Category Archives: Fedgov

– Sugar Rush Stimulus

Local and State Stimulus as well as FedgovThe Federal economic stimulus package is at the top of the news. Everyone is looking to Washington DC to spend our way out of a deepening recession.

And we’re all going to be disappointed. After the disappointment, local and state governments will have to pick up the slack.

The Fedgov can pass an 800+ billion dollar stimulus package (here’s a fascinating graphic of the package) .

It can be full of tax breaks and grants and “shovel ready” projects. And – hopefully – that will lessen the effect of this recession. But after that, the Feds will be tapped out. Because the $800 billion comes on top of a $700 billion TARP financial-system rescue on top of a two trillion dollar war on top of a 10 trillion dollar national debt. This “stimulus” is also full of tax breaks which put more money in the pockets of Americans and businesses. But there is no guarantee we’ll actually use that money to buy things and pump up the economy. Consumption accounts for over 70% of the GDP (according to the Federal Reserve) up from 62% in 1970. And consumer debt has skyrocketed – while personal income has risen about 500% since 1980, household debt has risen over 1000%. It is just as likely Americans will pay down their debt as opposed to “spend and stimulate”.

After the “sugar rush” of the stimulus projects is over, what can local and state governments do to address the frightening prospect of middle-class white collar recession plus 10% unemployment? We need some longer term, more sustainable programs.

I attended a brainstorming session with some City and non-profit leaders this past week, and here are some random thoughts and facts about from the “other Washington” (State):

1. Consumer spending may be down, driving down the economy, but people are contributing in other ways. In Seattle we had 130,000 people visiting and using food banks and meals programs in 2008. But Puget-Sound area people also have contributed two million more pounds of food to Food Lifeline over the last 7 months, and volunteerism to support food banks is breaking records.

2. In parallel to that, we’re seeing increased use of City facilities. Use of parks is way up, perhaps because people can’t afford expensive days out of town. Library circulation is up 10% to 15%, as is library walk-in traffic. Free public computers in libraries are booked all day, perhaps by job-seekers and resume-writers, but also by the homeless. Community technology centers are doing a land-office (as in “Hooverville“) business.

3. We need a local stimulus package. And the people of Seattle have continually stepped up to this challenge. Seattle-area voters have approved a number of taxes and levies over the past few years, which will pump more work into the local economy. These include:
•   Sound Transit. In November, 2008, voters approved a $17 billion expansion of light rail, adding 36 miles to the system.
•   Pro-Parks Levy. This levy passed in November 2008 and will fund $146 million in parks improvements over the next six years.
•   “Bridging the Gap”. In 2006, Seattle voters approved $365 million for street, bridge, sidewalk and other transportation improvements.
•   Housing Levy. Seattle voters have twice approved levies to create affordable housing, the latest one in 2001 for $76 million.
•   Fire Facilities Levy. In 2003 Seattle voted $167 million to remodel or rebuild every fire station in Seattle. In 2008 we opened a new Fire Alarm Center and Emergency Operations Center as just one of the projects funded by that levy.
•   Pike Place Market rebuild. This $73 million levy also passed in November 2008 and funds a rebuild of the 101 year old historic market.

4. This morning (Wednesday, February 11th) Mayor Greg Nickels will announce a further set of local stimulus ideas and projects.

We’re losing both blue collar and white collar jobs – construction and high tech and aerospace jobs. We’ll need every one of those projects above and even more initiatives to put Seattle and the Puget Sound back to work to move us out of this recession.

The bottom line is simple: the Fedgov stimulus is an important blood transfusion for an ailing economy. But the patient is very sick, and the transfusion will be a sugar rush. It will be up to state and local governments to keep the medicine coming until the economy regains strength and becomes robust again.

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Filed under budget, consumerism, economy, Fedgov

– Cyber City Armageddon?

and Loose Laptops Sink Cyber (Security)

and Loose Laptops Sink Cyber (Security)

Is City-Cyber-Armageddon just around the corner?

Today City governments depend upon technology – more than ever – to operate.  Constituents depend upon the Internet, web, e-mail , cell phones to communicate with their government for information and services.  But, gee, how secure and reliable are these systems, these networks and these communication?

I recently had a non-classified meeting with some fedgov Department of Homeland Security cyber folks, and DHS contractors about potential cyber security tools.  I’m a “geek”, so I love tools and software.  I’m a senior public official, so I also like charts and graphs and statistics.  My meeting had plenty of both tools and statistics.  But I walked away from the meeting ready to move to a mountain cabin “off the grid” and isolated from the world.

Is cybersecurity really a major issue?  What can a municipal government do to improve HomeCity Security?

Is it an issue? I offer the following observations:
•   A laptop computer with records of 26.5 million veterans was stolen from the home of a Veteran’s Administration employee in May 2006 (later recovered).  But these veterans (including me – I’m a retired Army Officer) received letters notifying us of the problem.  The VA also lost records of 1.8 million veterans in February 2007 and covered up other data breaches.  They (that’s “we” for those of us who pay fedgov income tax) paid for a lot of clean-up and credit monitoring.
•   The day after his inauguration, President Obama published a cybersecurity plan and intends – as a top priority – to appoint a national cybersecurity advisor.
•   Within the last few months, Heartland Computer Systems may have lost over 45 million consumer credit card numbers .
•   The nation’s electrical grid is allegedly vulnerable to cyberattack (and my City operates the nation’s ninth largest municipal electric utility with 300,000 customers)
•   Conficker worm may be infecting one million new computers a day

What scares me?

1. Injury to the people who trust the government of the City of Seattle.  The people of Seattle entrust their credit card numbers, their phone numbers, their personal information to my government.  When they call 911, they expect help.  And we’ve had web-based SQL databases compromised by SQL injection attacks, so any constituent visiting those websites receives computer viruses… from us!   If someone is hurt physically or financially or emotionally because we’ve failed to keep the telephone network or their personal information cybersecure, I’ve failed as CTO, and I’ve failed big-time.   I never want to be sending letters like the one I received from the VA.

2.  Damage to the City of Seattle’s reputation.  One reason my government works so well is that the people of Seattle trust us: last November, despite a looming recession, they passed levies to fund more parks, a Pike Place Market renovation, and a $17 billion transit system.  A cyber-incident will damage that special relationship.

3.  Outage of the City’s technology systems. Constituents use technology to report problems and request service from the City.  They call 911 or 684-3000 (utility customer service).  They send e-mail.  The pay bills on the web.  And City employees use technology to coordinate our response – radio systems for public safety, telephone and data networks, electronic mail systems, Windows servers and a 24×7 data center.  I’m proud of 99%+ uptime on those systems to “make technology work for the City.  Cyber incidents endanger those systems.

How can we improve HomeCity Cybersecurity?  Here’s what I’m doing:

1.  Hired a damn fine CISO.  My Chief Information Security Officer, Mike Hamilton, is the best.  Worked for a long time in private industry, came to Seattle ready to give his expertise in public service.  Like all CISO’s, he sees bad guys everywhere.  Unlike many CISO’s, he knows that technology and the Internet are here to stay and we need to take practical measures to make them as secure as possible.

2.  Assemble and train a team of cyber-techies and professional cyber-sleuths.  We have dedicated, skilled IT security professionals scattered throughout City government.  Their departments and agencies spent money to train them, and CISO Hamilton matrix-manages them to patch and secure systems.  We use them as a cyber-incident-management team under Hamilton’s Deputy – David Matthews – to investigate and get to root cause of any potential cybersecurity incident.  They are our best cyber-defense.

3.  Test every doggone Internet-facing application.  Do penetration testing on our Internet connection.  Watch firewall logs.  Apply every Microsoft or Cisco or (fill-in-the-blank technology company) security patch as soon as you can.  No more than five days max from patch release to deployment.

4.  Selectively outsource.  We’ve outsourced management of credit card payments to skilled third parties, rather than “storing and managing our own”.  We can’t outsource accountability, but we can share risk.

5.  Buy some basic tools.  Anti-virus for every computer.  Patch distribution software.  Vulnerability scanning software.  System logging and aggregation software.  Web site blocking software.  Then use it.

6.  Educate, train, harangue and educate again.  The weakest link in every cybersecurity defense is employees.  Employees who transport data from work to home on thumbdrives, potentially losing the data or introducing a new virus or worm.  “Loose lips sink ships” and “Loose laptops sink cyber-security”.  Employees who surf the Internet and hit questionable websites.  We train employees on good security practices, harangue management to enforcement them, and then train again. 

I’m not as concerned about cyber attacks crippling public safety radio systems or the SCADA systems which control the electrical grid and water supply or traffic signal control.  These systems are vulnerable, but have in-depth layers of defense and employees dedicated to protecting them.

I’m concerned about that single lost portable hard drive with social security numbers.  Or that one SQL server database which should be “read only” but is “read-write” and compromised.  Or that employee who goes to a web gambling site and downloads a day-zero cyber virus.

Technology is here to stay. Internet access will only increase.  But we’re working hard to mitigate the vulnerabilities.

And I don’t sleep very well at night.


Filed under 911, cybersecurity, egovernment, Fedgov, government operations

– Shocked, SHOCKED to learn …

Shocked over the FCC Chairman?

Shocked over the FCC Chairman?

I am schocked, SHOCKED to learn that an senior official of the Bush Administration would abuse his power, withhold information from the public and members of his agency, and attempt to manipulate data and information to advance his personal agenda, perhaps directing excess payments of up to $100 million to private companies.

Or, to continue the parallels with the 1942 movie classic Casablanca, “play it again, W”. (Yeah, I know the line “play it again Sam” was never in the movie!)

I’m not referring to the bungled management of Iraq in 2003-4 or the vast sums of money funneled in no-bid contracts to companies like Halliburton. I’m referring to the majority staff report of the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce, released this week, and its primary subject, the management of the Federal Communications Commission by Chair Kevin Martin.

My comment: DUH. The report is NOT news to those of us in local government who’ve had to deal with the FCC Chairman and the outfall of a few of his decisions over the past eight years.

Exhibit 1: Congress authorized the removal of UHF television channels 52 through 69, freeing 108 megahertz of spectrum in the 700 megahertz (MHz) band for other uses. This spectrum was really valuable because it has good penetration of walls and into buildings. The FCC auctioned most of this spectrum to wireless telecommunications companies with the money going into the federal treasury.

About 10 megahertz was reserved for public safety use: police, fire, and emergency medical services. Traditionally, cities and counties and regions have licensed and used spectrum allocated to them to build radio systems for public safety and general government. Spectrum allocated only for voice radio systems, that is. We expected the same kinds of licensing rules to apply to this valuable new chunk of spectrum, which could be used for “broadband” – essentially wireless Internet. Such spectrum could send building maps to firefighters, video from crime scenes, patient telemetry from medic units.

Under Martin, however, even that small piece of the 700 MHz spectrum was ripped from the hands of local government and was to be auctioned into the control of private companies. Only in the last few weeks – since the November 4th election and impending changes at the FCC – has this plan been derailed.

Exhibit 2: Martin demonstrated an active prejudice on behalf of telecommunications carriers by altering the rules for cable franchising. Under the Constitution, states, cities and counties control their streets and rights-of-way. Under the Telecomm Act of 1996, cities and counties franchise the companies who string cables on poles in those rights of way and then offer cable television and related services to consumers. The franchises funnel revenues and services (e.g. Internet access and cable TV at community centers) to the local governments.

But the FCC, under Martin, changed the rules – cities and counties are now forced to grant cable franchises within 90 days, but ONLY to telecommunications carriers who already operate within the jurisdiction. Anyone else wanting a cable franchise goes through the traditional process!

Under Kevin Martin, the FCC’s mantra apparently was “no telecommunications carrier left behind”. And cities and counties lost the ability to manage their own rights-of-way and airwaves on behalf of the public safety and welfare.

Certainly the FCC has done a lot of good work regulating the airwaves, telecommunications and cable, and there are a lot of talented FCC staff who are dedicated to serving the public.

They deserve a Chair of the Commission with similar values and ethical leadership.

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Filed under cable, Fedgov, radio, wireless

– A National CTO?

Which is the National CTO?

Which is the National CTO?

Barack Obama states he will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) . And, indeed, his own campaign even has (had?) its own CTO (see CIO-dot-com).  Blogger Robert Scoble recently listed (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) the “A list” of names for the National CTO job.

Vint Cerf (as quoted by Ed Cone in his blog on CIO Insight) worries about “centralizing” technology or technology policy in the Federal government. He correctly points out that a “technology czar” would have about the same level of success as previous administration’s “energy” and “drug” and “fill-in-the-blank” czars.

But what would a “national CTO” actually DO?

Obama’s campaign website lists a potential set of duties. These include:

  • More transparency in government – presumably this means the federal government. Chief Geek comment: Yes!
  • Development of an interoperable wireless network for first responders. Chief Geek comment: Oh Gawd no. There are so many different groups and bureaucracies trying to do this now, vying for attention and dollars, that we’ve created a mini-first-responder-industrial complex.
  • Sharing of best technology practices between government agencies. Chief Geek comment: Well, maybe. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) of the Bush Adminstration is already and consistently scoring agencies on their management, and specifically the use of electronic government (see the latest scorecard here )

As CTO (aka Chief Geek) for the City of Seattle, I do have an opinion about this (surprise!) .

The City of Seattle does not have a CIO.  To some extent, the title “CTO” instead of CIO is an historical anomaly dating from the time the position was created by the Seattle City Council in the mid-1990s. But I also head a department (Information Technology or DoIT) which largely manages infrastructure. Applications are supported by the individual departments who conduct the business of City government (providing water, electricity, transportation, policing, parks, fire and emergency medical service, etc.).  As CTO, my office provides oversight and standards for the use of technology in City government, but I only directly manage about 215 of the 600 or so IT employees in the government.

In the Fedgov, not even the technology infrastructure of the government can be centralized under a CTO. The Fedgov is just too large and diverse.

I’ve previously written that government generally should not be on the bleeding edge of technology – we should take technologies pioneered and honed by the private sector, and apply them to the business of governing. In the Fedgov this is also true, with the exception of the military and homeland security, who have unique duties which will stretch the envelope of technology in new and different ways from the private sector.

So what would a national CTO actually DO? I suggest:

  • Make that blob of the Fedgov more transparent. Absolutely.
  • Find technologies and best practices for using technologies pioneered in the private sector and imfuse them into Federal agencies. I’ve previously listed a number of ideas about the use of Web 2.0 tech, for a specific set of examples, in government.
  • Push the OMB Scorecard further and deeper with aspects of technology other than “e-gov”. The best way to push agencies to cooperate and interoperate is to score their performance. We do that with project management at the City of Seattle, and it works wonders.
  • Where possible, demand, direct and lead Federal agencies to cooperate and consolidate – share web services, share infrastructure, consolidate data centers and so forth.

In terms of national (non-federal-government) leadership by this Federal CTO position, I’m a little more cautious and skeptical. I like Vint Cerf’s idea about an information technology advisory committee (PITAC). But, in general, I’d say the robust set of private technology companies (led by Seattle’s own Microsoft), the University community and the open source Internet community are doing just fine in national and worldwide technology leadership. 

We do have a number of Federal agencies which appropriately regulate or support technology, for example the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission, National Science Foundation and, of course (famously) DARPA.  Most of these agencies could be improved in an administration more technologically enlightened than the present one.

But we don’t really need a federal technology “czar” to “help”.

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Filed under egovernment, Fedgov, government, government operations