choe

(On November 5, 2013, State Senator Ed Murray was elected Mayor of Seattle.  Seattle voters have thrown out all thre of their incumbent Mayors who held office in the 21st Century.  Here are my suggestions for what Mayor-elect Murray – but, really, any Mayor in any large City – can do immediately to use technology to enhance City services and improve efficiency of operations.)

Washington state has an extraordinarily robust tech community, anchored not only by big companies like Microsoft and Amazon, but by the University of Washington and an active start-up scene. Yet our city’s engagement with that tech community – and the technology used by government itself – are inadequate and falling behind other major worldwide centers of technology.

Here’s how mayor-elect Ed Murray can create a government that uses technology to facilitate citizen involvement and provide efficient effective services …

(Read the remainder of the article on Crosscut here.)

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If I were a Mayor, what 3 tech things would I do first?

King of the Forest

Mayor and King of the Forest

If I were Mayor of Seattle, what three actions would I take immediately to improve City government and improve quality of life for the people living and working in Seattle?

First, I’d appoint a Chief Innovation Officer (CInO) to reach out to the technology and start-up communities in Seattle, harnessing their ideas and technologies for use in City government. The outreach opportunities here are endless, from huge companies like Microsoft which has a wide variety of innovative software solutions, to smaller companies like Cozi (an app and website that helps organize family life) andProsodic (smarter use of social media). Taking advantage of these technologies will help to build the city’s economy and promote locally developed products. The CInO would also find innovative ways to cut through the bureaucracy entrenched in City departments, and help them find new ways to deliver better, cheaper, faster service.

The second thing I’d do as mayor is hire …

(Read the complete article on Crosscut here.)

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- A Chicken in Every Pot

A Chicken in Every Pot“A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” – election slogan for Herbert Hoover, claiming that the everyone will be prosperous under a Hoover presidency.

The 2010 election is over, the winning politicians are now being magically converted into “elected officials”, and technology in government is marching on, sometimes with different elected and CIO leadership.   I’ve blogged before about the difficult intersection of politics and technology.

Being a Chief Information Officer in government is, in many ways, similar to being a CIO in any other organization – public, private, non-profit.   We worry about budgets, business applications, operating a data center, beating the competition (yes, even in government), and worrying about how to adapt the latest consumer fad technology (Kindle, Android phone, iPad) for use by our workforce.

But there’s also a significant difference – CIOs in governments work for elected officials, and those elected officials get a report card at least every four years.   A report card from the voters.   If they’ve been doing a decent job delivering service, responding to constituent needs, and clearing the snow (alas poor Mayor Bloomberg), they’ll probably be re-elected.   If not, a new politician wins the election and becomes Mayor (or Governor or County Executive).

Just as in the Federal government, a change in the Chief Executive will often result in a change in the Cabinet – the department directors – including the CIO.   And much of that is happening this month, with the departure of good technology leaders such as Bryan Sivak in the District of Columbia and Gopal Khanna in Minnesota as well as a large group of others.

But to some extent, we government CIOs also help choose our elected Chief Executive.   Clearly we’ve applied for the CIO job and gone through an interview process so we know to some extent the potential that the voters will toss out the boss.  But also, in some cases, we’ve actively campaigned (on our own time, of course) and contributed financially to see a good politician win the election.

Government CIOs also have a legislative body of elected officials – a City Council, County Council or State Legislature – to help give us direction, set policy and review our budget.   Sometimes balancing the wishes of the chief executive versus the legislature – just as in the President versus the Congress – can be a daunting task!

From a CIO’s perspective, what makes a good elected official?

I’ll sum it up succinctly:    good elected officials see technology as an integral part of everything government does – as a way to enhance productivity of government workers and improve the delivery of service to constituents.     Less enlightened elected officials see technology as a cost to be contained: “Why do we have so danged many cell phones?” or “We spend way too much money on these computers.”

Wise elected officials – from a technologist’s point of view – ask questions such as “do government employees have the tools they need to do their jobs (cell phones, computers, applications)”, “are we duplicating costs between departments or functions” or “what technology investments today give us the greatest return on investment and service to constituents tomorrow”?    Sometimes even more specific questions such as “why don’t we allow employees to use their own smartphones, rather than having taxpayers buy them?” or “gee, why does every department have a different budgeting system” or “how come our police records management system doesn’t connect with our court case management system”?

Of course rarely are such questions asked in the heat of an election.    Voters are much more concerned about filling potholes and crime on the streets.  Amazingly, Seattle presently has a Mayor – Mike McGinn – who ran on a platform which included a significant technology:   getting better broadband networks to homes and businesses.

And increasingly the “voter on the street” has become tech savvy.    Gee, it seems like everyone – even the homeless – has a cell phone. And over 45.5 million of us have “smartphones”.  And almost everyone uses the Internet - in Seattle, 88% of have a computer and 84% have an Internet connection.   If you don’t have a computer at home, you can use one at the library or a community technology center.

The way we live is changing as well, as witnessed by the increasing amount of online commerce (thank you Amazon.com and Jeff Bezos) and social networking.

The time may be coming – soon – when voters are just as concerned about the usability of a government website from a mobile device, the ability to send video and photos to 311/911 centers, and being able to electronically find a parking space as they are with keeping the potholes filled.

Maybe the day will come when a politician promises a “computer on every desk, fiber broadband in every house and a smartphone in every pocket”.

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- Politics and Technology

Mayor Greg Nickels

Mayor Greg Nickels

On Friday August 21st, Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle conceded defeat in our 2009 primary election. In an eight-way race for Mayor, he came in third. Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn, both running their first races for elected office, received more votes than Greg in the August 18th primary.  The general election is November 3rd.  Come January 1st 2010, there will be a new Mayor in Seattle.  As CIO and a Department Director, I work directly for the Mayor.  On January 1st, either I’ll have a new boss, or Seattle will have a new CTO/CIO and I’ll have a lot of free time on my hands.

“Technology is driven by the business need.”   That’s a mantra for CIOs everywhere, whether we work in government , the private sector or at a non-profit.  As a CIO you can work in banking or manufacturing or a federal government agency or in a foundation or at a hospital.  In every case, the primary purpose of your business is not technology, but rather creating a product or delivering a service.  You, as CIO, use technology to make the organization more effective and efficient at its business, to give it a competitive edge.  It’s a wonderful job, CIO. You get learn and understand the business.  In my case, that’s permitting and utilities, emergency management and firefighting, entertainment (Seattle Center, parks) and policing, transportation and land use – all the products and services of the City government of Seattle.

And, as CIO, you are deeply involved in technology, which is full of innovation and constant change as IT moves ever forward.  And the CIO gets to marry the two, bringing the wonders of technology to the business of governing. 

Leaders change everywhere, and often suddenly.  Companies are bought and sold.  Non-profits expand and contract.  Businesses are born and die.  But only in government are your leaders elected, and do you get to watch the fascinating process of political campaigns, the ebb and flow of debates and public forums, the expose’ of news stories and endless mudslinging and chanting of blogs and newspapers and websites.  I have to admit that the vigorous debate and entertainment value of the political process is a significant portion the compensation I receive as Chief Technology Officer in Seattle. 

As Seattle’s CTO/CIO, I’ve not been one who believes technology and politics are separate.  I do NOT believe technology is “above” or “outside” politics.  As a private citizen, outside my job and away from my official duties, I’ve been involved in that political process.  I’ve engaged with candidates for many different offices, exploring a bit of their philosophies about the intersections of politics and governing and technology. 

The march of day-to-day business of Seattle’s City government and the use of technology in government will continue unchanged through this transition between Mayors.  The e-mail will keep flowing, the Seattle Channel will keep broadcasting.  The customer service systems will churn out utility bills and the financial management systems will process receipts and payments and general ledger entries.  We’ll continue stringing fiber optic cable and expanding the intelligent transportation system.  The service desk will answer calls for tech help and there will be dial tone when employees pick up their telephone sets.  The IVR (interactive voice response) will still process phone calls for help from constituents and the website www.seattle.gov will continue to expand and grow with services and information.  

If anything, our challenge continues to be the $72.5 million dollar general fund budget deficit.  Our water and electric utilities face financial challenges as great as the generally funded departments.  The Department of Information Technology will be smaller next year in both budget and staffing.  In developing that budget, I’ve tried to preserve core services plus a little staffing and funding for harnessing the ever-changing landscape of technology for the City’s use. 

Leadership – political leadership from Mayors and Governors and Presidents – does make a difference.  From a technology perspective, we are seeing that in Washington DC today, with a massive thrust towards transparency and accountability via the Internet and web.  We have a President who embraces change by using a BlackBerry and pushing his government to use Web 2.0 tools, blogs and online policy forums.

 Very recently, Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell, who chairs the Energy and Technology Committee, laid out a vision for embracing similar change in Seattle.   In Seattle, our website www.seattle.gov has twice won “top municipal web portal” (2001, 2006), our municipal TV channel 21 has twice received top honors for municipal television programming for a City our size (2007, 2008) and regularly receives Emmy awards.  We’ve embraced blogs, with an announcement this week of CityLink, multiple blogs on City department sites, linked together into a blog roll-up.  We have police and fire and other departments tweeting the latest news.   We are on the verge of municipal broadband (Mayor Nickels was NATOA’s Broadband 2008 Broadband Hero of the Year).   We have mashups showing Fire 911 calls, transportation traveler’s information and My Neighborhood Map.   We are wrapping up a ten-year, $20 million replacement of Law-Safety-Justice technology systems which has and brought new computer-aided-dispatch systems, computers and cameras to police and fire vehicles, and an integrated police-law-court system.   This year we will finish a wholesale upgrade of the entire City government to Microsoft’s Office 2007, Active Directory and the latest version of Exchange/Outlook.  There are many other accomplishments I could mention.   They are the direct result of having smart city employees, good managers, and enlightened leadership in our departments.

But these investments are also the result of having a City Council and a Mayor who see the value of technology and support its application to the business of government.   It does make a difference who is elected.   Those who want to see government more efficient and effective, and who want to apply technology to improve government, and to make it more accountable and transparent, need to be involved in the political process of electing leaders who will make that happen. 

In Seattle, over the next 50 days, that’s what I’ll be doing.

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- Two Way Presidential Debates

The Famous Five O'Clock Shadow Debate

The Famous Five O

A highlight of the recent Presidential campaign were the three Presidential debates. In my neighborhood, our good friends Teresa and Joe (the marketeer, not the plumber) sponsored debate parties, which were a great neighborhood-building event. We crowded into their living room around the big-screen HDTV, and alternately cheered and cried as each debate proceeded. We made dozens of pithy and funny comments (all our comments were both pithy and funny, although some were in questionable taste). We suggested pointed comebacks for the candidates. We had fun. We were that most basic unit of democracy – neighbors and friends.

The 2008 debates pioneered new uses of technology. In at least one primary debate, questions came from YouTube. MySpace and MTV hosted one-candidate town halls with questions submitted via instant messaging and e-mail. Twitter was used extensively, I’m sure, for debate comments. And with the 140 character limit, I’m sure the comments were concise, if not pithy! CNN even tried to gauge voter sentiment, second-by-second during the debate, via a set of graphs powered by three groups of captive voters, a tactic which was interesting but disparaged by most observers.

Televised debates have been a staple of presidential campaigns since the infamous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first of which was lost by Tricky Dick’s five o’clock shadow. In these “hi-tech” debates of 2008, I see the seeds of an interesting technology future for our still-young democracy.

My initial idea is a relatively simple one, but hard to realize. My friends Joe and Teresa have a widescreen HDTV. My household has an HDTV. With the digital transition in February, 2009, even more households will have digital or HD televisions.

A few months ago I purchased an HD-camcorder at Radio Shack for $200. I just use it to take video of my three-year old, but suppose I hooked it up to the HDTV, and suddenly we had a two-way HD video stream? And we did that in every household. And suddenly, instead of having a Democracy where we observe a debate, we could participate in it. Instead of having hundreds of people drive (polluting the air) to a town hall meeting to interact with candidates, we’d have a virtual town hall with HD video feeds from households all over the City (Think “second life”, but with real faces instead of avatars.)

Now, clearly that won’t work with a Presidential debate with 70 million households watching. But there are a LOT of elected officials in this country. There are debates for Governor, Mayor, City Council and even Sewer Commissioner. Constituents are interested and sometimes quite passionate about these races, and may be quite interested in participating from their living rooms.

Of course two-way HDTV requires bandwidth. A LOT of bandwidth. And present DSL or coaxial cable networks won’t support that sort of two-way bandwidth from dozens or hundreds of houses in a neighborhood at once. Fiber-to-the-premise will be needed, and I suspect that will still be somewhat rare for some time to come, unless you are lucky enough to live in a place served by Verizon FIOS or a municipal utility such as Lafayette, Louisiana, or Clarksville, Tennessee. Those cities will have a bit more democracy than the rest of us, I guess.

1960 was the year of debate cosmetics (five o’clock shadow), 2000 was the year of the candidate websites, 2004 was Howard Dean’s year of Internet organizing, and 2008 was the year of IM and twittering. I’m not sure what new technology will take 2012 by storm, but I’m certain that eventually two-way HDTV will make us all active participants in elections.

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- The Digital Fireside Chat

An Obama Text Message

An Obama Text Message

President-elect Barack Obama made groundbreaking use of technology to win the 2008 election. Can he now use technology to lead the nation and communicate with the nation’s people in new, life-changing ways?   I think so, and I think this foreshadows new ways for Governors, Mayors and other elected officials to lead and communicate.

On November 9th’s ABC program “This Week” (George Stephanopoulos), the discussion turned to our previous major national economic crisis – the Depression. Our current situation has some parallels to that in 1932 – new leadership in a nation facing an economic crisis of frightening dimensions. As we know, the New Deal never really “fixed” the Great Depression – it took World War II to do that. But 1932 is still remarkable for the terrific leadership of Franklin Roosevelt: fresh ideas, a new outlook, and a new way of communicating with people, including Roosevelt’s famous radio “fireside chats”. “This Week’s” commentators mentioned the possibility of “digital fireside chats” from our new President.

Barack Obama, with a tech saavy and skilled team, used the web and Internet to identify and mobilize up to ten million supporters, of whom at least three million financially contributed to the campaign. According to Time Magazine, the campaign raised $150 million in September, 75% of it online (not me, incidentally, I contributed by paper check!).

According to wired-dot-com, volunteers used Obama’s website to organize a thousand phone-banking events in the last week of the race — and 150,000 other campaign-related events over the course of the campaign. The campaign also created myBarackObama.com, essentially a social-networking site with 35,000 affinity groups – the site has some 1.5 million accounts. These social networks were also used to fight many of the false rumors and McCain robo-calls. The campaign even announced Senator Joseph Biden as Obama’s running mate via text message.

Bill Greener, a Republican consultant from Alexandria, quoted in the Seattle Times, said: “We are getting crushed in early voting and the efficient use of technology. It’s a huge deal when the other side is text-messaging to cell phones while our side is hoping we’ve got a good e-mail list.”

One surprising part of that statement is this: a “good e-mail list” is now taken for granted in campaigning – and it falls short!  Just three presidential elections ago, e-mailing was an esoteric technology only used by a small fraction of the population. 

Researchers at Princeton and the University of Michigan conducted a 2006 study and concluded that a text message delivered by cell phone could boost voter turnout among young people by 4 percent. While that might not sound like much, Obama’s margin of victory was just 6%.

Will the Obama campaign now shut down MyBarackObama.com and take its database of mobile phone numbers, e-mail addresses and supporter names and just put them on a backup tape and send them to Iron Mountain for storage until the next campaign?   I doubt it! More likely they will be used to communicate the new President’s message on programs and change, and turn out those supporters to lobby on behalf of legislation.

The “new” web, web 2.0, abounds with tools for communication and collaboration: not just text messaging, but blogging and social networking, YouTube channels and wiki’s. A vast variety of ways for a new, tech saavy, President to engage the people of the United States, and allow us to engage him with our ideas and energy.

Invariably eyes will turn to the 20% to 40% of the population who do not actively use technology or have Internet connections – the “digital divide”. Those without access to technology are, disproportionately, lower income and non-white. Bridging that divide has been a major effort at the City of Seattle and in many other governments.

Now, with a national leader who embraces high tech, it will become “cool” for everyone to use tech and have access. (We call this “Leadership by Example”). Cultural barriers to using technology will fall, and programs to bring it to everyone (such as Seattle’s Community Technology and Broadband work) will gain even more momentum.

Then perhaps we – the People – can become active participants in government, not just observers between elections.

All these are great ideas for a digital fireside chat – and a two-way one – via the electronic fireplace of the computer monitor.

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- High Tech Elections Dismay

Tech Elections Terror

Tech Elections Terror

Election night will grow into an agonizing election week as King County (Seattle) slowly and painfully counts its ballots. Almost a million ballots will be cast in King County today, but less than 400,000 will be counted by Wednesday morning. And then the ancient vote tabulating equipment used here will count another 90,000 ballots.   A day.

With some luck, we’ll know the election results by … next week.

What makes this all the more painful is two major races which depend upon the votes in this County. The 8th Congressional District encompasses the eastern suburbs and is a virtual dead heat between Democrat Darcy Burner and Republican incumbent Dave Reichert. Also, in 2004 the Governor’s race was decided by 129 votes, with present Governor Chris Gregoire ultimately beating Republican Dino Rossi. This year it is the same match-up, and Governing magazine rates the race almost a toss-up. And in that 2004 election, decided by 129 votes, Gregoire received 58% of the vote in King County, the most Democratic county in the state. And the slowest to count! 

I have to admit I get a thrill walking into Admiral Congregational Church here in West Seattle on election Tuesdays, walking past he American flag and the church women selling cookies, and then saying hello to Jackie and Nancy and Susan and the other poll workers. I feel so much more a part of my community and doing my civic duty than mailing an absentee ballot.

I don’t mid blackening the little bubbles on the paper ballot in the voting booth. And that paper ballot, held in my hand, and personally inserted by me into the ballot box, gives me comfort that my vote is real – and it counts.

But the trouble is, with a million ballots, you really need technology – fast, automated counting machines – to tally those ballots quickly.

And King County has machines, but they are … well … sixteen years old!

At first you might think “what sort of incompetent bureaucracy is this”? You’d be right about the incompetent bureaucracy, but it is not in King County, but at a little-known federal agency called the “Election Assistance Commission”. King County says the EAC has been slow to certify new technology, a charge echoed in Columbus Ohio, Milwaukee, Colorado and elsewhere.  The Board of Advisors of the EAC, in resolution 2008-3 issued in June, also referred to the EAC’s slow certification process for new equipment.

Some Commission!  Some “assistance”.  “They’re from the federal government and they’re here to help.”

Personal ballot places, real pollworkers, paper ballots. Pretty similar to the workings of Democracy in the 1700’s. Maybe, next year, the Elections Assistance Administration will reach the late 20th Century.

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