2009 Federal List

Top 5 stories at the FCW.com watercooler

Our readers might be more civil than most people who post comments on mainstream Web sites but they are no less passionate

FCW.com readers, on the whole, might be more civil than most people who post comments on mainstream Web sites — “birther” exception noted below — but they are no less passionate.

When visitors read about a new government policy that strikes them as idiotic (see “DOD’s fickle affair with social media” below), they say so. When they see yet another example of bureaucratic waste or mismanagement (“VA scandal brings out critics, cynics”), they point it out.

And when a contract employee casts aspersions on the work ethic of federal employees or when a fed dares to question the cost-effectiveness of a contractor (“Feds vs. contractors: The not-so-blended workforce”), teeth are bared and words fly.

Reader feedback has become an indispensable feature of our daily coverage. In numerous cases, the comments have provided FCW staff members with new angles to pursue on key stories and, on occasion, delivered a necessary corrective to our myopic reporting.

“I am glad to see this article demonstrating the depth of analysis worthy of typing on a BlackBerry during shopping for back-to-school supplies at Wal-Mart,” one reader intoned last week. “This will return to my day the amount of time I used to spend reading FCW. Thank you.” Ouch.

When we see a story strike a chord with readers, we often make a point of blogging about their comments on the "FCW Insider," both to share the insights with other readers and keep the conversation going. So in selecting the five most commented-on stories, we took into account the original reports that triggered the first batch of comments and the follow-up blog posts and news articles.

Read on, and keep talking to us.

1. Open government tangles with the birthers
Comments: 106

Federal Computer Week’s coverage of the Obama administration’s Open Government Dialogue attracted a whole new audience — in large part, angry readers who wrote endless variations on the same theme: The president must produce his birth certificate and prove he is, in fact, a U.S. citizen.

Those same readers had already overwhelmed the Open Government Dialogue, a forum focused on how the federal government could use technology to interact with the public and make government operations more transparent.

The birthers, as they often referred to themselves, were angry that the dialogue’s moderators had removed most of their comments, which had been flagged by other commenters as being off-topic or redundant. And they were angrier still that FCW editors would only post comments related to the dialogue or FCW’s coverage of it. Some comments were on topic, relatively speaking, but were too obscene for publication. Yikes.

Sample grabs:

“This is an old, yet effective, technique: Label the ‘enemy.’ Accuse them of absurdities or atrocities as the need is and marginalize or demonize them as is needed in the view of the masses.”
— W. A. Tomlinson

“I do not support spamming either and believe the appropriate course of action is to have ONE or maybe a FEW ‘birth certificate’ posts and simply vote thumbs up on those if one supports the sentiment...or post comments on the topic but not start new topics.”
— Anonymous

“If our system were a republic as it should be, and if Obama weren't communist, he'd realize we don't need a Web site to interact.”
— Rhys

The stories:

Conversation turns ugly at the Open Government Dialogue (June 3)
Two examples of why online forums break down (June 5)
How the Open Government Dialogue got slimed (June 8)
Soundoff: Obama foes pour the hate on FCW (June 9)

2. Feds vs. contractors: The not-so-blended workforce
Comments: 79

President Barack Obama struck a nerve with FCW readers when he proposed saving money by reducing the number of contractors at the Defense Department and replacing them with federal employees.

Never mind the nightmarish logistics of rebuilding the DOD workforce to handle the additional work. Most readers were more interested in the idea that the president believed the federal workforce was ultimately more cost-effective than government contractors.

Many, though not all, contract employees were flabbergasted by that assumption while feds could hardly contain their glee at seeing contractors put in their place.

Sample grabs:
"Where does the federal government think it will get the expertise? If they make federal employees of ex-defense contractors, are we to believe the pay will be substantially less?"
— Anonymous

"If we increase government employees, we definitely need a way to fire those who do not perform, not just move them around. That may be difficult with the power of labor unions going up with the support of the current administration."
— Jim

"As a federal employee, I do things because of loyalty that goes way beyond the position description. Contractors won't move an inch unless it specifically states in the contract to go an inch. If going 1.5 inches makes things better, well, a whole lot of negotiations have to occur first. Where are the savings there?"
— Joseph Rindone, Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico

The articles:
White House seeks cuts to defense contractor workforce (May 7)
FCW Insider: Are feds more cost-effective than contractors? (May 12)
Punch-out: Contractors vs. feds (May 15)

3. DOD’s fickle affair with social media
Comments: 70

The Defense Department’s on-again, off-again relationship with social media has been giving FCW.com readers fits in recent months.

In the spring, the Army announced that soldiers would be given access to Twitter, Facebook and several other social-networking sites, but months later, Pentagon officials said they were considering a departmentwide ban, citing national security concerns. The Marines, seeing no need for further consideration, banned access in early August.

Each chapter of this tale renewed the debate among readers, with many seeing social media as a national security disaster in the making and others criticizing DOD and fellow readers for resisting technology already embraced by hostile groups.

Sample grabs:

“It isn't the blatant data that is the risk, it is the subtle things you want to share as a person that you oughtn't share as a soldier. Especially among younger troops, self-editing just isn't in their vocabulary.”
— Anonymous

“There's no need for Twitter or Facebook within the DOD. Unless someone can cite specific reasons why either of these two social-networking sites improve national security, then they have no place on DOD networks.”
— DOD-Detroit

“The unintended effects will always plague us. But we trust our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to make good choices and to protect our sensitive information.”
— Lt. Col. Mark J. Grgurich, MacDill Air Force Base

The stories:
Army gives soldiers access to Twitter, Facebook (June 11)
DOD: Be wary of social media's 'loose lips' (June 22)
DOD and social media: The battle lines are drawn (June 23)
Social media: Threat or revolution? (July 31)
DOD may ban Twitter, Facebook, other social media (July 31)
DOD rethinking social-media access (Aug. 3)
Marines: Facebook is not for the few good men (Aug. 4)
DOD wrestles with Web 2.0 (Aug. 5)

4. VA scandal brings out critics, cynics
Comments: 67

Who was surprised about recent allegations of misconduct at the Veterans Affairs Department? Not many of our readers, if the number of comments we've received is any indication.

According to two reports from VA’s inspector general, high-ranking officials abused their authority, misused their positions, engaged in prohibited personnel practices, improperly administered awards and engaged in nepotism while working in the department’s information technology office.

VA officials, in response, said they are “aggressively pursuing a thorough review of the situation.” To learn more, read “VA IG finds abuse of authority and ethical breaches in IT office” and “VA responds to IG reports of misconduct in IT office”.

But it’s all in a day's work at VA and other agencies, according to reader comments.

Sample grabs:

"The VA corruption is another example of why civil service is not an effective way. Regardless of ability, people are promoted and never seem to be fired even when they're corrupt such as at the VA. In private practice, these corrupt workers would have been fired."
— Anonymous

"This is exactly the type of report that casts doubt on VA's ability to maintain the integrity of their procurement process. Now, let's see what action is actually taken by VA leadership. VA contractors, and hopefully Congress, will be watching to see what happens to the individuals cited in the report and if impartiality and fairness are reintroduced to the process."
— VA contractor

"Contrary to some of the writers, no, it is not such a big problem in the private sector. When personnel actions in a for-profit group hurt the company, their profit goes down and the CEOs will go after them as it is in both their interest and the stockholders’ interest to fix the problem. With the government, it is all image and all that matters is what impression they can project. Profit is a meaningless term when it comes to their performance."
— DOD

The stories:
VA IG finds abuse of authority and ethical breaches in IT office (Aug. 20)
VA responds to IG reports of misconduct in IT office (Aug. 21)
VA scandal brings out the critics and cynics (Aug. 24)

5. A dim view of security certifications:
Comments: 51

In June, Sens. John “Jay” Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) proposed legislation that would require many government contractor employees to go through security certification programs.

The article triggered a flood of comments, as we had expected. But most readers were not concerned about the mandate itself but its unspoken premise: That certification translates into qualification.

At best, such an assumption will result in a lot of useless time in the classroom, readers said. At worst, it will create a dangerous sense of complacency.

Sample grabs:

“Creating certifications allows know-nothing human resource weenies an easy way to screen applicants and ill-informed government contracting officers to craft agreements that must satisfy due diligence.”
— Marc Techner

“How effective over the past half-dozen years have all the certified and other highly trained personnel at DOD (and NSA) been in keeping the Chinese out of DOD systems? I've always said security is far more about good management than lapel pins.”
— Glenn Schlarman

“Generic or specialized security certifications are a good measure of competence, and I respectfully disagree with the majority of the comments attached to this article that bash any security certification.”
— Contractor

The stories:
Cybersecurity bill would impose standards, certifications (April 1)
Senate security bill would put burden on contractors (April 6)
FCW Insider: What's the point of security certs? (April 6)
FCW Insider: In defense of security certifications (April 7)
Cybersecurity training: The battle over mandates (June 22)

About the Author

John S. Monroe is the editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week.

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