FCW Insider

The 2013 IT budget? Yawn.

Traditionally, the annual release of the president's budget request is an exciting time at Federal Computer Week. Every year, we get the budget document as soon as its available and have our reporters comb through it in exacting detail, looking for everything of interest to our readers -- from the grandest IT initiatives to the smallest nuggets of funding for small, but interesting, projects.

This year was no exception. We got President Barack Obama's request for fiscal 2013 -- online, not in print -- and had our staff pore over it, as always. But this time, there wasn't much to find. At least, not in the technology policy arena.

Grand IT initiatives? Forget it. 2013 isn't a year for expansion or striking out down new roads. Small, but interesting, projects? There are a few, but only a few.

Mostly, this year's budget proposal is about saving money, cutting costs. What innovation there is centered around gaining efficiencies and reducing expenses. A number of programs will lose funding, in part or in full, at least for the year. And the outlook for future years isn't likely to be better.

That's not to say there aren't interesting ideas. The push to consolidate data centers is there, and so is the suggestion of creating a “data center marketplace,” in which agencies in need of new computing power can be steered toward unused capacity available within government. And noting which programs would lose funds under the request, such as the Justice Department's Integrated Wireless Network, is important. But still, there's much less to be said than in most years.

It doesn't help that the president's budget is never the budget that gets enacted. Everyone knows that it will be subject to debate, compromise and often replacement as it wends its way through Congress. Whatever budget finally does pass is certain to bear little resemblance to the request released Feb. 13. In years in which there are bold proposals and fresh initiatives, that matters less, because the prominent parts of the president's request form the centerpiece of the debate and often end up passing more or less intact. In a year where there are no such proposals, there's much less to say.

So how do we cover the budget in such a year? Diligently, because it still matters, but with greater difficulty. Congressional counter-proposals, due to be expressed in appropriations bills later this year, take on great importance. But the president's request matters, even if it leads to no actual funding, because it expresses the administration's priorities. If Obama is re-elected this year, the proposals in the budget will likely remain policy priorities in his second term. So the budget request isn't a moot point, just not a terribly interesting one.

Posted by Michael Hardy on Feb 17, 2012 at 12:18 PM0 comments

A peek inside the Fed 100 process

The annual Federal 100 awards gives us at Federal Computer Week an opportunity to recognize some of the brightest stars in the government. It’s a privilege we’ve enjoyed for 23 years now.

To understand how much care goes into choosing the winners, you need to know that we spend about a third of every year on the process. For this year’s event, we started taking nominations in the last week in October. Over the next two months, several hundred came in. Meanwhile, our editors were working behind the scenes to recruit our ten judges, who are themselves some of the brightest minds in government and industry.

After we closed the nominations, we compiled all of the entries into binders and sent them to the judges, who had some time in December to read through them and make their initial determinations. Then, on a Saturday in January, the judges gathered in our offices in Vienna, Va., along with Anne Armstrong, president and chief content officer of the 1105 Government Information Group, Jennifer Weiss, publisher of FCW, and some senior editors. The judges spent the day discussing (and sometimes debating) relative merits of each nominee, before finally making the nearly-final judgment calls.

That process is fascinating to observe. Many of the entries were clearly worthy and got quick yeses from the panel, and some got quick nos. Not all of the nos came because the nominees were not worthy, though. In many cases, the judges agreed that the project in question was quite meritorious, but most of the hard work is still in the future. Because our award is for work done in the previous calendar year, some of those deemed premature will almost certainly win in the next year or two.

After that first pass through the hundreds of entries, the judges had picked several dozen winners, but there were still a lot of open spots. At that point, the process became more deliberative. The judges considered each one of these “maybe” entries in detail and, with some discussion and occasional disagreement, spent several hours choosing the remaining winners and 10 more to serve as alternates.

Picking those alternates is important, because in some cases the judges agreed a nominee was worthy of the award if the account in the nomination was true, but there might be some reason to doubt. And as always happens, a couple of the original 100 didn’t pan out during the verification process, and the first names on the list of alternates became winners.

In the weeks following the judging, I marked up the nomination forms to highlight the work that the winning nominees had won for, to make sure it clearly stands out from the rest of the text on the entry forms. These marked-up forms provide the basis on the assignments that our reporters use as they write the profiles of all 100 winners, to be published in our March 30 issue.

And that’s where we are now. The reporters have their assignments and are starting to work on writing the profiles. Meanwhile, plans for the annual gala, to be held March 28 at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., are well underway.

To those who won, we hope you’re proud to have earned the honor and know that it has a real significance. To those who were nominated but didn’t quite make it, we hope you understand you had some stiff competition.

Posted by Michael Hardy on Feb 01, 2012 at 12:18 PM0 comments

Virgin Mobile's security fail

I confess: I am not cool enough to have a smart phone. My mobile phone is not smart at all. It’s a touch-screen LG model with a slide-out keyboard, and I can use it for calls, text messaging and very limited web browsing.

But as not-smart as it is, it may be smarter than the provider I use, Virgin Mobile. I say this because this morning I received a text message alerting me that my secret security question has expired. It directed me to go to the Virgin Mobile website and update it … and then helpfully provided my secret personal identification number.

Get that? The verbatim text is, “Your Secret Question has expired. Please update it at virginmobileusa.com with acct PIN … " and then my actual PIN, right there in plain view.

Was it a phishing attempt? Unlikely, for two reasons. First, the site MyCallBot.com verifies the number it came from is one Virgin uses. Secondly, whoever sent it already has my phone number and PIN. They don’t need to phish for anything else.

Now as it happened, I had my phone with me and saw the message. But what if I had lost it, or it had been stolen? If that had happened, Virgin would have just handed a stranger the key to unlock my account.

And why? Virgin’s customers should keep up with their PINs and not need the company to provide them, especially not without some security measures to ensure the person getting the message is the one authorized to access the account. That the company would do that at all is surprising; that they would do it on their own initiative, without the customer requesting it, is mind-boggling.

As you implement your own mobile device security policies, that should be one to include: Don’t send people their own passcodes in plain text, especially if you have no reason to think they need it.

Posted by Michael Hardy on Jan 11, 2012 at 9:03 AM11 comments