John Klossner's Ink Tank

A government that's open about a closed process

John Klossner capitolboard

I recently witnessed an interesting experience involving my small Maine town and open government. For the third time in the past five years we find ourself in need of a town manager, who is chosen by the elected town council, who make their decision after interviewing all the applicants. In meeting with candidates for the current opening, our council had secret -- excuse me, "unpublic," (their term) -- interviews. In defending this, the head of the council played the media card -- he claimed that the last time they had interviewed candidates for the town manager's position, the interviewees had been identified and listed in a local newspaper report. This caused problems for some of the candidates with their current employers, who didn't know their employees were looking at other openings. The council head has been very open in defending the secret arguing that he was "defending the candidates from harassment."

Now this isn't really an open government issue. It's actually an illegal action. I'm writing about it to a) share my appreciation of the irony of my local government being open about not being open, and b) point out that I'm pretty sure my town council would proclaim itself and our town as practitioners of an "open" government.*

This brings me to one of my concerns about open government or, more specifically, the Open Government Initiative. That is, the name. With all the latest Web 2.0 technology at hand and a community of intelligent and talented people champing at the bit to participate, couldn't they have come up with a better name than the Open Government Initiative? I'm pretty sure most governments in history have considered themselves "open." And while our current open government refers to a perfect storm of available technologies, regulations, and eager participants, wouldn't one of the first steps -- a beta test, if nothing else -- have been to use those technologies to get the community to come up with a more descriptive and vibrant name than the "Open Government Initiative?"

History is full of states that referred to themselves as "open," but didn't quite pass the smell test. I'm not accusing our government of going North Korea on us, but by calling yourself "open," aren't you inviting cynicism and challenges? By going bland -- and let's face it, they could not have gotten more bland than "Open Government Initiative" -- the leaders of said initiative haven't given me reason to think of it as a cutting-edge, creative process. If, after using all the social conversations and technologies, you come up with vanilla ice cream you're not exactly giving me hope for raspberry fudge swirl in the near future, if you know what I mean.

I've looked through the site. They have categories and links for every conceivable issue of importance to interested citizens. Would it be so hard to add a link to a wiki tool allowing motivated parties to propose, discuss and choose an improved name for the Open Government Initiative? (And, in the highly likely event that this has already occurred and I missed the naming opportunities, was this really the best name? I can't help but feel that the fix was in.) I would start the process by proposing the following possibilities:

- WiiFed

- The We Need More Things for the Interns to do Site

- Ideas 'R' You

*Of course, in an actual open government process my local government would have used available technologies to allow the candidates to introduce themselves to the community and allow the community to give input into the interviewing and selection. Instead, there was a bunch of finger-wagging and harrumphing at a town meeting that Frank Capra would have appreciated. No charges were pressed, and we moved on to the all-important discussion of what to do with the leftover rocks from a local bridge improvement project.

John Klossner open government

Posted by John Klossner on Jan 20, 2011 at 12:19 PM2 comments

The year in cartoons: Security certifications, insourcing and light bulb procurements

I find it interesting that, as a cartoonist who attempts to make a statement in a singular, efficient image, I tend to write way too much in my blog posts for Maybe I'm finding a release for all the suppressed thoughts I gather when thinking about the cartoons. Maybe -- also -- that is why the editor asked me to pick some of my favorite cartoons from 2010 but to include only a sentence or two with each one; he knows enough to put the reins on.

This is harder than it sounds for two reasons. On the one hand, there’s my previously mentioned tendency to go on and on. On the other hand, the better cartoons and images speak for themselves, making the descriptions either redundant or lessening some of the potency of the cartoons themselves. So I end up wanting to say a lot when few words are necessary to begin with.

Nevertheless, I'll take a stab at it. I resolve to do a better job at self-editing in 2011 (either that or to spend less time on YouTube, I forget which).

John Klossner

A proposal to require more people to get security certification ignited a debate about whether certification training programs have any resemblance to real-life demands.

John Klossner asked for suggestions to improve its website. Unfortunately, some of the suggestions needed improvement.

John Klossner

Federal security standards sometimes run a little bit behind the technology used in complex federal networks.

John Klossner (OK, I) ran a contest asking for the punch line to the question "how many feds does it take to change a light bulb?"

John Klossner

In recruiting top talent for federal agencies, sometimes the biggest obstacle is the current employees.

John Klossner

The Obama administration’s insourcing initiative was driven, in part, by a concern that contractors are too closely involved in work that is "inherently governmental." (On a side note, I wish I had drawn this better. A stronger drawing would have made the cartoon more powerful.)

John Klossner

An Army Reserve colonel was fired after writing a column criticizing the military's reliance on PowerPoint.

John Klossner

In the latest skirmish in the never-ending war between feds and contractors, DOD recently began enforcing rules requiring contractors to identify themselves in all communications.

John Klossner

One of the most commented-upon stories for FCW in 2010 was "Why agencies can't attract top talent?"

Posted by John Klossner on Dec 21, 2010 at 12:19 PM3 comments

Contractor IDs: A lesson from Harry Potter

I have avoided making a Harry Potter reference in this blog for some time now. One reason is that I don't want to give away the fact that I have been one of those adults who enjoyed – okay, was obsessed with – the Harry Potter stories. Another reason, in a similar vein, is that I feel that referencing a young adult's book would detract from any serious points I'm trying to make. And finally, I don't want anyone involved in the federal workforce world to think I am comparing them to a Death Eater.

But, as the saying goes, if not now, when? The first part of the last Harry Potter movie was just released, and realistically I have only several months left of Harry Potter references being relevant on a nationwide or even worldwide cultural level. After that I'll only be able to refer to Dumbledore, Dobby and Dementors with other embarrassed adults I meet in obscure chat rooms, or with 10-year-olds. And based on my experience so far, most 10-year-olds – unless they're related and it's a gift-giving occasion – don't want to have anything to do with me.

Also, as another saying goes, write what you know.

The point I want to reference is that, as the stories become more mature and darker, the good guys worry about being infiltrated by the bad guys. (Those of you who are familiar with the stories know the specifics – this explanation is aimed at the 12 people who haven't read any of the books. The rest of you can go online for movie tickets.) This being the wizard world, everyone can take various physical shapes, even looking like someone else. To protect against this, the good guys identify themselves for each other with personal information. This is similar to the personal questions we all establish for ourselves for our online bank accounts and other security clearances, with the difference being that our online bank accounts would never sell a billion copies.

These questions and statements would include things like "What was the last thing you said to me when we last met?," "What do you teach in the wizarding school?," "What is your nickname?," and "Can you cast a spell that will improve my bank account?" (just kidding on the last one).

I am reminded of this when reading about the latest fed-contractor controversy. Earlier this year, the Defense Department began enforcing a rule requiring contractors to identify themselves in all communications, whether in person, on the phone or by e-mail (see the FCW story here). As someone who doesn't spend time in agency offices, I find this confusing. Is the issue here that contractors taking and misusing sensitive information has become an overwhelming problem? Or that the divide between feds and private-sector personnel is so loaded that if one side was aware of the other's presence they wouldn't "play nice?" Is this a real problem or a perceived problem that personnel on both sides maintain?

Contractors aren't allowed access to certain sensitive data, and feds don't want to inadvertently share this data with them. Understandable. But are feds in the habit of sharing sensitive data with unidentified strangers to begin with? Or do they assume that if someone has physical or communication access to an agency they are safe to share this data with? Is there a substantial list of examples of contractors stealing and/or misusing information?

Or is this just another skirmish in the fed-contractor wars? It smells of being a communication issue. Regardless of how many bodies walk through or contact agencies, do feds share information with people they know nothing about? That was the point made in the article by Bob Woods, a retired fed. “The rule only exacerbates the situation. Worse yet, it’s not even necessary, because feds know who the contractors are,” he said. “If not, they’re not being diligent."

(I can already hear one response to my question: People lie. In this case, contractors. Aren't there existing penalties for anyone who accesses sensitive information without having clearance? I feel so naive even typing that sentence – kind of like pointing out it's illegal to drive over 55 on the highway. But writing another law requiring drivers to say if they drive fast won't cut down the amount of speeders.)

On the other side, is it that hard for contractors to identify themselves? If asked "Are you a contractor?", are those fighting words? Or, if you identify yourself as a contractor, does everyone yell "unclean!" and you have to eat lunch alone for the next 10 years? I get the feeling that this is another story where the stereotypes represent a handful of extreme cases yet the majority of the anecdotes. It would seem that encouraging all players to – gulp – talk some more might help the situation.

That said, maybe we need to take a page from the Harry Potter tales and, instead of our usual greetings, start all conversations with a couple questions to – based on the response – help us figure out which side the person we are speaking with is on. I suggest the following:

* Do you think feds are paid too much?
* Can you recommend a discount clothing store?
* Didn't you love the recent issue of “Martha Stewart’s Public-sector Cafeterias”?
* What motivates you more: creating an efficient and fair society or the new Audi A8?
* Does the "G" in G-15 stand for "good job?"

Or, if all those fail:

* Are you a contractor?

Contractor IDs

Posted on Nov 30, 2010 at 12:19 PM1 comments