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John Klossner's Ink Tank


How much fun and games do federal websites need?

FAPIISman

Among the many details coming out from the attack at the Pakistani compound where Osama bin Laden was killed, one in particular caught my eye. Intelligence personnel noticed that this multimillion dollar compound in a relatively (for Pakistan) upscale community didn't have any telephone or Internet service. In short, the house stood out for its lack of technology, which agents took as a red flag.

Hold it right there: What if this turns into a slippery slope for all security searches, where we each could become suspect based on a lack of current technology? I recently had a discussion with an editor at FCW who mentioned that he only watches three television shows. Does this make him suspicious? I have no cable TV service in my home. Am I redlined as a potential Bolshevik? Would my rural residential friends who still have dial-up service be fingered as  environmental terrorism suspects? Does owning a 19-inch television put you on the "suspected Luddite" list? Does my file get flagged for the "no smart-phone" folder?

Is there a level of technology expectancy that, should we not meet it, make us suspect in our communities? Of course I'm joking, but the thought does occur to me when I read critiques of government websites. It can appear that a certain inclusion of current technologies is expected, and anything less is reason for suspicion.

This came to mind in a recent discussion with the three-TV-show editor on ways for government websites to become more appealing to a generation who are used to gaming and social networking. As it was put, how does the government make boring topics more interesting to users that expect online interaction in the forms of gaming and social networks?

This led me on a search for good and bad government websites, the critiques of which is a cottage industry that I wasn't quite prepared for. Just as every person on the planet now has a blog, I think every web designer on the planet has been consulted for their thoughts on government sites' design. This is where the technology slippery slope appears again -- sites that don't keep up with current design trends are flagged and treated like the Abbottabad compound.

(As a side, one of the early checklist items in government websites -- before considering adding social media and gaming features -- is whether the government entity actually has a website. For example, 55 out of 86 Oklahoma counties do not have a site.

I could use this moment to point out that government technology employees now have another worry to add to their job list: Is their website hip enough? Does it contain the technologies du jour, and look as good as all the other websites? I tend to fall into the old school with my site preferences -- I am in search of information and any other users' experiences with this information -- and if it contains a cool map or photo on the link, or a thought-provoking conversation in the comments section, I consider it a bonus. I am slowly starting to dread good websites, as I often come back to consciousness several hours later, realizing that I have been clicking links for the afternoon and now have a thorough knowledge of the Maldives.

I guess the question is, are government websites -- even if already well-designed and easily navigable -- improved by adding more entertainment and interaction to them?

To be honest, some of the more poorly designed sites scream out for entertainment technologies. For example, a site that has been getting a lot of negative feedback is the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS).The site is full of security warnings, isn't highly compatible with browsers, and is as navigable as a bayou. This would seem like a perfect candidate for a Donkey Kong-like game, where users can "kill" poor-performing contractors and accumulate contract credits.

But would Recovery.gov, where you can track Recovery Act spending, be improved if the spending map featured a high scores table and competition between neighbors?

And although I'd like to see it, I'm not sure the Postal Service site would be better with a transportation game where users can virtually race the USPS to see if they can get their parcel to its destination quicker.

On the other hand, the Defense Information Systems Agency's Base Realignment and Closure (DISA BRAC) information portal is a well-thought-out and designed site that was created to help provide information on the agency's headquarters relocation. It has answered every question anyone could have on the move. But I still think they could have included a game where users pack a virtual van, getting points as they fit more items into the van.

Another personal favorite, the CIA factbook includes a series of world trivia questions in the "What's new" table. What if it required users to answer the question correctly in order to connect to a link?

And, useful or not, I'd spend more time at the White House site if it included a "dress the President today" feature.

Data.gov3D

Posted on May 20, 2011 at 12:19 PM3 comments


In defense of federal employees (Washington Redskins, beware!)

The Washington Monument I've become worried about government workers' self-esteem. Not that this should come as a surprise: As a group dealing with high-profile projects in a stressed-out economy with highly partisan oversight, how can they not be a little jittery in the self-worth department? Public employees have been blamed for everything from the economic crisis to Charlie Sheen's behavior.

Many of these attacks focus on the purported problems caused by public employees' collective abilities. In the name of fair play, I think we need to consider the potential of the public employee community. At the risk of being more simplistic than usual, I wish to contribute to the restoration of employee self-esteem. We're talking numbers and, as the old African saying goes, "Working together, the ants can defeat the lion." (I'm paraphrasing here, and I'm not sure if there also might be an old African saying that goes "But the lion will work extra hard trying to stop the ants' collective bargaining rights" or "The lion will wage a publicity campaign alleging that the ants' benefits packages are causing the wildebeest population to dry up.")

In searching for actual numbers of public employees, I have encountered a wide range of figures. For that reason, I have decided to use the unscientific figure of "a lot" to describe the number of public employees working for our various governments. Taking this number into account, the following projects are possible (all statistics unsupportable):

* Piled together, the public employees could form a wall big enough to block a mid-sized metropolitan area from a tsunami.

* If every public employee held their breath for 30 seconds each day, we could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent.

* Collectively, the public employees could beat Watson, the IBM supercomputer, at Jeopardy.

* Allowed on the field all at once, the public employees could defeat the Washington Redskins.

* If that isn't so impressive, how about the Steelers?

* As a group, the public employees could defeat Chuck Norris in a tug-of-war fight.

* If every public employee stood atop each others' heads, we could put a person on Mars.

* Arranged in formation, they could spell out the Constitution at halftime of the Super Bowl.

* If every public employee worked out at the same time, and each treadmill was hooked up to a generator, the public employees could produce enough power to light up the Pacific Northwest.

* If every public employee in the greater Washington area took the Metro one day ... oh, never mind that one.

* If all public employees avoided bathing for one day ... ditto.

* If each government worker brought in a covered dish, we could feed (put your favorite community/cause/third world country here) for a day.

* If all the public employees chanted "We are here" together, they would avoid being dropped into a vat of boiling oil (wait, that's "Horton Hears a Who").

John Klossner public employee unions

Posted by John Klossner on Apr 21, 2011 at 12:19 PM6 comments


Federal slackers: What's the real story?

cubicle nap

In the numerous articles, blogs and comments sections I have been consuming, there is one person who is almost always a leading player in any account of the federal workforce. It's gotten to the point where, whenever I'm reading another piece about public workers, I await this player's entrance. It can be a subtle appearance, a sentence or two hidden among the accounts, or the full-blown lead, screaming in the opening.

I'm referring to the under- or non-performing public employee.

Who is this person?

It's almost as if there is a requirement, when writing about government employees, to mention that certain feds aren't doing the work. I imagine it was collectively bargained at one point: "OK, we'll give you full medical with dental, and a solid pension, but whenever you talk or write about government workplaces, you have to include at least two sentences acknowledging underperforming workers. Let me know if you'd like to use our template."

It comes across as an agencywide insecurity: "Yes, we accomplished A, B and C. Would anyone like to see pictures of our underperformers?" You could be writing about an agency that has found a cure for cancer while putting out wildfires as it negotiated a Middle East peace deal, but you still must mention that, of course, there were underperforming employees involved.

Is this an accurate picture? How have underperforming employees become representative of the public workplace as a whole? Do these caricatures – the lava-lamp employee at the post office, the over-caffeinated snarler at the DMV, the teacher who is out of the parking lot before the kids are on the bus – really represent the public employee community?

I found a statistic (sorry, this was the most recent I could come up with) stating that, in 1999, the Office of Personnel Management estimated that underperforming employees comprised approximately 3.7 percent of the federal workforce. Allowing for COLA-level growth (or undergrowth), that is still a small number to be so representative of the entire workforce. So how and why are they the face? (And how do you come up with estimate of underperforming employees? Do you send out a questionnaire and figure that anyone who has the time to answer must be a slacker?)

It's not that there isn't a problem here. As discussions about how to make government more efficient continue, one of the topics constantly visited is how to best compensate public employees, with a focus on how to implement a pay-for-performance system.

The problem seems to be systemic. There are numerous anecdotes of management being unable to follow a simple process for employee evaluations. Online comments tell of employees who feel that their managers don't give proper performance reviews, and managers tell of having their hands tied when trying to deal with underperforming employees.

Is the problem merely human interaction? A group of people working on high-cost projects in a stressed-out economy with heated partisan oversight – I'm pretty sure this would qualify as one of those lab tests where the rats start eating each other. Which, if you follow reader comments, is a pretty accurate metaphor for what is going on.

Maybe we need to better identify the underperformers, in order to let everyone know how little their numbers are? I suggest giving underperformers special seating in office spaces, meeting rooms and cafeterias – and perhaps requiring them to wear color-coded clothes or IDs – so that everyone can get a better idea of how small this group actually is.

Great, another project that the other 95-plus percent public workers will have to take care of.

pay for performance

Posted on Apr 14, 2011 at 12:19 PM14 comments


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