Monthly Archives: May 2014

Mr. FirstNet Comes to (the other) Washington

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Ed Parkinson comes to the other Washington

Ed Parkinson, Director of Government Affairs for the First Responder Network Authority, visited Washington State (“the other Washington”) and Oregon this week.  Mr. Parkinson met with senior officials here in Washington, including the State CIO, Michael Cockrill, and the Director of Emergency Management.   He met with Oregon State officials and also gave a talk at the joint meeting of the independent telecommunications companies of Oregon and Washington.   His appearance here in the Pacific Northwest gives me some additional hope for this noble effort called FirstNet.

The First Responder Network Authority was created by Congress in February, 2012.  It was authorized to use $7 billion in funds obtained from the auction of spectrum to wireless telecommunications companies.   FirstNet’s mission is to design and build a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.   Congress broadly defined “public safety” as not just First Responders like cops and firefighters, but also transportation, utilities, public works and anyone who has a role in responding and fixing the incidents that occur every day, as well as responding to major disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.

I am known as a skeptic of FirstNet’s progress, which I’ve blogged about in the past (Is FirstNet Stalled?).

But I’m also definitely heartened by recent developments in FirstNet’s efforts.

My current weather forecast for FirstNet is “fair and warmer”.   Ed’s visit, plus a couple of other recent events contribute to that forecast.   There are, however, a few storm clouds still on the horizon.

FirstNet

FirstNet

Here are some factors contributing to my sunnier forecast for FirstNet:

  • “We’re going to work with states to design this network.”   FirstNet doesn’t just have a 12 step plan – it has a forty-five (45) step plan to design a network for each state.   The plan includes a number of specific actions and meetings where local and state public safety officials will be engaged to specify the areas the network must cover, who will be authorized to use it, and how much it will cost.
  • FirstNet Folks are everywhere, underground and in the air.   FirstNet acting general manager T. J. Kennedy, Ed Parkinson and other senior staff spend a lot of time speaking at conferences, talking to folks on the sidelines, answering questions, calling folks on the phone and responding to email.    The procurement staff seem to be open to meeting with almost anyone who may have a service usable to FirstNet (if you can find their contact information).   This represents a refreshing level of engagement.
  • State Consultation is on the Fast Track.   FirstNet promised to publish a set of criteria on how they will work with states to design the network in each state by April 30th.  And they met the deadline!   David Buchanan is driving this process forward despite being short-staffed.  FirstNet is actively working with state points of contact (like me) to set up meetings and come meet with local fire and police chiefs, mayors, sheriffs, county commissioners and others.   The fact that Ed Parkinson visits with governors and states like Oregon and Washington is a positive sign.
  • A draft RFP by the end of 2014.    FirstNet officials have promised a comprehensive request for proposals (RFP) for equipment and services.  They’ve also promised to publish a draft of that RFP for review/comment by states, local jurisdictions and the vendor community.   This is an excellent approach, as it should produce a good set of contracts which FirstNet can tap to build the network.
  • Public comment and review.   FirstNet promises to ask its stakeholders – police and fire departments, transportation departments, electric and water utilities, commercial companies supplying products and others – to review some of its plans and ideas.   These “public comments” build on a series of requests for information (RFIs) which FirstNet issued last year.   This public comment process has worked well for other agencies such as the FCC and should help to generate good ideas for FirstNet.   But as of this moment, such a process is still just a promise.
Storm Clouds with a bit of Light

Storm Clouds with a bit of Light

Here are some of the storm clouds or difficult waters which FirstNet still needs to navigate:

  • “I’m from the Federal Government, and I’m here to help.”   Congress said FirstNet is an “independent authority” within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.   Yeah.  Right.   FirstNet is part of the Federal government.   When a citizen calls 911, the FBI doesn’t show up.   The local fire or police department shows up.  Usually within 4 to 10 minutes.   And those local responders depend on local radio networks and local 911 centers for dispatch and communications.   Anyone who has waited in a line at the social security office (“your current wait time is one hour, 54 minutes”) or a veteran’s hospital (“your current wait time is 2 years, 54 days”) knows what a federal bureaucracy can be like.  FirstNet has acknowledged it is subject to the onerous Federal Acquisition Regulation for buying stuff and the ponderous Federal personnel process for hiring staff.  FirstNet needs to show it is nimble and able to meet the needs of the cop on the beat or the electric company lineworker on a pole inches away from a 25 kilowatt power line.
  • How much will it cost me?   Will it be sustainable?   Will there be enough money to build and operate it?   These are all questions which those of us who are state points of contact (SPOCs) get every day.   And, hopefully, they will be answered as design moves forward.
  • Staffing.   FirstNet is charged with creating technical designs and business plans for each one of 56 states and territories.   Due to the onerous Federal personnel process (see above), most FirstNet staff have been hired as transfers from other federal agencies – that’s much easier to do than to hire people with experience on the street but outside the Federal personnel system.  Finding highly skilled technical staff has been even more of a problem and charged with controversy.   But gee, here we are, two+ years after FirstNet was created, and the agency is really not staffed to do its work, with only about 50 Federal employees and maybe 20 contractors.   Of course the real numbers are murky because of …
  • Transparency (or lack thereof).    President Obama promised an open, transparent, government on his first day in office, January 20, 2009.   But Federal agencies have been as secretive as ever in withholding real information from citizens, as shown in a recent PBS documentary.   I’ve urged FirstNet to trumpet every small success, to acknowledge failures, to talk publicly about every person they hire, full-timer or contractor, to be open about their roadmap and finances.  I know FirstNet staff struggle within the straightjacket of Department of Commerce policies on this.  And I’m heartened by their embracing regular webinars with stakeholders, Twitter (at least five FirstNet folks tweet) and blogging to improve transparency.  But, gee, where is the list of FirstNet staff and contact information on their website?    I couldn’t even find the name of the procurement officer much less a current organizational chart on the website.  In terms of transparency, there is a ways to go …
  • Board meetings.  FirstNet Board meetings are … well … ballet.  They seem to be well-orchestrated public theater.   The members are in a closed room in an disclosed location with video cameras for the rest of us to observe.   When the meeting is over they escape out the back door to avoid reporters and those interested in engaging them.  This is totally opposite of the way county commissions, city councils and state legislatures work, where officials are very approachable before and after meetings.    I will immediately say individual board members such as Sue Swenson and Jeff Johnson, and senior FirstNet staff from T.J. Kennedy on up to the lowest-paid secretary are, individually, approachable and responsive to email and phone calls.  But FirstNet Board meetings need to be coached on transparency and openness by any School Board meeting in any School District in the nation.
  • Advisory Committees.   FirstNet has one advisory committee, the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) with 45 members.   The meetings of the PSAC are closed.  Although, again, the chair of the PSAC, Harlin McEwen, is very open and engaging with stakeholders.     I personally think FirstNet could use an advisory committee of state elected officials (Governors, Attorneys General, Mayors) and perhaps an advisory committee of industry and commercial enterprises in addition to the PSAC.   And PSAC meetings, just like FirstNet Board meetings or your local City Council meetings, need to be open for attendance by anyone.

I find that everyone I encounter at FirstNet, from Mr. Sam Ginn and Acting General Manager T. J. Kennedy on up to the  administrative assistants, to be committed to the job.

Building FirstNet: the Nationwide Public Safety Wireless Network

Building FirstNet: the Nationwide Public Safety Wireless Network

Commitment was clear at NASA in the 1960s, where even the janitors knew what they were doing: “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

FirstNet staff know they are going to keep 330 million people safe and improve our national and local quality of life:  “I’m building the very first nationwide public safety wireless network.”

I see that commitment in Ed Parkinson.   I see that in David Buchanan.   I see that in T. J. Kennedy.   I see it in members of the FirstNet Board.  I see that in those of us laboring to engage responders in Oregon and Washington and Florida and Maryland.

The next FirstNet Board meeting is on June 3, 2014 in Colorado.

Will we see that commitment there as well?

I think and I trust that I will.

But we’ll see …

(This version is slightly edited and updated from the original.)

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Filed under FirstNet, Sept. 11th, wireless

Government Employees: Bureaucrats or Entrepreneurs?

Bureaucrat

Bureaucrat

There is an entrepreneur in almost every government employee.  It just needs to be unleashed.

“Innovation” is an overused word, especially in government.  Chief Innovation Officers are sprouting up in state and local governments as fast as dandelions bloom in the springtime.

I’ve contributed to this trend myself, publicly advocating Seattle’s new Mayor Ed Murray to appoint a Chief Innovation Officer.  He did appoint Robert Feldstein as Chief of Policy and Innovation (although my advocacy probably had little to do with that).

But can government employees at any level – City, County, State or Federal – really innovate?  Or are they doomed to be unrepentant bureaucrats, steadily but blindly following rules and procedures?

What is “innovation”?

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison and Innovation

I like Bryan Sivak’s definition of innovation as the “freedom to experiment”.

Many organizations – not just government, but really any large organization (think Boeing, the cable company, Microsoft) is captive to its rules, regulations, processes and procedures – its “bureaucracy”.   Governments are especially captive to their processes because they are subject to public scrutiny and criticism.  Many government officials hide behind policies and procedures saying “we treat everyone uniformly and equally” even though uniform processes often produce discriminatory results due to the differing circumstances of neighborhoods and individuals.

Consider a police department, for example, which handled abandoned cars in a uniform way. Callers were directed to a voicemail where they left information about the abandoned car in their neighborhood.  The information was transcribed onto slips of paper which were then given to parking enforcement officers (PEO) for each neighborhood who, along with a host of other duties, would track the cars down and tag them – when the PEO had time.  This business process had numerous problems – on weekends the voicemail box would become filled, and callers became frustrated.  Slips of paper became lost, or the information was improperly transcribed.  In some neighborhoods PEOs were overworked with other issues, and didn’t get to tagging the abandoned cars.

Freedom to experiment takes a lot of guts on the part of government officials.   By giving their employees or teams the freedom to try new processes – new ways of handling old problems – they must understand experiments may fail, subjecting their department to criticism.   “Fail fast, fail cheap, learn from the failure.”

Innovation is not just about Technology

In this razzle-dazzle world of the 21st century, we tend to think of “innovation” as synonymous with some cool new smartphone app or a new computer system which automates a paper-based process.

But the best innovations don’t necessarily involve technology.  Indeed, they often are just changes in business process, sometimes enhanced by technology.

For example, consider Seattle’s antiquated process for approval of siting of cabinets in the roadways.  These cabinets contain telecommunications equipment which allow higher speed internet in neighborhood. Placing the cabinets allows private companies to build high-speed fiber networks deep into the city.  But, sometime in 2008 or 2009, someone complained to a deputy Mayor that one of the cabinets appeared in a neighborhood and was unsightly and intrusive.  The City’s response was to create a draconian rule forcing telecom companies to get explicit approval of all homeowners, within 100 feet of a proposed cabinet, throughout the entire City of Seattle.

Such a rule has many problems, not the least of which is stifling competition to provide high speed internet.   But the City’s proposed response is to lift the rule, but require telecom companies to pay an annual fee for each cabinet.   The fee is, supposedly, to pay inspectors to make sure the cabinets don’t become overgrown by weeks or marked by graffiti.   In an age of 311 and citizen activism, with cameras in every smart phone, this is a solution worthy of the 1930s!   Clearly the city employees involved here are still living in a risk-adverse, anti-innovation age.

We do NOT want governments innovating on some issues.

Snohomish County Mudslide

Snohomish County Mudslide

Washington State just suffered a devastating mudslide near the town of Oso on State Highway 530.   Forty-three residents of that neighborhood lost their lives.    In some places in Washington State – and elsewhere – building codes would have restricted the construction of a home in a slide-prone area.  At the very least, the potential homebuilders could have been forced to acknowledge the danger in the area before they constructed.  Yet a few homeowners in Oso actively resisted such “government intrusion”.

We also want to be careful in how we innovate in matters involving public safety.  We don’t want experimentation with different shapes or colors of stop signs, for example.    In areas subject to hurricanes, earthquakes and similar natural disasters we probably want to be careful in how we change building codes.

 “Government Entrepreneur” is Not an Oxymoron

Mitchell Weiss said it best when he wrote this article in the Harvard Business Review on March 28th.  “The idea of ‘public entrepreneurship’ may sound … like it belongs on a list of oxymorons … But it doesn’t.  Public entrepreneurs around the world are improving our lives, inventing entirely new ways to serve the public.”   He cited a list of entrepreneurship in government, and there are many additional examples ranging from open data which begets a host of private sector apps to 311 to New Urban Mechanics, which has “institutionalized innovation” (and perhaps that IS an oxymoron) by both government employees and citizens.

Some things are best left to the private sector.

How about healthcare.gov as the poster child for this one?  No matter what you think of the Affordable Healthcare Act, the online implementation sucked.  Kurt del Bene, formerly of Microsoft, led a turn-around, but President Obama deserves credit for giving him the authority to fix the site.  And damn the bureaucrats in the Center for Medicaid Services (CMS) who used “tried and true” (i.e. non-innovative) processes to create it and failed badly.  Indeed, some states did much better, e.g. Washington.  In each case, however, engaging private sector companies and individuals is key to success.

Innovation is really about Leadership

It takes a lot of guts to be an innovative Mayor or Governor.   You’ll be subject to critics from every angle.  Government employees don’t want change because “this is the way we’ve always done it” and they fear individual responsibility to make decisions.    Members of the public and business communities will immediately line up on one side or the other, perceiving themselves as winners or losers.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

Yet examples of courageous, innovating, leaders are abundant.  In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt forced the Washington Correspondents Association to admit an African-American reporter Harry McAlpin.  In 1964 Lyndon Johnson pushed civil rights legislation despite the obvious and continuing (to this day) damage to the Democratic Party in the South.   Just this year, Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle pushed a $15 minimum wage and obtained a supermajority of 21 of 24 members of his business-labor committee on a plan.

Great leaders know when to push, when to ask, when to cajole, and, most important, how to accept risk to push forward innovation and improvement in government.

There is an entrepreneur in (almost) every government employee and every citizen.  It just needs to be unleashed.

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Filed under 311, employees, government, innovation, open data