Category Archives: ethics

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

– Miracle of Government Regulation

The Chicken Gun

The Government-Mandated Chicken Gun

Are there any “good guys” in government (or elsewhere) these days?

To listen to the crop of presidential candidates this year, you’d think government on all levels is a total drag on the economy and if you’d just eviscerate it and starve it via budget cutbacks, the private sector would explode creating millions of jobs and an economic nirvana.

An editorial in today’s (October 14th) Wall Street Journal talked about 81,405 pages of government regulations being added to the Federal Register last year, at a “total cost to the economy of $1.7 trillion a year” (although no source is cited for this figure).

Coincidentally today, I had the chance to listen to Steven Berlin Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From“.  Steven was speaking at the Code for America Summit in San Francisco [a wonderful gathering of innovators inside and outside government – I’ve blogged about Code for America before and I’ll do so again shortly].

Johnson related the story of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which made an emergency landing in the Hudson River after striking a flock of geese upon takeoff from New York’s JFK Airport. The incident was dubbed the “miracle on the Hudson” because no one died – or was even seriously hurt – in this near tragedy. Great credit for that result goes to a true hero of aviation, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger.

But Johnson made another point – the incident really could be called the “Miracle of Government Regulation” and another hero is the Chicken Gun. The Chicken Gun fires chicken carcasses into jet engines to test their abilities to withstand bird strikes. Such testing is required by the Federal Aviation Administration before it will certify jet engines and airplanes. Flight 1549’s engines were certified in 1996 and, after the goose strike, simply shut down, rather than flying apart or exploding when they ingested geese.

Thank you FAA and your regulations and engine certification processes!

(Note and confession: I shamelessly stole the title of this blog from Johnson’s presentation at Code for America.)

As we know, there are a whole host of federal regulations relating to aircraft and flying. And those regulations contribute to an air safety record which has been phenomenally successful.

Would any of us want to get in an aircraft or fly without these FAA regulations in force?   Of course not!

No doubt the FAA are “good guys”.

Today’s same Wall Street Journal edition carried a front page photo and headline regarding the conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading. Raj gets 11 years in prison for using insider information to manipulate stock prices and make himself (and friends) rich. Also in the Journal are pictures of Bernie Madoff, sent to prison for 150 years for his Ponzi scheme, and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron sent to prison for 24 years for all the accounting and other shenanigans at Enron in the early 2000’s.

Here we have three individuals who hurt every one of us Americans.

We all own stocks in one way or another, and insider stock trading takes money from our pockets and puts it in the likes of the Raj Rajaratnams’.

Enron's Lies
Enron

Skilling was especially evil – Enron tried to corner the market for electricity, driving up prices nationwide. Many investor and publicly-owned utilities, including Seattle City Light and Snohomish Public Utility District, went heavily into debt as a result, to pay for the artificially inflated prices created by this criminal.

Thanks to various Federal laws and regulations, these monsters and many others who have sapped our economy of money and jobs are in prisons.   Is insuring the fairness of the “playing field” of business and the financial markets a “drag” on the economy?  I think not!  Bring on the regulators!

In just one more example, think about automobile gas mileage. Would any car maker willingly invest tons of money into improving gas mileage without government regulation?  Undoubtedly NOT. They’d continue to produce gas-guzzlers, which would use a lot more petroleum, further enriching the oil companies, who willingly would pull it out of the ground at whatever price, increasing our dependence on imported oil, while at the same time increasing air pollution. That’s the cheap way to do business and make tons of money, despite all the deleterious effects.

I could go on-and-on about the miracles of government regulation which keep our water clean, make sure that sewage is purified rather than being dumped raw into rivers, keep working conditions in farms and factories safe, provide for safe automobiles and highways, reduce the risk of disease and contamination in our food supply, and much much more.

How does this relate to being a City government CIO?

Amazingly, I’m a regulator too! I and my department regulate cable television franchises for the people of Seattle, making sure that cable TV and telecomm companies build out all areas of the City, not such affluent ones where the companies can make a lot of money. We also require low-income and senior discounts, and a basic cable rate of $12 a month or less. We require, through a cable customer bill of rights, that customers be treated fairly and with dignity.  These are regulations which make cable television available to almost everyone.

I’m sure there are useless or burdensome government regulations, but I think most regulators are really the “good guys”.

Hey, Editors at the Journal, if business people and the financiers and corporate executives on Wall Street would police and regulate themselves (and, in honestly, many of them – especially small businesspeople – do), if they would not pollute the air and water creating superfund sites, would not use inside information to manipulate stock prices and enrich themselves, and would build safe homes and cars which are frugal with gas and low polluting, maybe we wouldn’t need so much regulation by governments.

Until that day arrives, I will proudly talk about the “Miracle of Government Regulation” and I would not want my family living in these United States without it.

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Filed under economy, ethics, Seattle City Light

Copyrighting Your Face

Hollow Face Illusion by Grand Illusions

Hollow Face Illusion by Grand Illusions

Original Post: 23 April 2008

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s blog entry “1984”.

Cookies
Most of us know about “tracking cookies” (and not the chocolate chip kind which I crave!).  Tracking cookies help advertisers and websites know when we’ve visited and about our shopping preferences.  Cookies and similar technology help websites tell us “Welcome back, Bill … since you bought that book on wine making we have some other vitner’s cookbooks you might be interested in …”

Recognizing Video
Could such technology be applied to video?
We all know video cameras are really everywhere.  Oh, they are pretty well hidden, especially in businesses.  Occasionally we’ll glance up and see the mirrored half-sphere hanging from a post, but rarely will we give it a passing thought.
What happens, though, as video computing and detection technology improves?   By “computing and detection technology”, I mean computers which can recognize video images.   Already the City of Seattle has deployed police vehicles with cameras which can recognize license plates as the car drives down the street.  This technology is used to find stolen cars.  We know Google and others are working hard to make this technology much more usable – to recognize faces from photos and video, for example.  This, in turn, presages a day when that video camera in the bank can actually capture your face, recognize who you are, and, for example, allow a bank teller to actually greet you by name and have your account information up on the screen when you approach the teller window.  Indeed, such technology could allow almost complete automation of bank teller windows and ATM machines.
This use of such technology seems innocuous.  But suppose, as you walk down the street, a video camera captures your face, recognizes you, determines (via a database) that you like hazelnut lattes and sends a text message sent to your cell phone that, if you turn into the coffee shop on the left you can get 10% off a grande hazelnut latte? 

Death of Anonymity
Will we get to the day where no one is really anonymous walking down the street?  Indeed, as a recent Hillary Clinton political ad used stock video footage of a sleeping child (who turned out to be an Obama supporter), will we need to copyright our faces to make sure they are not used without our permission?  Again, I’m not so sure we have government to fear here (because of regulation and public disclosure laws) so much as the never-ending drive of our consumption-oriented, advertising-driven society to sell us more “stuff”.

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