Category Archives: government operations

Get Over It, Already

trump-cover-final

“Thousands Across the U. S. Protest Trump Victory”.  USA Today, November 10, 2016.

“Not My President, Thousands Say”, Washington Post, November 10, 2016

“Campuses Confront Hostile Acts Against Minorities After Donald Trump’s Election”, New York Times, November 10, 2016.   (An article about how some Trump supporters are targeting minorities with hate crimes.)

I’ve rarely blogged here about political themes or issues (a notable exception:  Last year when Trump slandered John McCain’s military service.   I’m a retired Army Officer and that was too much.)

I’m also an unabashed Democrat and supporter of Hillary Clinton.  I’m fiscally conservative – too often liberals and Democrats think government is the solution to every societal problem, and they implement new taxes or programs without thought about the negative effect of higher taxes on rents, housing prices and middle/low income wage earners.

But the election is over.   Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.  More voters felt she was the best choice for President.   But, under the Constitution and the Electoral College, Donald Trump won the presidency.  To the protestors and the Trump-supporter-hate-crime-perpetrators I say “Get Over It”.

To the protestors, I say:  did you vote?  Where were you over the last 6 months?  Why didn’t you work on registering voters and getting out the vote before Tuesday November 8th rather than taking to the streets in virtually fruitless protests afterwards?  Get involved in your government, your public safety and in politics starting today so you can really effect the change you want.

I could, like the protestors, write and scream about all the regressive laws and consequences which will take place over the next two years:  repeal (rather than fixing) Obamacare, actions against immigrants (although, frankly, Obama deported more illegal immigrants than any prior President), backing away from climate change and environmental protection, and so forth.

But, to be honest, Donald Trump will be President and we all need to concentrate on common ground – on all the work that needs to be done to improve the safety, quality of life and economy of the United States.

City InfrastructureHere are some examples of such common ground:

  • Infrastructure. Both Clinton and Trump correctly proposed massive increases in spending on roads, bridges, utilities and other infrastructure.   Let’s get together and do it.
  • Cybersecurity.  The Obama Administration has made great strides toward improving our cyber warfare and defense capabilities, and we need to do more.  In particular, we need to protect our local and state governments, our financial institutions, our defense industries from the potential of a devastating cyberattack.  Let’s get together and do it.
  • Veterans. It is a serendipitous coincidence that I publish this post on Veterans’ Day, 2016.  The terrible and stupid Iraq war perpetrated by the Bush-Cheney administration has resulted in hundreds of thousands of mentally- and physically-injured veterans.  The Obama Administration has started to correct the awful way the VA Healthcare system has treated veterans, but we must do more.  I support a son-in-law – a Marine with 100% disability – by buying him food and helping him with rent and care for his PTSD because his military disability pay and care is simply not sufficient for him to live in Seattle.  But many veterans don’t have anyone to help them and end up homeless and wandering the street, causing problems for our police and paramedics and emergency rooms.  For example, the Seattle Police Department alone has 10,000 encounters a year with people in crisis on the streets, many of them veterans.  Let’s get together and fix this.
  • Mental health and Opioid Addiction. Just as with veterans’ care, many people have mental health issues and/or are addicted to heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs.  Up to 60% of the calls a Seattle police officer handles are people in crisis.  This must be addressed and it is a bi-partisan issue.   Republican Ohio Senator Rob Portman has made addressing opioid addiction a centerpiece of his campaign and his legislative agenda.  Let’s get together and do it.
  • FirstNet and support of our First Responders. I joined the First Responder Network Authority because I fervently believe in its mission to build a nationwide wireless network for public safety and our first responders.   FirstNet was created by both Republicans and Democrats in bipartisan legislation passed in 2012.  That legislation funded FirstNet with $7 billion from sale of spectrum to commercial carriers, and that same sale provided $35 billion or more to reduce the deficit.  FirstNet will give first responders – indeed all public safety responders – the technology and tools they need to deal with many of the issues listed above, as well as crime, wildfires and emergency medical care.  Let’s get together and do it.

iot-internet-unfollow-coffee-machine

  • Internet of Things (IoT).
    Many if not most of our electronics and gadgets will become part of the Internet of Things, perhaps 25 billion devices by 2020.  Smart light bulbs, thermostats, DVD players and video cameras are just the start. Utilities will connect every water and gas and electric meter, transformers, valves and the rest of their infrastructure.  Industry is creating whole manufacturing plants with every device connected.  But IoT is a huge security risk, as shown by the Mirai IoT botnet attack of September 20th.  IoT poses both great potential and risk for our society, and, frankly, the IoT needs to be regulated and secured as well as deployed.  Let’s get together and do it.
  • The march of technology and loss of jobs. Much Presidential campaign rhetoric talked about the loss of jobs to China or Mexico.  But, frankly, only 12% of the 5 million factory jobs the United States lost since 2000 have been lost to trade.  A whopping 88% of the job loss is attributable to automation and robotics!  Indeed, U.S. manufacturing output increased by 18% between 2006 and 2016, while the number of jobs decreased.  The issue we need to address is finding living wage jobs which can co-exist with the never-ending march of technology and automation.  Let’s get together and do it.

obamasnumbers-2016-q2_4

I agree, there is a time to protest, and I’m certain I will be in the streets at some point in the next two years.

But I’m also going to roll up my sleeves, find common ground on the issues I’ve listed above, and work to continue the improvements in the economy, quality of life, technology, infrastructure and public safety which have happened in the years since the beginning of the Great Recession (graphic at right).

I encourage you to join with me.

Let’s get together and do it.

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Filed under cybersecurity, economy, elections, Fedgov, FirstNet, government, government operations, Internet of Things, Uncategorized

The Internet of Speeding Parking Things

School Zone Speed Camera

School Zone Speed Camera in West Seattle

My spouse recently got a speeding ticket.  In the mail.  From the Seattle Police Department.  For 32 miles per hour in a 20 mile per hour zone.

Not just any zone.  A school zone.

On her way to work.  As a teacher.

234 bucks.

It was a ticket from one of those automated semi-robotic radar guns with a camera which shoots innocent citizens as we drive past schools so fast we’re like bowling balls racing toward the pins.  Well … perhaps … racing past the “kids”, as the case may be.

Now I have nothing against kids.  Gee, we’re raising two of them.  Six and ten years old.  The last thing I want to do is have them mowed down by racing middle-aged banshees trying to get to work.  But getting a ticket in the mail two weeks after you commit the offense is not exactly what I would call “preventative policing”:  protecting kids by slowing people down and giving them (the drivers, not the kids) immediate, on scene, in-your-face feedback that they are going too fast.

Don’t get me wrong.  A $234 speeding ticket got the attention of both my spouse and me.  For a few minutes.  Until the next time we are late to work.

Like most (generally) law-abiding citizens, we don’t want to speed.  Especially in school zones.  Or in places where there is an automatic semi-robotic radar gun with camera waiting for us.

Isn’t there a better way to protect kids and keep law-abiding citizens … Well … Law abiding?

Enter the Internet of Speeding and Parking Things (IoSPT).

arnold-terminator

Arnold the Terminator as voice for your new “Don’t Speed” App

Why don’t we attach a transponder (fancy word for “radio”) to every speed zone sign in a City?  Then let’s distribute – for free – an app to every citizen and to every automobile we own (yes, cars run apps too).   The speed sign talks to the app and the app talks to the smart phone (or to the car itself) and the phone screams at the driver “slow the hell down, dumbo, you are going too fast, and you are going to get a ticket.  A two-hundred and thirty-four dollar ticket.  And the judge is going to throw the book at you because you are driving like a pitcher’s fastball toward the umpire but aimed at a bunch of innocent kids in a school zone.  Get your frigging act together and step on the brake, dammit.”

Perhaps the app can have the voice of Arnold Schwarzen-what’s-his-name or Clint Eastwood.  “Slow down or you are going to Make the Mayor’s Day” (or at least help the Mayor close her budget gap).

While we are at it, how about putting IoSPT things in a lot of places in our roadways, not just speed-zone signs?  Like in every parking meter (do those even exist any more?) or embedded in curbs or guard rails.   Such devices could really help us law-abiding citizens stay law-abiding.

Example:   Warning us when our parking time is about to expire – and we could use our app to pay a premium to buy more time.

IoSPT devices in every parking space could visually map all the parking spaces available in a city, directing people to immediately available on-street parking rather than encouraging endless “circling the block” to find an open space.  THAT contributes to pollution and climate change.  (San Francisco actually is piloting this technology).

IoSPT things in traffic lights could alert cars and their drivers via an app to stop when the light turns red, and even prevent cars on the cross street from starting up too fast to hit the red-light runner (who would automagically get a $234 ticket, by the way).

fingernail-painting-driving

Painting Nails while Driving

IoSPT devices in guard rails and median strips and other roadway obstacles could help semi-automated cars stay in their lanes, or at least alert those of us who text or do email while driving (or paint our fingernails or do our hair while driving) that we are swerving out of our lane.

We talk to our smart phones all the time, with digital assistants like Siri and Cortana and Google Voice.   I suppose Amazon will even have “Echo for the Car” soon so the car can automatically order itself more oil or windshield wiper fluid when needed.

So why not have the road talk to the car?  And its driver?

I suppose some governments, taking a clue from George Orwell’s “Big Brother”, will force cars to slow down in school zones.  In other words, the speed sign talks to the car and tells the car it can’t go faster than 20 miles per hour.   And it doesn’t.

eckstein-drunk-driver-killer

Eckstein Middle School Zone after Drunk Driver kills Grandparents

But is that so bad?  Perhaps “Big Brother” cars will prevent tragedies like the multiple-time drunk driver who killed two grandparents and seriously injured a mother and her newborn at Seattle’s Eckstein Middle School in 2013.  And keep the rest of us on time for work because we are not going to get to speed through a school zone.  Period.   And perhaps let a few more innocent kids live to become speeding adults.

Oh sure, the IoSPT would put some people and things out of work.  Meter maids (I mean:  “parking enforcement officers”).   Automated semi-robotic radar guns with cameras.  Perhaps a few police officers.  But gee, don’t we have enough other crime and public safety problems that perhaps a few of those folks could be redeployed to address them?

Except the automated semi-robotic radar guns with cameras.

Those go to the junkyard.

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Filed under apps, future of technology, government operations, Internet of Things

The Internet of First Responder Things (IoFRT)

IoT-toasterThe “Internet of Things” or IoT is a common buzzword in the technology community these days.  It refers to the increasingly prevalent distribution of sensors throughout the natural world, and the connection of those sensors – as well as other machines – to the Internet.

The running joke is that IoT is about putting your home refrigerator, thermostat, washer, dryer, microwave, range, TVs, computers, smart phones and even toasters on the Internet, or at least connecting them so they can talk to each other.  Now what a toaster would say to a TV, or what the conversations between a washer and a dryer might include, could certainly make for a lot of talk show jokes and lists on a David Letterman show (should he return).

But clearly creating such an “Internet of Household Things” or IoHT would be quite useful.  Take, for example, the urgent water crisis in California and throughout most of the West.   If you could add sensors to every water fixture in the house, and then connect those sensors to computers and smartphones, you could determine where your water is being used and take steps to cut back use.   Going one step further, if those water sensors also had valves, you could control your household water use from anywhere in the world.  So when your teenager’s shower has gone over five minutes in length, you could abruptly get a notification and then shut off the water (or turn on the cold water full blast) from your hotel room in Hong Kong.

How might this Internet of Things concept apply to First Responders – the paramedics and firefighters and police officers who respond to our 911 calls?

I recently had a twitter conversation about this with Ray Lehr, former fire chief in Baltimore, and former FirstNet State Point of Contact (SPOC) for Maryland.  Ray suggested we should start talking about the Internet of Life Saving Things (IoLST) which I morphed into a possible Internet of First Responder Things (IoFRT).

There are many applications for the IoFRT, and I’d guess they fall into several buckets:

  • First Responder Personal Things – the sensors and equipment which would be on or near a First Responder to help that officer do the job and keep the officer safe.
  • 911 Caller and Victim Things – these sensors would help alert 911 centers and responders to problems so First Responders can quickly and accurately respond to calls for assistance.
  • Information and Awareness Things – these sensors and machines would improve public safety by monitoring the natural and built environments.
SPD-cars-and-uniforms

Seattle Police Body Worn Video

“First Responder Personal Things” would include a variety of sensors and communication devices.  Body worn video cameras – so much in the news recently after the events in Ferguson, Missouri – are one example of an IoFRT device.  Most such cameras today record their video and hold it in the device.  But if wirelessly connected to the Internet (by, say, FirstNet), a police commander, 911 center and other authorized users could see the video in real time to advise and support the officer.

A police officer’s badge or other apparel might have a small radio which broadcasts a signal unique to that officer, which allows many other communication devices (smart phone, radio, tablet computer) to automatically recognize the officer and therefore allow access to restricted databases such as criminal history.  A similar situation for a paramedic would allow her/him access to restricted patient files and healthcare history.

A police officer’s weapon could have a sensor which only allows it to be fired if it is personal possession of the officer.  Firefighters – especially those fighting long, sustained, wild fires, would have an array of sensors to monitor heart rate, respiration, ambient air quality, etc., alerting the firefighter and incident commander to firefighters who are overworked or in dangerous situations.

“911 Caller and Victim Things” would include those sensors on a victim or in their home or place of business which help to monitor and protect them.   Medical sensors are an obvious application:  people with a history of heart disease, stroke, diabetes or other conditions would have such sensors which would immediately alert them and their healthcare providers to impending problems.  Such sensors might further alert 911 centers for dispatch of emergency medical technicians to an immediate problem.

Vulnerable people in high crime areas might have sensors or video cameras which could be activated at a moment’s notice when they come into dangerous situations.   Many homes and businesses are now equipped with video cameras, movement sensors and other sensors.  A 911 call from the premise (or other activation by the owner) could give 911 centers and responding officer’s immediate access to the telemetry and video from those cameras.

Finally, General Motor’s OnStar gives us a premonition of the technology which will go into vehicles in the future.  Vehicles which communicate with roads or automatically notify 911 centers after an accident, to include transmission of telemetry and video are definitely in the future.

“The Internet of Information and Awareness Things” is both more fascinating and frightening.  Applications to support 911 response can be harnessed to many of these “things”.

Seattle-police-video-drone

Seattle Police Demonstrate a UAV aka “drone”

For example, Video surveillance cameras are becoming less expensive and more ubiquitous.   Surveillance camera systems deployed by cities and counties receive significant scrutiny and attention from the ACLU and city/county councils such as the brouhaha surrounding Seattle’s attempted deployment of a $5 million system.  The use of unpiloted aerial vehicles with cameras is just starting deployment.  But most such cameras are in the hands of businesses and private individuals, as demonstrated by the identification the Boston marathon bombers.  Powerful new technology tools are becoming available for automated analysis of video, for examples automated license plate recognition, facial recognition and object recognition.  We aid and abet this analysis by gleefully tagging faces in our Facebook photos, all of which Facebook uses to build its database of known faces.  The largest license plate recognition databases are in private hands.  In the near future every human being is likely to be recognized and tracked (and NOT by governments) whenever we are outside our own homes.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security was created.  Fearing potential chemical, biological and nuclear terrorist attacks, it deployed a network of sniffers and sensors in cities and other potential targets.  Similar technologies and networks could be deployed to support first responders.

For example, every load of hazardous material being transported by road, air or rail could be tagged and tracked.  Every hazmat container stored in a building could also be identified and tracked, with firefighters watching them pop up on a tablet computer app when they respond to an event in the building.

We could even tag every can of spray paint or every cigarette lighter as the combination of those two items, plus a healthy dose of stupidity (which, alas, cannot yet be tagged) contributes to major home fires like this one.

It is now easy to imagine a world like that depicted by George Orwell in his novel 1984, where surveillance is both nefarious and ubiquitous, fueled by a government (probably controlled by private companies) out of control.

Like so many other choices faced by our early 21st Century society, the Internet of First Responder Things hold both great promise and some peril.   Elected officials and chiefs of responder agencies will have many decisions to make over the next few years.

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Filed under 911, FirstNet, government operations, Internet of Things, Seattle Police

Schrier’s Technology Wish List for 2015

Predicting the Future

Predicting the Future

It’s that time of year again where the top ten lists for the old year spurt out of pundits’ pens along with generally wrong prognostication predictions (that is “guesses”) for the next year.

I’m not very good at either figuring out which recent changes are most significant (I’ll bet the iPhone was one) or predicting what will happen during my day tomorrow, much less 365 days in the future.

But I’m not too bad at looking at the state of technology – especially in government – and wishing for what I’d like to see in the near future.

And here they are:

  • government (including its workers) embracing the cloud,
  • more women in tech,
  • police body-worn video cameras,
  • video recognition software and
  • last, but most important, wise elected officials.

Government Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Embracing the Cloud

Cloud services are the “next hot thing” in technology.  Or they were the next thing hot thing in 2010.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon – along with a number of other technology leaders – believes that very few private companies and governments will operate their own data centers in the future.   This is undeniably true simply because cloud service providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) have a tremendous economy of scale.  AWS probably has more than five million servers worldwide.  Every day – 365 days a year – Amazon Web Services installs more server capacity than the entire Amazon e-tailing enterprise had online in 2004.   And AWS has won notable contracts, such as the contract to operate the CIA’s data center.

Seattle has become a hotbed of cloud technology over the past 18 months.  The Seattle area has a number of the major players in this space such as Amazon, Microsoft Azure, CenturyLink, Google, and now even Dropbox and Apple.  The list includes a number of “niche” companies such as Taser International’s Evidence.com which supports cloud hosting of law enforcement data such as body-worn video data and Socrata, the leading cloud service for government open data.

Yet governments have been slow to adopt cloud technologies.  Governments continue to build and operate their own data centers, containing a few hundred servers, and operate much less efficiently than cloud services providers.   While some governments use cloud services such as Accela for permitting, Workday for human resources, and Socrata for open data, most applications continue to live in expensive government-owned data centers operated by government employees.

Why?

Part of the reason government is slow to adopt the cloud is perceived security concerns:  unless the applications data are on disk arrays and servers which government CIOs can touch and feel and see behind the doors of their very own data centers, these officials feel that, somehow, the hackers will get to them.   This concern is patently absurd, as cloud providers such as Microsoft and Amazon can afford to employ hundreds of security professionals compared to the handful in most governments.

Another problem is potential loss of jobs for workers who presently staff government data centers.   However governments badly need employees who will adapt new technologies for government businesses, who will code new web applications and apps for consumers and businesses to better do business with the government.   Government agencies are chronically short of such developers who, by the way, make a lot more money than data center operators and server administrators.   A retraining program for such government technology employees coupled with a move to the cloud will benefit everyone – taxpayers, businesses, government officials and tech employees.

It’s long past time for a wholesale move of government technology to cloud services.

More Women Coders and Women in Technology

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

Grace Hopper, Inventor of COBOL

I recently had the chance to visit a cloud services development company in the Seattle area.   The company had a variety of very leading edge practices, such as small team environments, self-directed teams, and superior compensation.    They bragged about their employee interview process:  they accepted about 1% of the people who applied or were recruited.

The place was entirely white and Asian-American men.    Well, there was a woman at the front desk.

Now, perhaps it is true that only young males have the interest and ambition to pursue coding.   But having an all young-white-male environment in any business anywhere is not good, for a whole variety of reasons:  all-male business cultures give rise to frat-house-like cultures such as apparently happened at Zillow.    With incomes stagnant or dropping for middle-income people, coding and app development are one of the few areas with tremendous growth in skills and wages – it is important this growth be shared by people of all genders.   Seattle, in particular, seems to have the widest pay gap between women and men.

There are probably many reasons for this disparity.  Perhaps our educational system needs to better emphasize technology careers for girls.   Maybe we need more tech savvy teachers in general, so we don’t have to import so much tech talent via the H1B visa program.  And we certainly need to embrace programs such as the “hour of code” evangelized by Seattle’s code-dot-org.

In fact, linking this problem back to the one above (governments’ need to embrace the cloud), perhaps we should start with an hour of code for all government workers – not just information technology workers, mind you, but ALL government workers.

Ubiquitous Use of Police Body Cams

body-worn-go-pro-wrist

Body Worn Video Camera (sort of) courtesy Go-Pro

President Obama’s December 1 announcement of funding for equipping 50,000 police officers with body-worn video is an innovative approach to improving public safety.   This initiative follows several tragic events such as those in Ferguson, Missouri.   Certainly the idea of recording most police-citizen interactions is appealing.

In a time of polarization about the role of the police in our communities, the use of body-worn video cameras seems to have universal support.   The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) dislikes video surveillance in general but likes body-worn cameras because they hold police officers accountable for their actions.   Police Unions like them because they hold citizens accountable for their actions – in two small studies, civilian complaints against police officers declined by 60% to 88% after implementation of body-cams.  Police officers like them because 98% or 99% of what the police do is overwhelming supportive of people in the community – saving drivers during auto accidents, breaking up domestic violence in homes, helping the homeless.  The Department of Justice likes the cameras, as do elected officials.    And they appear to work:  one DOJ study found showed use of force by officers declined by 60%, and violence from citizens against police also declined.   Prosecutors like video, as it helps establish and support criminal charges.

But, as in everything else, implementing body-worn video is not a panacea for improving policing.   I’ve written earlier about the difficulties of implementing such a program, so I won’t rehash those here.    And others have written about a variety of other problems such as the potential for “constant on” video cameras to create a surveillance state worse than even George Orwell envisioned.

Video Recognition and Indexing Software

Video video everywhere, underground and in the air.

Video cameras are becoming more and more ubiquitous.   Most of the population now carries a video camera on their person with them all the time.  Video surveillance cameras are in wide use in both private businesses and by public agencies such as Departments of Transportation.   A billion people use YouTube, which has 4 billion views each day and 100 hours of video uploaded each second.   And that’s just one video site!

But, like the thousands of unindexed photographs most people have lurking somewhere on hard drives and smart phones, video is hard to index and identify for future use.   Content recognition software is still inadequate – basically under development.

Good content recognition software will serve a variety of useful purposes – it could detect unauthorized use of copyrighted material, could recognize individuals and objects thereby indexing the clips, and could form the basis for databases of video metadata.   Such databases would useful for a variety of purposes such as indexing all that video of your family gatherings for the past 20 years, or storage and retrieval of police body-worn camera video.   Video is quite useful in solving crimes – video from private companies were used to solve the Boston Marathon terrorism and police dashcam video caught Christopher Monfort, alleged killer of Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton on October 31, 2009.

A Wise Official

A Wise Official

Like audio or voice-recognition software, which is really still in its infancy, good video recognition software is a two edged sword, presenting privacy concerns as well as the useful purpose.

Conclusion

As always, these technology changes will outstrip the ability of our elected leaders to enact laws to deal with the resulting cultural and legal issues.   We demonstrated that this past year with all the controversies surrounding Uber and other car-sharing services in cities across the globe.   We see it in the constant struggle between public safety and privacy.

My final “wish” is for elected officials wise enough to embrace the positive power of new technologies, while controlling the negative implications.    And having the wisdom to know the difference.

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Filed under employees, future of technology, government, government operations, jobs, video

Inside the First-ever Seattle Police Hackathon

Henry Kroll Demonstrates Redaction

Henry Kroll Demonstrates Redaction

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) held its first-ever hackathon on Friday, December 19th. The event was focused on a single problem: How to redact the video streams recorded by police officers from their dashcams and (soon) body-worn video cameras.

More than 80 people filled the room from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. About one-third were technology professionals or part-timers like Henry Kroll, who makes a living as a salmon fisherman but focuses on video and other technology issues in his spare time.  The remainder were Seattle police and other public officials, a few members of the community, and a number of people from local companies such as Amazon Web Services and Evidence.com, plus a substantial media presence from local television stations and newspapers.

Seven teams made presentations and demonstrations …

Read the rest of this article on Geekwire here.

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Filed under government operations, hackathon, Law Enforcement, Seattle Police, video

FirstNet’s Scandal and Resurrection

[This version of the post has two updates as noted.]

McClatchy Newspaper’s Greg Gordon just wrote a well-researched investigative article about procurement problems with the nation’s First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).  The details in the article correspond almost exactly with my mostly second-hand knowledge of the situation.   But I am hoping FirstNet and the nation can, with help, put this episode behind us and proceed to actually building a nationwide wireless broadband network for our brave responders who protect the safety of 320 million Americans.

ginn-sam

Sam Ginn

The details of this problem are well-known to insiders and, with Gordon’s article, now to the general public:

  1. In February, 2012, Congress creates FirstNet, funds it with $7 billion from sale of spectrum, and directs the appointment of a 15 member Board of Directors. The Board consists of five federal members including the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security, five members from “public safety” agencies, and five members with commercial or industry background.
  2. The Secretary of Commerce appoints the Board in August, 2012. The commercial members include wireless industry veterans Sam Ginn and Craig Farrill.   The Secretary appoints Ginn as the Chair of the Board.   Neither Ginn or Farrill have previously worked in government and are unfamiliar with many of the laws, regulations and practices of government agencies.
  3. FirstNet, although an “independent agency” under the law, finds itself subordinate to the National Technology and Information Agency (NTIA), and subject to all Federal personnel and procurement regulations. The personnel regulations severely restrict how fast FirstNet can hire full-time staff.
  4. Ginn and Farrill are anxious to get the network built as rapidly as possible, just like they’ve built private companies like AirTouch in the past. They use existing federal contracts to hire a set of 35 highly skilled technical staff at large salaries – up to $600,000 a year – to get the network designed.  One of those individuals, Bill D’Agostino, is named the General Manager of FirstNet.  NTIA and the National Institute of Standards (NIST), both agencies in the Department of Commerce, apparently acquiesce to this hiring.
  5. Almost all the contract staff are former acquaintances and co-workers of Ginn and Farrill.
  6. None of the hiring, the salaries or the details of the staffing contract are known to the public or the public safety community who will be served by FirstNet.
  7. The Sheriff calls “foul” on this practice in a public meeting of the FirstNet Board. The Sheriff is Board member Paul Fitzgerald, elected Sheriff of Story County, Iowa.
  8. After gnashing of teeth and probably a bit of weeping, the contracts are canceled, the high-paid contractors are terminated and the Inspector General launches an investigation (which still hasn’t been concluded).
  9. D’Agostino, Ginn and Farrill resign.
  10. In the meantime, FirstNet, under the direction of J. Kennedy, a former cop, firefighter and paramedic, builds a competent staff of over 60 federal employees and other contractors, and gets FirstNet back on track.

Greg Gordon’s article has all the details.   Again, based on all my knowledge and discussions with individuals involved, these details are correct except for two:  First, the Public Safety Advisory Committee  (PSAC) to FirstNet has at 40 members, not 5 as Gordon mentions.  Second, the initial contract for FirstNet staffing was let by a semi-competitive solicitation in late 2012.  this is the solicitation published under the authority of the U.S. Census bureau.   I say “semi-competitive” because competition was limited to an existing set of GSA-pre-qualified contractors, not open to all bidders.  (This paragraph updated from the original post.)

So what’s the truth in this?

I think both Sam Ginn and Craig Farrill are honorable people, recruited by Larry Strickling, Director of NTIA.  Ginn and Farrill took their mission seriously.   They knew they were, essentially, in charge of a start-up company.   They knew getting the network operational was the mission.   And they set out to do it using every bit of their business skill and acumen.  They hired people who they worked with before, and who they knew could do the job.   They did not pay much heed to salaries.  “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

What Ginn and Farrill did not know was government.   They did not know how to run public meetings or how to respond to public disclosure requests.  Meetings occurred behind closed doors, begrudgingly televised with 1990s-era video tech.  They probably did not keep all the members of the board (e.g. Sheriff Fitzgerald) in the loop about their activities.   They either did not know about federal competitive procurement regulations or – worse yet – perhaps didn’t care.

There’s also the possibility that Ginn and Farrill were misled – that they thought the law’s statement FirstNet would be an “independent authority” under NTIA truly meant “independent” in the fashion the Tennessee Valley Authority or Bonneville Power Authority are independent.  And that’s independent from Federal Personnel regulations, the Federal Acquisition regulation (FAR) and similar constraints.  And, after they arrived, and tried to be truly independent, the boom was lowered.  (This paragraph added to the original post.)

Worst of all, they did not spend much time consulting their constituents, their future users, the cops and firefighters and other responders who need FirstNet.   They basically ignored and did not use the Public Safety Advisory Committee.

As one example of this, at the first meeting of the Board, on September 25, 2012, Farrill presented a “conceptual architecture” for FirstNet.    Where this architecture originated was a mystery to the hundreds of public safety officials – including me – who had been working on FirstNet and its predecessors for years.   Clearly Farrill was clueless about consulting constituents.

As another example, Sam Ginn famously testified in front of Congress that FirstNet would cover “every square meter” of the United States.   Mr. Ginn, honorable as he is, didn’t know much about testifying to elected officials or making promises.   There are a lot of pretty damned remote, hard-to-reach, “square meters” in the United States, some of them less than 50 miles from my home in Seattle.

paul-fitzgerald--sh

Sheriff Fitzgerald

Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald finally became fed up with this lack of consultation with public safety, and came out with a damning indictment of it during the April 23, 2013, Board meeting.   Fitzgerald, like Ginn and Farrill, is an honorable man, elected multiple times to public office, and well-versed in government.   Fitzgerald’s failing was not involving his fellow public safety Board members – Fire Chief Jeff Johnson, Deputy Police Chief Chuck Dowd, and Kevin McGinnis, a paramedic and director of emergency medical services in Maine – in his concerns prior to the meeting.  They were just as startled about his accusations as other Board members.    Most elected officials of City and County Councils and State legislatures know they need at least one other person on their side to second their motions.

Where laws broken and is criminal prosecution in the works?

I doubt it.   Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser is looking into the allegations of illegal or unethical contracting practices.   Perhaps he will find some NTIA or NIST officials bent the law in allowing the high-salary contractors to work on FirstNet.   It certainly is odd (and many of us puzzled over it at the time) that the first solicitation for contractors came from the United States Census!

With the IG’s upcoming report there’s another shoe to drop here, but I hope we don’t waste a lot of time waiting for it.

T. J. Kennedy

T. J. Kennedy

Ginn, Farrill and D’Agostino left of their own volition.   Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald and Deputy Chief Chuck Dowd were not reappointed to the board.  (To some extent, I think Sheriff Fitzgerald was punished for blowing the whistle).     These are all honorable people trying to do their very best to support the public safety of the nation.   Like all of us, sometimes they make mistakes.  These key players in this drama are gone, and it’s just the mop-up of the Inspector General’s report which remains to put this scandal to bed.

I see great promise in FirstNet, and a new awakening of purpose under new Board Chair Sue Swenson’s and Acting General Manager T. J. Kennedy’s leadership.

Let’s let them lead, unburdened by the past.

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Filed under broadband, FirstNet, government operations

People Live Horizontally but Government Organizes in Silos

Silos

Silos

One of my biggest frustrations with government organizations is their “silos of excellence” approach.

Somehow each and every government department or organization thinks it is a business unto itself, with little relationship to other departments within the same government, much less other nearby such as cities, counties, states, and fire districts.  Many Police departments think and act like they are unique, with little relationship to other government functions.  So do electric utilities (Seattle City Light), water utilities, parks departments and so forth.

People don’t live that way.   We turn on the dishwasher which uses electricity from the power company and water from the water utility and then wastewater goes down the sewer to be managed by the wastewater utility.   Then we put our trash on the curb for the solid waste utility to remove.  We get in a car which has been licensed by the DMV to drive on streets maintained by the City  and also County Transportation Departments (DOT) and then onto freeways maintained by the State DOT.  We drive to parks which we expect to be clean and safe. If we crash into something we call 911 and expect the cops to show up and ticket the perpetrator who caused the crash and we want the fire department and paramedics there to extract us from our crushed vehicle.

More importantly, many significant societal problems cannot be addressed by just one government function.  Crime is the most obvious, which isn’t so much a police problem as it is a problem with poor schools, jobs economic inequality plus inadequate support for healthcare and food.  Environmental issues are another example, where keeping Puget Sound (or any other body of water) clean is a matter not just for the “Department of Ecology” or “Environmental Protection Agency”.  Electric utilities (which often burn coal or oil in their generators), water and wastewater utilities, parks and recreation and natural resource departments all need to cooperate.

Our lives are a seamless continuum.

Governments are organized by departments each with a specific function.   The Parks Department maintains the parks, the police department enforces the laws, the fire department has the paramedics to help with medical emergencies.  The DOT maintains the street with the water and sewer lines running underneath it and the electric power lines running overhead.

This makes sense because there are so many specialist jobs involved.  I don’t want firefighters wasting their time mowing the grass in parks or electrical lineworkers writing parking tickets.

Why can’t these departments work together to make the services more seamless and efficient?

logo_minneapolis_311

A City with 311

Example 1:   who do you call?  If you have an emergency, you call 911 almost everywhere in the United States.  Everyone knows that and we teach our kids to do it at an early age.  But for almost every other service there are a bewildering series of different numbers you depending on what service you want or what problem you have.   If you get chased by an angry dog do you call the police or the fire department or animal control?   If a streetlight is out do you call the streets/transportation department or the electric utility or someone else?

Many major cities have cut through this crap by implementing 311 as a non-emergency number.  But most counties, cities and states have not done so.  311 is far from ubiquitous.  Seattle, for all its high tech reputation, is woefully behind in this, forcing people to squint through pages and pages of telephone numbers in six point font to get a non-emergency service.

Example 2:  information technology (near and dear to my heart). Does each department need to be buying its own desktop computers and software, and hiring its own employees to maintain them?   Does every individual department need its own financial management system and personnel management software?  The answer is clearly no – there’s nothing unique about the computers used in the water utility as distinct from the parks department.   In fact, there’s no real reason government employees need to even perform these functions.  Some major cities such as Minneapolis and Chicago and Riverside have outsourced most of this work to private providers.

This department-by-department approach leads to many absurdities, such as employees in a city garage installing light bars on a police cruiser, then having the cruiser driven to a radio shop for installation of two-way radios and brackets to hold a computer and then having it driven to a police computer shop where the computer is installed and software loaded.

Certain information technology is unique to departments – a Building Department has a construction licensing and permitting software whereas Parks will have software to manage recreation classes and allow citizens to sign-up.    But there’s also a lot of “enterprise” software such as budgeting and financial management and document storage which should be purchased and maintained separately, not department-by department.

All of this lack of trusting another department to do information technology, accounting, finance, human resources or similar functions leads to inefficiency and waste of taxpayer money.

So why do cities and counties set themselves up to operate vertically as independent departments?

One culprit is a department’s own view of itself as an independent entity with its own customers and customer service.  A public works department may become so self-centered that it thinks it needs its own customer call center and walk-in service center for customers and its own website with its own unique logo and brand.

Turf Wars

Turf Wars

Such a situation arises when department directors and senior staff are long-term employees who have outlasted many elected officials and collected significant positional power.

Another way this comes about is long-term employees in an IT unit or call center who have convinced their managers of their own importance – the department can’t function without their personal presence and unique experience.  Then these employees fight over turf – “this is MY department’s responsibilities, not yours”.  Government managers count their importance by the number of employees they manage and the amount of budget they control.  And the jealously guard and defend that turf.

But citizens rarely care about such crap.   They typically know who the mayor is and may also know their council member, and they want good service from their government, irrespective of the department lines.     Smart Mayors and city/county managers realize this, and set up strong, well-managed central services which are cross-departmental. Strong mayors confront departmental fiefdoms and employee self-importance, understanding citizen service trumps all that.   In smaller jurisdictions the city or county will partner with neighboring cities or counties to jointly offer better services with more efficiency.   Multi-city or county cooperation requires gutsy elected officials who are willing to give up a measure of control in return for better services.

But all of this – implementing a 311 service or consolidating a technology function – requires strong elected officials with a vision of citizen-centric customer service.

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Filed under 311, customer service, employees, government, government operations, management of technology