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John Klossner's Ink Tank

Better security requires changes not in technologies, but in user practices

I have flown into the Dominican Republic on numerous occasions. When landing in Santiago, the (mostly Dominican) passengers break out into applause. The first time my family and I experienced this it was surprising–and quite different from the scrum that takes place when we land in Boston. Being an American who lives in the Northeastern United States, I assumed the applause was cynical, a sarcastic statement that "we made it."

I have taken the trip enough times now to understand that there is nothing cynical about the Dominicans' cheer. Passengers applaud because they are sincerely grateful for safely returning to their or their ancestors' homeland, and for the anticipated experience they are about to have. I have found that letting go of my cynicism is a useful transition for visiting the country.

By contrast, when landing in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on a recent trip, I could feel all the passengers physically tighten up, as if to brace themselves for what lay ahead. My family and I were preparing to spend 10 days in Hispaniola visiting a friend and delivering relief supplies in Haiti, and then taking a bus across the island to visit friends in the small Dominican village we spent five months in several years ago. (Nobody on the bus applauded when we crossed the Haiti-Dominican border.)

Our friend Charles has lived in Port-au-Prince for a little more than five years. He grew up there, and told us of riding his bike around the city as a child, taking 20 minutes to cover a route that was now taking us two hours by car. Charles moved to the United States and stayed for 25 years, became a U.S. citizen and then moved back to Haiti in retirement, where he built a house in one of the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. His cement home has wooden details–cabinetry he hand-carved himself, trim and furniture–and a spacious yard with walls covered with bushes with bougainvilleas. (I have noted that, in any writing about tropical locales, there is always mention of the bougainvilleas.) Charles' house would not look out of place in Florida.

To get from the airport to Charles' house, we drove though the landscape that has become familiar since the Jan. 12 earthquake: piles of rubble, decimated buildings, tent cities, and people moving about everywhere. The memory that stays with me from my two visits to Haiti are of the movement that takes place in my peripheral vision: No one stands still in Haiti.

Driving us to his house, Charles stops before crossing a busy bridge. He tells me that since the earthquake, he waits for the line of traffic to clear before crossing; he is afraid of being stopped (a frequent happening in Port-au-Prince) on a bridge that might not be safe. Charles' street is a potholed dirt road in a central location in town that has piles of rubble spread around. Some of the houses on his street are standing, some have been reduced to rubble, some are in between. (Charles is very proud of the fact that the house he built himself suffered no damage from the earthquake.) A couple of lots have tents or makeshift shelters that, with their combination of fabric/tarp sidings and tin roofs look like some sort of art class voting booth project, sitting in several inches of water from the recent rains.

Security is real problem in Port-au-Prince, where almost every building was severely damaged by the earthquake.

When we pull up to the gate at Charles' driveway, he tells the young man who has come out to open the gate to leash the guard dog that patrols his yard when he is not home. The walls surrounding his property have broken glass set in the mortar atop them–a security measure we have found throughout Haiti and the Dominican. When we enter the house, he warns us not to go out when the dog is unleashed. He also does not want us to go for walks outside of his property without him. He has a rifle propped against the wall in one bedroom, and I found a handgun under a pillow on the mattress he sleeps on near the front door.

Despite this level of security, Charles had six solar-panel batteries stolen from his home–before the earthquake.

I describe all this not as an excuse to share recent travel experiences, but because I found myself thinking about security on my trip. More specifically, thinking about the various needs for security, and what a sisyphean task we all face. The security needs for a home in Port-au-Prince, obviously, are not the same security needs for a home in Maine. My first visit to Haiti was to a small town outside of Cap-Hatienne, in the north of the country, and the residents' security needs are different from those of Port-au-Prince. To get even more specific, the security needs of Charles' property are not the same as the needs of someone living in a voting booth-like shelter in four inches of water next door.

So why do people get so upset over security efforts–or a perceived lack of them–in the agency world? To quote a recent comment to an FCW article requesting better security standards for federal systems, is (cyber)intrusion detection/prevention even possible on such a diverse network as used by the federal government? This is not meant to be seen as a "what-can-you-do" angle, more a suggestion that simple security standards are just that, and not nearly enough to deal with the complex challenges agencies face. Security will require changes not in technologies but in user practices. I would venture that this is an education issue more than a technology issue. (I could have fun here and try to align specific agencies' security practices with world communities, but that wouldn't be doing a favor for either Port-au-Prince or the agency compared to it.)

On our ride to the bus station in the Petionville suburb, my daughter and I were riding in the back of Charles' pickup truck, watching Port-au-Prince recede into the distance. We heard a strange sound approaching us, a beautiful sound that felt out of place amid the devastation, like finding an orchid growing in a rockpile. It was a church that was overflowing with people in Sunday dress, with the crowd backed up out of all the entries. When we mentioned this to Charles at the bus station, he told us that it wasn't a full church; since the earthquake, many people stand near the doors or outside of buildings.

Klossner cartoon


Posted by John Klossner on Jun 25, 2010 at 12:19 PM0 comments

Contest: How many federal employees does it take to change a light bulb?

Update: Click here to check out Klossner's roundup of the best entries to the "How many feds..." contest.

My recent blog entry about change in the workplace made me wonder if the old "How many [fill in the blanks] does it take to change a light bulb?" contest had ever been done for federal employees. And, even if it had, there must be more than one good answer. So here goes:

How many federal employees does it take to change a light bulb? Please submit your answers in the comments section. I'll run the best, the worst, the oddest, and the most common answers in a month or so.

Light bulb vote

Posted by John Klossner on Jun 04, 2010 at 12:19 PM49 comments

Is it leadership and innovation? Or leadership vs. innovation?

Klossner goalieMy closet is a mess. I am reminded of this as the seasons change and I have to make the transition between readily available cold-weather clothing to readily available warm-weather clothing. This transition does not necessarily take care of my mess -- I have developed a system over the years of pushing the sweaters to the side and pulling the T-shirts to the front, and vice versa. The world outside of my closet would not see me as disorganized: I run a relatively successful freelance business, I speak in complete sentences (except when the Boston Celtics are involved) and I like to keep my kitchen sink area clean at the end of the day. (Okay, my lawn is not a uniform height, but that is an experiment to see at which height grass growth will slow down.) But I know that my closet is a mess. Does this mean I, too, am a mess? Should closets in general be a place of order? After all, this is a small room where we choose to hide our clothing from the world. Weren't closets, in fact, created to hide our messes?

My question to myself is, do I need to make changes in my closet? I think of this as I read accounts of how to approach change in the workplace. For those of you who have been away from the planet for a couple years, the word "change" has been bandied about a bit. But, as you know, change isn't an easily quantifiable process. How do we measure "change?" And do we recognize when we have it? Since change is a constant, maybe we need to consider different ways to view "change."

For starters, I think you need to begin by changing small, just to recognize the process and be able to get easily viewed results. For example, the president has used the analogy of creating change in the federal government being like turning a cruise ship around. The change I would like to create would be to put a moratorium on the cruise ship analogy -- it has been used beyond its expiration date. Of course getting the world to stop using the "we're-turning-a-cruise ship- around" analogy would be like turning a cruise ship around.

What is the goal? Willie Nelson once said "you can't make a record if you ain't got nothing to say." Do you want to make a specific change? Or do you just want to be heard? I think a distinction has to be made between creating change and being heard. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be heard, and making sure people feel heard could be a good change in many situations.

I read a recent conversation on GovLoop about how to make decisions to create change in your organization. Specifically, how and when to "butt heads" in order to let your voice be heard. This created a picture for me of change as a switch that can be turned on and off, as opposed to a hose that is always on and you point in different directions. (Or a cruise ship that is always moving and that you just have to steer very slowly.) What I heard this person saying was that she didn't feel heard, leaving her feeling out of the change process. Her frustration would probably lessen if she knew that she was being heard, even if her ideas for change weren't immediately being implemented.

On a related note, I would recommend presenting ideas for change in the best light. I picture managers being inundated by a tsunami of ideas (threatening to overturn their cruise ship) from the many creative individuals in their offices. If each of these people chooses to butt heads, the management can become quickly overwhelmed, probably shutting off the possibilities for change. As someone who works very far from a group situation, I probably sound naive when I recommend finding a critical mass for ideas. Is the experience in these situations that management closes the door and doesn't offer any opportunity for people to be heard? Hearing the phrase "butt heads" makes me think the communication process has started rearranging the deck chairs, if you know what I mean.

On another related note, my wife was once having trouble with a relative who made her feel unheard. This had been a longstanding condition, and she would often consult other family members for advice on the situation. Once, in describing a recent episode with this relative to an older uncle, she became very exasperated and finally said, "How long do I have to keep trying?" The uncle calmly replied, "My dear, as long as it takes." This measured approach must seem quaint in a culture where conversations begin with swords drawn and flaming is as natural as breathing, but it still holds true.

The GovLoop piece linked to a blog entry comparing the ages of those who want to "make change" compared to the ages of most leaders. It is a modern version of the 1960s adage "don't trust anyone over 30." If I were to put on my wise old sage pants (with suspenders) I would say to tread carefully down that road. If someone over 30 has ideas for creating change, does their age make their idea any less valid? Technology has allowed those who use it to feel heard more quickly, but it might not allow change to take place more quickly. And, to paraphrase the New Yorker cartoon, on the Internet, no one knows you're over 30.

Meanwhile, please check out my joke contest, “How many federal employees does it take to change a light bulb?”


Posted by John Klossner on Jun 04, 2010 at 12:19 PM2 comments

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