A funny thing happened on the way to the CIO office ...

The people who run federal IT are often fascinating, cutting edge, innovative and even ingenious. And they are also known for their amazing wit. OK, I’m exaggerating here.

Actually, the humor landscape in the federal IT world is a bit sparse. There are stellar moments and standout speeches, but because government IT has serious budgets, some people apparently believe it should be discussed with the utmost seriousness at all times.

But that is a mistake. Let’s look at the example set by President Barack Obama. No one would fault him for not being serious at the appropriate times, but when he showed a clip from Disney’s “The Lion King” as his birth video during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, that was memorably amusing.

I believe we ought to give credit to executives in the federal technology community who can be entertaining while delivering important information. Here are four examples in which federal IT humor got a standing ovation — and the technology solutions weren’t bad either.

1. Todd Park, chief technology officer at the Health and Human Services Department, delivered a rock ’em, sock ’em speech at the General Services Administration’s Government Web and New Media Conference on March 17. From hailing Gov 2.0 guru Tim O’Reilly as a ninja prince to exhorting the crowd to perform data jujitsu, Park kept the energy level so high that he had 500 audience members paying attention from beginning to end. Congratulations for convincing me and the other attendees that being a data sugar daddy is a completely reasonable goal for a federal agency.

2. Roger Baker, assistant secretary for information and technology at the Veterans Affairs Department, not only gave a rundown on VA’s recent major IT initiatives during a Deltek Input industry conference May 5, but he also entertained the audience with humorous insider stories about what his job is really like. For one thing, he has to answer to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. “You do not tell a four-star general that you did not execute his major initiatives,” Baker said. And then there are Skippy and Skippy’s imaginary evil twin, who have a hand in keeping VA running around the clock. Take it from Baker, you do not want to disappoint the evil twin. The person next to me kept his eyes glued on the stage and stopped checking his iPhone, so apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a great speech.

3. You could feel the mood in the room brighten a little when Nigel Ballard, director of federal marketing at Intel, took the podium at FedScoop’s Citizen Engagement and Open Government Summit on May 11. Perhaps it was the British accent, but everything Ballard said seemed a cut above the usual panel moderator patter. After a NASA executive talked about releasing more data, Ballard said he would like to see the data that NASA has been withholding — in other words, “the green men in the spaceships.” When talking about hiring federal employees, Ballard said it would help if federal workers “looked less like tax auditors and more like they work at the next dot-com.” Thank you for keeping the punch lines flowing and the ideas percolating so that the session seemed to fly by.

4. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and now zombie apocalypses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Public Health Matters Blog” got a huge surge in traffic after Assistant Surgeon General Ali Khan posted an item instructing citizens to prepare for a zombie attack, just in case. With tongue firmly in cheek, Khan encouraged readers to stockpile food, water and supplies for a zombie apocalypse and maybe “learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.” The blog post became one of the top trends on Twitter on May 19 and crashed the CDC’s blog page for a few hours. Thanks for making a serious point with a darkly humorous and now iconic reference.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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