Today, February 22nd, is the second anniversary of the Spectrum Act. Congress passed that law on February 22, 2012. It created the First Responders’ Network Authority. The law was the culmination of over a decade of advocacy by many public safety officials who saw the inadequacy of responder communications in the wake of disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and many smaller incidents. In these incidents cops and firefighters and paramedics and other responders found themselves unable to adequately communicate and protect the public.
FirstNet’s mission is grand: to build the first nationwide public safety communications network for responders, especially first responders to both daily incidents and larger disasters.
Here we are, two years into the ten-year mission authorized by Congress. It has been a slow start, and lately – over the past 6 months – FirstNet’s progress appears to have either stalled or is undergoing a reboot.
This is very frustrating for those of us in states and cities who are trying our best to evangelize and support FirstNet’s mission. I’m the FirstNet State Point of Contact (SPOC, commonly pronounced “spock”) here in the Other Washington on the west coast. I’ve been speaking to groups of public officials and police chiefs and emergency managers and firefighters and other responders in Washington State about FirstNet since May, 2013.
Lately, the mood of the audiences is starting to change. “Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard you say that before, Bill, but what’s happening now? Where’s the beef?”
I’m starting to feel a bit like a computer software salesman pushing vaporware. “Oh yes, that feature will be in our next release slated to come out in 2017”.
So here’s my take on what’s going on Inside-the-Beltway.
1. Here come the Bureaucrats. There is one phrase in the Spectrum Act which causes a lot of confusion: “There is established as an independent authority within the NTIA the ‘First Responder Network Authority’ or ‘FirstNet’” (47 USC 1424 Section 6204).
An “independent authority” “within” a long-established bureaucracy? What the hell does that mean? Well, I’m sure lawyers at NTIA and the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security and the FCC have all been spending thousands of hours trying to figure that out.
I know if I was a head bureaucrat at Commerce or NTIA that I’d interpret it as having another function (or office or directorate or whatever the bureaucratize is) within my organization. In other words “You report to me, FirstNet. Start acting like all other NTIA offices.”
I suspect there is an epic struggle going on within the Beltway for the control of FirstNet and its $7 billion in funding. I don’t have direct evidence, but if you look at job descriptions which have been posted, e.g. for the Chief Information Officer, they clearly stated the FirstNet CIO would report to the NTIA CIO on a dotted line and would enforce NTIA information technology policies. We know FirstNet is subject to all Federal personnel procedures for hiring staff, issuing RFPs and doing procurements. FirstNet Board members have publicly said it will take them a full year to develop and issue and receive RFPs.
So much for the “independent” part of that law.
2. Contract staffing. FirstNet’s already had a scandal. Story County, Iowa, Sheriff and FirstNet Board member Paul Fitzgerald spoke out at the April 23, 2013, Board meeting. Sheriff Fitzgerald protested, among other things, conflicts of interest between board members and contract technical staff hired to do the real meat-and-potatoes work of designing and building the nationwide network. I’ve heard – but cannot verify – that some of the contract staff hired in late 2012 and 2013 were paid $300 an hour.
Now hiring contract staff for engineering and technical work at market rates is done all across the federal government. Federal employee pay scales are compressed and have been kept low for a number of years by Congress. So hiring outside technical staff is a prudent action. The allegations of Sheriff Fitzgerald go far beyond just cost, however. They also relate to the contract vehicle used, how the staff were identified and hired, and more. And the conflict-of-interest allegations are still open and under investigation by the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce.
But here’s the upshot: the contract under which the staff were hired expired in October, 2013. Most of the existing 35 or so contracted staff (who were quite competent, by the way) were laid off. Three new contracts were established in October. But as of this writing – four months later – no technical contractors, and only a handful of public relations contractors, have been hired.
How do you create a nationwide design and individual state-specific plans for a wireless network without technical staff?
I suspect #1 above is at play here – the typical reaction of any government bureaucracy to allegations or scandal is to circle the wagons and lay on the rules, regulations, oversight, multiple approvals by multiple levels of officials. This doesn’t bode well for either the short-term or long-term ability of FirstNet to get the staff support it needs.
3. Full-Time Staffing. I think FirstNet has about 25 federal employees working for it. Their goal, I believe, is to have 100 or more full-time staff to do the work.
Gee, two years into a $7 billion project and only 25 full-time staff have been hired!? And, frankly, most of those folks are transfers from other federal departments such as Commerce and Homeland Security. In the Federal personnel system, it is relatively easy to hire and transfer existing federal government employees. It is much harder to hire from the non-Federal staff – especially folks with on-the-ground responder experience. Multiple interview panels and layers of human resource review, not to mention background checks and financial disclosure.
There have been a few major hires from the outside – General Manager Bill D’Agostino with commercial/Verizon background, T.J. Kennedy with Utah State patrol background, and Bill Casey formerly of the Boston Police via the FBI. But key positions go unfilled, such as the CIO and CTO positions.
Despite the difficulties, every full-time person working at FirstNet who I personally know – no matter what their background – is very committed and competent.
But, again, #1 is at play, and at this rate it will be years before FirstNet gets its complete complement of full-time staff.
4. Stiffing your friends. Eight cities, regions and states around the country were funded for about $400 million under the Federal stimulus (technically the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, ARRA/BTOP, a mouthful) or similar grants to build public safety LTE networks compatible with FirstNet. Many of these networks were well along – Harris County (Houston) is operational. Charlotte, North Carolina and Mississippi (statewide) were substantially deployed. The San Francisco Bay area (BayRICS) was moving rapidly in planning and site development.
But when FirstNet was created in 2012, NTIA abruptly stopped seven of these projects, restricting their construction until FirstNet could review them and authorize them to be completed. FirstNet started negotiations with them, but in the case of Charlotte and Mississippi, those negotiations have fallen apart and the LTE part of the networks is shut down. Motorola, vendor on the BayRICS project, was unable to reach accord with FirstNet and gave up its BTOP grant in December, 2013.
I don’t know specifically why each of these negotiations failed. In some cases I believe it was FirstNet’s refusal to promise to incorporate the local network into its overall nationwide plan. In other words, FirstNet might actually overbuild the BTOP-funded network in the city, region or state. Such an overbuild would not give the local agencies time to recoup their investments. In other cases FirstNet refused, I think, to allow the local network the ability to expand over time and improve coverage in its geographic area, which could hamstring the use of the network by responders.
Each of these jurisdictions invested considerable local funds and political capital, not to mention time and effort, into these projects. The projects, if completed, would have been showcases for the promise of FirstNet. More importantly, FirstNet would have created a cadre of mayors, elected officials, Sheriffs, police chiefs, fire chiefs and others singing the praises of public safety broadband.
Maybe the states were asking too much of FirstNet. Perhaps the lawyers got things tied into legal knots. Maybe the business plan for funding and operating these networks wasn’t going to work under any circumstance. All I know is that now, in these jurisdictions, there is simply bitterness over a failed effort and promise.
And there are four jurisdictions which DO have spectrum leases with FirstNet, although their timelines and deliverables are still murky. Undoubtedly there are lessons to be learned and advocates to be created via those projects.
5. Overpromise and under-deliver. We’ve had a number of false starts. At the very first Board meeting, in September, 2012, member Craig Farrill announced a “conceptual network design”. Really? Where was the collaboration with the public safety community before this announcement? At regional meetings in May and June 2013, FirstNet Board members were talking about coming out to states and meeting with Governors within 60 days. Yeah, right. In the fall of 2013 we in the states were hoping to have a lot of specifics in terms of materials and data requirements to conduct outreach and education for potential users in our states. We’re still waiting. Even minor things like having a viable website at www.firstnet.gov branded for local and state public safety has been promised since summer, 2013. Today that website has still got the NTIA brand all over it, and is only minimally functional. Gets us back to #1, I guess.
Still, I’m hopeful.
I’ve listed a whole set of concerns and issues, but I also see some positive signs.
This coming week and in early March, FirstNet and NTIA staff will hold two workshops for the SPOCs and our staff in the Eastern and then the Western U. S. We’re hoping to see a clear roadmap for the FirstNet’s ahead. Deputy Manager T. J. Kennedy recently laid out much more detail on how the consultation with states will occur. FirstNet has published a number of Requests for Information (RFIs) seeking a lot of information from potential vendors and others on a number of aspects of the network ranging from devices to network design to applications and apps stores (although, with the staffing shortfalls mentioned above, I’m not sure who is reading the responses). General Manager Bill D’Agostino says his plan for the year ahead “will make your head spin”.
There are hundreds of us out here, FirstNet, who still believe in you, believe in the mission, and want to help make it happen.
I’ve worked as a public sector employee and a manager of government technology workers for three decades. While public sector workers share many attributes and work attitudes with their private sector counterparts, there are also some things unique to public sector employment. In writing this, I was inspired by two recent blog posts by Steve Radick including “Ten Things You Should be Saying to Your Boss.”
First, government is, in the minds of many people, synonymous with bureaucracy. I’ve blogged about this before, but all large organizations, public or private, are painted with the bureaucracy brush. The bigger the organization, the more bureaucracy – and this applies to banks, manufacturing companies, the software industry and, well, everything where there are at least two people working together.
What should public employees be saying to their CIO bosses? When I was a CIO in a large City government, what should my folks have been telling me? And again, thanks Steve Radick for the inspiration for many of these. http://www.steveradick.com
1. “Don’t worry about it – I got it.” It is really great when, as a manager, I know an employee is going to handle something – take care of it, keep people informed and get the job done. Erin Devoto, my deputy at the City of Seattle and now the acting Chief Technology Officer (CTO) there, is a living, breathing, example of this. She took so many projects and drove forward to make sure they were accomplished.
2. “Here’s a problem – here’s what I’d recommend and why.” Some of my worst experiences as a public sector manager were “monkey transfers”. That’s where an employee recognized a problem or potential issue, brought it to my attention and then walked out of the office – transferred the monkey from her/his back to mine. But some of my best experiences were when employees recognized an issue, worked with their team to brainstorm some potential courses of action, and laid them out for a decision. Usually those employees, after the decision was made, walked out of the office saying #1 above – “I’ll handle it”. What a relief. I’m going to especially call out Mr. Stan Wu at the City of Seattle on this one, as he did this many times for me on projects ranging from fiber optic networks to radio networks and others.
3. “What can I do to help?” There are few better experiences for anyone – employee or boss – than being faced with a difficult situation, and having the team come together to figure out a solution and implement it. Willingness to proactively help address issues or problems – not waiting to be tasked with an assignment, is a hallmark of a great employee.
4. “Playing the ‘Angel’s Advocate’ …” I’ve been in so many meetings which go on and on as employees raise one potential issue after another with a proposed course of action or an idea. I used to cringe when someone said “Playing the Devil’s Advocate …” and then went on to describe some low probability stupid scenario about how a course of action might fail. It’s almost like the employees had a pool or a bet on who could come up with the most issues or the most unlikely scenarios to kill the plan. Give me an “Angel’s Advocate” – a proponent – any day of the week. And if it is a legitimate issue or problem with the idea, suggest a way to mitigate it (see #2 above).
5. “I just read/watched/heard … and it got me thinking that…” As the boss, I love new ideas, and with all the changes in technology we’ve seen in the last 20 years, such ideas abound. In government it is relatively easy to find ideas which haven’t been tried – usually private sector companies are first to adopt new technologies such as online services or mobile applications. Figuring out creative ways to use those in the government’s service to constituents is something every employee can do.
6. “This idea has some risks, here they are, but I’d like to try doing it … ” Government employees are notoriously risk adverse. I never quite understood that – most are protected by civil service or seniority rules or union bargaining agreements. Perhaps the risk aversion rises from fear of a newspaper headline or wasting taxpayer money. Frankly, I think bad bosses have a role to play too – ones who steal ideas for themselves or have a negative attitude about anything new. In any case, an employee who is willing to risk their reputation on an innovative solution can be a breath of fresh air.
7. “You know how we’ve been doing X? Why do we do it that way?” This one needs little explanation. We call it “paving the cowpath” when we apply technology or automate some business process without examining how to improve the process itself. Whether it be procurement or personnel actions or decision making or delivering a service, we should always look at the process first. This is even more important in government organizations where culture can be hard to change and existing business processes have very deep roots. No amount of technology or automation will materially improve an outmoded process.
8. “How am I doing?” Frankly, I used to cringe at employees who asked me this. Giving feedback – and honest feedback – is hard. Many employees don’t want to hear bad news and many bosses don’t want to give it. But regular sessions of feedback are much more important than formal performance evaluations. And, of course, the flip side of this coin is willingness to accept that feedback, including #9 below. And employees don’t need to wait for the boss to initiate such conversations.
9. “Here’s what I learned and how I’ll do it better next time”. It is hard for many bosses to give feedback to employees on performance. It’s much easier if the employee recognizes their own strengths and weaknesses and proactively brings them forward for discussion. This requires, of course, a high level of self-awareness, which is difficult for many people. (I had a long-standing employee who was totally delusional about his technical skills and abilities.) Going through post-mortems on projects and honest self-evaluation is important, and then vetting it with the boss is, again, more important than formal performance evaluations.
10. “Here’s how I feel about that … ” It takes a lot of guts for an employee to come forward to his/her supervisor, manager or director and give their honest opinion. The other side of this coin is that your opinion should be well considered and logical, not just some unsupported personal opinion. And it should be YOUR opinion, as an employee. I hated it when an employee said “And everyone else feels this way too”. Oh yeah? Where are they at? And who appointed you as the spokesperson? Of course, some supervisors don’t want to hear what their employees have to say, which is a subject for a different blog post.
11. “Yes, Boss, sometimes I know you’ll move my cheese … ” Change is a constant in any technology organization, or, indeed, any organization which uses technology at all. Whole industries are undergoing upheaval – just ask anyone in the newspaper, photography or land-line telephone business. Employees need to expect change, even in government, and sometimes it won’t be an improvement. But, conversely, the boss needs to explain the changes and the rationale for them.
And speaking of bosses, just like with Steve Radick’s columns, my next blog post will be about what the CIO or boss should be saying to Public Sector Employees.
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
One 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).
A 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.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
Violent crime statistics tell us that Seattle is safer now than it was 10 or 12 years ago; that violent crime – even in the last year – has decreased. But statistics are cold comfort to downtown shoppers in light of the September stabbing death of a Shoreline Community College professor after a Sounders’ game, drive-by shootings like the one at the Othello Street light rail station last month and the attack on a Metro bus driver downtown earlier this year.
Both Mayor Michael McGinn and Mayor-elect Ed Murray have proposed adding additional police officers — perhaps 15 to 25 more — to the Seattle Police Department. But those numbers are tiny: Putting an officer on the street costs $100,000 a year and, in order to make sure there’s one additional officer on the street at any given time, you’d have to add five officers to the department.
Clearly the city cannot afford to buy its way to improved public safety this way.
Luckily, technology provides a cheaper option: surveillance cameras.