There Has to be a Better Way

February 6, 2011

While sitting at almost a dead stop on I-70 for 40 minutes on the way to Vail this morning I began fantasizing about faster ways to get to the mountains.

Several ideas have come to mind in the past:
High-speed rail
An extra lane
A zipper lane (that one may actually happen)
A high-speed chairlift from Red Rocks to Eagle
A tunnel

Most of which are not financially feasible.

A personal helicopter would be ideal, but, again, not financially feasible.

But, that led me to the solution.

The military could fly Black Hawk helicopter shuttle flights to the top of ski resorts.  Vail could contract with the military and include the shuttle as an extra season pass perk.

Benefits:
Less traffic
Faster travel
Military pilot training
Military fundraising
Being awesome

Cons:
None come to mind

We skiers need a solution; put your thinking caps on.

(Disclaimer:  This is not a serious blog post. I’m just a bit jaded about traffic.)

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Local Open Government Directive: Building Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration

January 24, 2011

Just one year ago, Kevin Curry started the CityCamp movement to bring together local government officials, government employees, private sector technology experts, journalists, and citizens to share perspectives and insights about the cities in which they live and to develop practices for making their city governments more transparent, participatory, collaborative, and accountable.

In December 2010, I was proud to work with Kevin, Brian Gryth, Sean Hudson, Michele Hovet, Alissa Black, and Nicole Aro to organize CityCamp Colorado.  During the camp, Kevin, Brian, Alissa, and I began developing a model Local Open Government Directive that cities and counties can use to promote transparency, participation, and collaboration in their governments.  We modified, tailored, and improved the U.S. Open Government Directive for local government and, after the camp, we expanded the drafting process to about 30 more experts and supporters of the open government movement.

The Local Open Government Directive provides specific guidance for a city, county, or state government to develop information and data sharing practices, enhance and expand citizen participation opportunities, and collaborate with government employees, other government agencies, private sector experts, and the public.

The opportunities for transparency, participation, and collaboration described in the directive are becoming increasingly possible and efficient thanks to Internet technology and people’s desire to reclaim our government.  We will no longer accept the information government holds about us, our schools, our businesses, etc. being held behind government walls.  We will no longer accept 3-minute opportunities to speak at a city council meeting on a weekday afternoon as an opportunity to participate.  We will no longer accept government officials forcing their decisions about our lives without being involved in the process.

The model Local Open Government Directive is intended to be an executive initiated order or directive to the local government under the executive’s legal authority.  An executive leader, such as a mayor, should use this model to adopt a directive for the city to help institutionalize open government principles within the city government.

In partnership with OpenPlans, we are hosting the directive at opengovernmentinitative.org. There, you can view and download the directive and share it with others.

In addition, our friends at the Sunlight Foundation have created a site where you can sign up to show your support for this effort.

In the upcoming weeks and months, we will be reaching out to government officials to build support for the directive and to implement the directive in local governments.

We encourage you to show your support for the directive and to reach out to your elected officials to ask what they’re doing to promote open government and to include the public, to include you, in your government’s processes.  Together, we can make our government more transparent, participatory, collaborative, and accountable.  Remember, we’re building our government; that means we all have the responsibility to be informed and to participate.  Government officials have to do their part, and we have to do ours for open government efforts to be successful and for government services to work.

If you’re interested in participating in the open government movement, please join our Open Government Initiative group.

Finally, I’d like to thank all of the people I’ve been fortunate to work with through CityCamp Colorado and the Open Government Directive.  Kevin, Brian, Sean, Michele, Alissa, Nicole, Phil Ashlock, and many others are some of the most motivated, hard-working, brilliant people I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

Cheers to the future of our government!


WikiLeaks and the Afghan War – Republished

August 8, 2010

The United States’ war efforts in Afghanistan have been carrying on for what is now approaching a decade (alright, approaching 9 years).  Little in that country has changed, Al Qaeda is still active, and Osama bin Laden has not been killed or captured.

To say the American people’s patience with the war in Afghanistan is waning would be an understatement.  Victory in this war is a very unclear concept.  Spreading our “democracy” to people who don’t really care about it is a questionable endeavor.

These sentiments aren’t just a sentiment of my imagination.  These sentiments even reside in some, at least one, member of the U.S. military.  On July 25, 2010, the website WikiLeaks released what it calls the “Afghan War Diary”.  The Afghan War Diary is, essentially, a voluminous set of reports from the U.S. military regarding its efforts and difficulties in Afghanistan.  WikiLeaks obtained the information from a member of the U.S. military.

Opponents of the way cheered.  Proponents of the war have stopped just short of calling the actions treason.  The Pentagon has demanded the information be taken down.

Some proponents of open government see this as an advance in people driven information sharing and an increase in the sunlight on government activities.   Some proponents of open government see this as a setback to the efforts to promote transparency.

Many questions about.  Why was the information shared?  Is the information classified?  Does the information put U.S. soldiers at risk?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but the founder of STRATFOR Global Intelligence has shared some rather enlightening commentary that I think is worth sharing.

The following report is republished with permission of STRATFOR, http://www.stratfor.com/.

WikiLeaks and the Afghan War

By George Friedman

On Sunday, The New York Times and two other newspapers published summaries
and excerpts of tens of thousands of documents leaked to a website known as WikiLeaks. The documents comprise a vast array of material concerning the war in Afghanistan.  They range from tactical reports from small unit operations to broader strategic analyses of politico-military relations between the United States and Pakistan. It appears to be an extraordinary collection.

Tactical intelligence on firefights is intermingled with reports on confrontations between senior U.S. and Pakistani officials in which lists of Pakistani operatives in Afghanistan are handed over to the Pakistanis.  Reports on the use of surface-to-air missiles by militants in Afghanistan are intermingled with reports on the activities of former Pakistani intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, who reportedly continues to liaise with the Afghan Taliban in an informal capacity.

The WikiLeaks

At first glance, it is difficult to imagine a single database in which such a diverse range of intelligence was stored, or the existence of a single individual cleared to see such diverse intelligence stored across multiple databases and able to collect, collate and transmit the intelligence without detection. Intriguingly, all of what has been released so far has been not-so-sensitive material rated secret or below. The Times reports that Gul’s name appears all over the documents, yet very few documents have been released in the current batch, and it is very hard to imagine intelligence on Gul and his organization, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, being classified as only secret. So, this was either low-grade material hyped by the media, or there is material reviewed by the selected newspapers but not yet made public. Still, what was released and what the Times discussed is consistent with what most thought was happening in Afghanistan.

The obvious comparison is to the Pentagon Papers, commissioned by the Defense Department to gather lessons from the Vietnam War and leaked by Daniel Ellsberg to the Times during the Nixon administration. Many people worked on the Pentagon Papers, each of whom was focused on part of it and few of whom would have had access to all of it.

Ellsberg did not give the Times the supporting documentation; he gave it the finished product. By contrast, in the WikiLeaks case, someone managed to access a lot of information that would seem to have been contained in many different places. If this was an unauthorized leak, then it had to have involved a massive failure in security. Certainly, the culprit should be known by now and his arrest should have been announced. And certainly, the gathering of such diverse material in one place accessible to one or even a few people who could move it without detection is odd.

Like the Pentagon Papers, the WikiLeaks (as I will call them) elicited a great deal of feigned surprise, not real surprise. Apart from the charge that the Johnson administration contrived the Gulf of Tonkin incident, much of what the Pentagon Papers contained was generally known. Most striking about the Pentagon Papers was not how much surprising material they contained, but how little. Certainly, they contradicted the official line on the war, but there were few, including supporters of the war, who were buying the official line anyway.

In the case of the WikiLeaks, what is revealed also is not far from what most people believed, although they provide enormous detail. Nor is it that far from what government and military officials are saying about the war. No one is saying the war is going well, though some say that given time it might go better.

The view of the Taliban as a capable fighting force is, of course, widespread. If they weren’t a capable fighting force, then the United States would not be having so much trouble defeating them. The WikiLeaks seem to contain two strategically significant claims, however. The first is that the Taliban is a more sophisticated fighting force than has been generally believed. An example is the claim that Taliban fighters have used man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) against U.S. aircraft. This claim matters in a number of ways. First, it indicates that the Taliban are using technologies similar to those used against the Soviets. Second, it raises the question of where the Taliban are getting them – they certainly don’t manufacture  MANPADS themselves.

If they have obtained advanced technologies, this would have significance on the battlefield. For example, if reasonably modern MANPADS were to be deployed in numbers, the use of American airpower would either need to be further constrained or higher attrition rates accepted. Thus far, only first- and second-generation MANPADS without Infrared Counter-Countermeasures (which are more dangerous) appear to have been encountered, and not with decisive or prohibitive effectiveness. But in any event, this doesn’t change the fundamental character of the war.

Supply Lines and Sanctuaries

What it does raise is the question of supply lines and sanctuaries. The most important charge contained in the leaks is about Pakistan. The WikiLeaks contain documents that charge that the Pakistanis are providing both supplies and sanctuary to Taliban fighters while objecting to American forces entering Pakistan to clean out the sanctuaries and are unwilling or unable to carry out that operation by themselves (as they have continued to do in North Waziristan).

Just as important, the documents charge that the ISI has continued to maintain liaison and support for the Taliban in spite of claims by the Pakistani government that pro-Taliban officers had been cleaned out of the ISI years ago. The document charges that Gul, the director-general of the ISI from 1987 to 1989, still operates in Pakistan, informally serving the ISI and helping give the ISI plausible deniability.

Though startling, the charge that Islamabad is protecting and sustaining forces fighting and killing Americans is not a new one. When the United States halted operations in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets in 1989, U.S. policy was to turn over operations in Afghanistan to Pakistan.  U.S. strategy was to use Islamist militants to fight the Soviets and to use Pakistani liaisons through the ISI to supply and coordinate with them. When the Soviets and Americans left Afghanistan, the ISI struggled to install a government composed of its allies until the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996. The ISI’s relationship with the Taliban – which in many ways are the heirs to the anti-Soviet mujahideen – is widely known. In my book, “America’s Secret War,” I discussed both this issue and the role of Gul. These documents claim that this relationship remains intact. Apart from Pakistani denials, U.S. officials and military officers frequently made this charge off the record, and on the record occasionally. The leaks on this score are interesting, but they will shock only those who didn’t pay attention or who want to be shocked.

Let’s step back and consider the conflict dispassionately. The United States forced the Taliban from power. It never defeated the Taliban nor did it make a serious effort to do so, as that would require massive resources the United States doesn’t have. Afghanistan is a secondary issue for the United States, especially since al Qaeda has established bases in a number of other countries, particularly Pakistan, making the occupation of Afghanistan irrelevant to fighting al Qaeda.

For Pakistan, however, Afghanistan is an area of fundamental strategic interest. The region’s main ethnic group, the Pashtun, stretch across the Afghan-Pakistani border. Moreover, were a hostile force present in Afghanistan, as one was during the Soviet occupation, Pakistan would face threats in the west as well as the challenge posed by India in the east. For Pakistan, an Afghanistan under Pakistani influence or at least a benign Afghanistan is a matter of overriding strategic importance.

WikiLeaks and the Afghan War

It is therefore irrational to expect the Pakistanis to halt collaboration with the force that they expect to be a major part of the government of Afghanistan when the United States leaves. The Pakistanis never expected the United States to maintain a presence in Afghanistan permanently. They understood that Afghanistan was a means toward an end, and not an end in itself. They understood this under George W. Bush. They understand it even more clearly under Barack Obama, who made withdrawal a policy goal.

Given that they don’t expect the Taliban to be defeated, and given that they are not interested in chaos in Afghanistan, it follows that they will maintain close relations with and support for the Taliban. Given that the United States is powerful and is Pakistan‘s only lever against India, the Pakistanis will not make this their public policy, however. The United States has thus created a situation in which the only rational policy for Pakistan is two-tiered, consisting of overt opposition to the Taliban and covert support for the Taliban.

This is duplicitous only if you close your eyes to the Pakistani reality, which the Americans never did. There was ample evidence, as the WikiLeaks show, of covert ISI ties to the Taliban. The Americans knew they couldn’t break those ties. They settled for what support Pakistan could give them while constantly pressing them harder and harder until genuine fears in Washington emerged that Pakistan could destabilize altogether. Since a stable Pakistan is more important to the United States than a victory in Afghanistan – which it wasn’t going to get anyway – the
United States released pressure and increased aid. If Pakistan collapsed, then India would be the sole regional power, not something the United States wants.

The WikiLeaks seem to show that like sausage-making, one should never look too closely at how wars are fought, particularly coalition warfare. Even the strongest alliances, such as that between the United States and the United Kingdom in World War II, are fraught with deceit and dissension. London was fighting to save its empire, an end Washington was hostile to; much intrigue ensued. The U.S.-Pakistani alliance is not nearly as trusting. The United States is fighting to deny al Qaeda a base in Afghanistan while Pakistan is fighting to secure its western frontier and its internal stability. These are very different ends that have very different levels of urgency.

The WikiLeaks portray a war in which the United States has a vastly insufficient force on the ground that is fighting a capable and dedicated enemy who isn’t going anywhere. The Taliban know that they win just by not being defeated, and they know that they won‘t be defeated. The Americans are leaving, meaning the Taliban need only wait and prepare.

The Pakistanis also know that the Americans are leaving and that the Taliban or a coalition including the Taliban will be in charge of Afghanistan when the Americans leave. They will make certain that they maintain good relations with the Taliban. They will deny that they are doing this because they want no impediments to a good relationship with the United States before or after it leaves Afghanistan. They need a patron to secure their interests against India. Since the United States wants neither an India outside a balance of power nor China taking the role of Pakistan’s patron, it follows that the risk the United States will bear grudges is small. And given that, the Pakistanis can live with Washington knowing that one Pakistani hand is helping the Americans while another helps the Taliban. Power, interest and reality define the relations between nations, and different factions inside nations frequently have different agendas and work against each other.

The WikiLeaks, from what we have seen so far, detail power, interest and reality as we have known it. They do not reveal a new reality. Much will be made about the shocking truth that has been shown, which, as mentioned above, shocks only those who wish to be shocked. The Afghan war is about an insufficient American and allied force fighting a capable enemy on its home ground and a Pakistan positioning itself for the inevitable outcome. The WikiLeaks contain all the details.

We are left with the mystery of who compiled all of these documents and who had access to them with enough time and facilities to transmit them to the outside world in a blatant and sustained breach of protocol. The image we have is of an unidentified individual or small group working to get a “shocking truth” out to the public, only the truth is not shocking – it is what was known all along in excruciating detail. Who would want to detail a truth that is already known, with access to all this documentation and the ability to transmit it unimpeded? Whoever it proves to have been has just made the most powerful case yet for withdrawal from Afghanistan sooner rather than later.

This following report is republished with permission of STRATFOR, http://www.stratfor.com/.


Giving Employees Incentives for Innovation

March 18, 2010

Calls for more government efficiency come not just from the public, but also from the public servants who make government’s day-to-day operations possible.  Some of the best ideas come from the people who intimately know the processes that could be improved.  However, implementing those ideas often requires jumping several, tall hurdles.

In an unfortunate case of irony, government budget cuts have precluded some efficiency improvement efforts because those efforts require a financial investment.  Saving money three or four years down the line seems less attractive when employees are facing salary cuts, furloughs, and layoffs.  And, in the case of some Web 2.0 tools whose ROI isn’t measured in dollars, investing in the technology is almost out of the question.

Now, more than ever, more people are in need of government services and agencies need to find ways to provide more service with fewer resources.  To make this happen, agencies can’t just work harder.  Agencies need to find innovative ways to deliver services at less cost.

The Colorado legislature is supporting this effort with a bill, HB10-1264, that provides financial incentives to state agency employees who recommend cost-saving improvements. 

The bill requires the state department of personnel to develop a form, called an “idea application”, for employees to suggest improvements.  The personnel department is also responsible for developing criteria for evaluating the applications.  However, the director of the agency where an employee who makes a suggestion works is responsible for evaluating an application.

Then, for each idea that is implemented, the employee who made the suggestion will receive 5% of the cost savings, up to $5,000, as an honorary award.  The agency will receive 25% of the savings and the rest will be used by the state.

Up to a $5,000 bonus is definitely a strong incentive to put forth new ideas.  But, why is this type of bill necessary?  Why do we need laws to encourage innovation?  Isn’t giving an incentive to suggest improvements like paying a child for getting good grades?  (Disclaimer:  I wasn’t paid for grades when I was a kid, and I don’t have any kids, so I’m not really sure if that works.) 

Shouldn’t directors, managers, supervisors, and other agency leaders already be encouraging employees to share ideas for innovation?  Shouldn’t the leaders already be listening?  Well, it’s not the first time common sense has needed to be legislated.  I don’t mean to suggest this is a bad bill.  I just find the need for such a bill to be disappointing.  But, if Colorado government employees need an incentive to innovate and managers need to be pushed to listen to ideas, and I’m not saying they do, this is a step in the right direction.

What are your thoughts about this type of incentive?  What barriers have you encountered with recommending improvements?  How have you overcome those obstacles?

As of the date of this post, the bill is waiting to be heard in an appropriations committee.  The fiscal note associated with the bill doesn’t specify an amount for projected savings, and, while the fiscal note mentions the possibility of costs for implementing the idea applications, the note assumes those costs will be nominal.


Designing Government for the People

March 4, 2010

I was talking to a co-worker about our office’s reconfiguration plans, which involve merging divisions and training employees to handle a wider variety of customer needs.  It’s a nice plan, and it is likely to benefit our customers by removing the layers they have to dig through to get to the services they need.

In the physical world the reconfiguration has involved combining two separate customer entrances that were on two different floors into a single entrance with employees from two divisions at the front counter.  One of the next steps is to create a single call center for the two divisions, instead of the existing structure that utilizes an auto-mated phone tree to direct customers to the appropriate division.  But, this post isn’t about the reconfiguration. 

The discussion triggered some other thoughts about providing efficient services.  Government watchdogs and government itself continually make calls for more efficient government- faster, more reliable service, at less cost.

A state government trend in this area has been the creation of Web-based portals that allow customers to access a variety of services from multiple state agencies through a single website.  Some of these portals are a mere collection of information and links to other agencies, such as Colorado’s www.colorado.gov.  Other portals are based on functional needs, such as registering a business through the Utah Division of Corporations’ OneStop Business Registration site, http://www.corporations.utah.gov/osbr_phase_2.html.  (Both of those examples are NIC websites, but they are substantially different.)

Portals and other virtual spaces offer customers an alternative to visiting multiple government agencies to accomplish their tasks.  But, the real key to efficiency is to make people efficient.

Efficiency isn’t just about consolidating locations, whether they are physical or virtual.  Efficiency is about rationalizing functions.

Please hold the backlash for just a moment.  I know this didn’t work so well with homeland security.  That’s what my co-worker mentioned as he laughed, maybe rightfully so, at my suggestion of consolidating state agencies.

Technology is making a lot of improvements in efficiency possible.  I do believe the Internet, social media, mobile devices, and other technological developments are making government better and are helping people get more from their government.  But, can technology make up for inefficient structures?  If a person has to visit at least three state agencies to form a business, get a license, and sign up to pay taxes, can a website make up for the twists and turns, the discrepancies in policies, the processing delays, and the inconsistency in customer service?

Technology can make up for a lot, but improving government is not just about making government more efficient; it’s about making people more efficient.

The question shouldn’t be how can government do it?  The question should be how would a person do it?  Processes should be designed around people’s practices and expectations.  Government agencies shouldn’t expect people to adapt to the government’s ideas.

Redesigning government around people will take a lot more than new websites.  Redesigning government will take changes to legal frameworks, a lot of vision, and a whole lot of cooperation.

I’m sure there are a lot of holes to this idea that I haven’t filled, but I’ll settle for starting with a little idealism.

(If you’re interested in some similar ideas, check out Nicholas Charney’s discussion on Govloop, Envisioning a fully web enabled government department/agency and the related comments.)


Creative Budgeting – Home Redistribution

January 26, 2010

The Colorado legislature introduced a series of tax credit reductions with the goal of saving the state money.  Eliminating the tax credits will save the state money, but the loss of tax credits will cause prices to increase, which means people will have to pay more, which means they will either spend or save less or both.

I commend the legislature for pursuing options, but we, as a state, still need to look for options that create revenue without hurting individuals.  Specifically, we need solutions for education funding.  K-12 education funding in Colorado is already near the lowest in the country according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Those schools are funded largely through property tax revenue, and the state doesn’t have enough of it. 

A possibility that could be looked into is for the state to claim foreclosed homes by eminent domain, rent or give those homes to state citizens, and create jobs through an agency responsible for overseeing the program, repairing, and maintaining the homes.

Redistributing foreclosed homes would:

  • Increase state revenue through rental income or property tax;
  • Create jobs in a state oversight agency;
  • Create more jobs through a state home repair and maintenance service; and
  • Discourage banks from foreclosing on homes.

Yes, of course, there are downsides.  The home redistribution program would be big government at its biggest, but that, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  And, the program would require some state constitution amendments.  Homeowners who are meeting their responsibility by making mortgage payments are sort of left out to dry.  I’m sorry, but this is for the greater public good.  Without help, those people won’t have schools to send their kids to; at least they won’t have very good schools. 

I’m only half joking.  It’s laughable until you think about it.


Speed Pass

January 6, 2010

The state of Colorado has been facing an ever expanding budget shortfall, and there is little recovery in sight.  State agencies have avoided filling job vacancies and have made additional staff cuts.  Some state services and programs have been decreased or even eliminated. 

The state has raised fees and withheld tax breaks.  But, revenue is not coming in.  Colorado has faired better than most states, but the recession has had a substantial impact.  People are out of work and spending less, so tax revenue is growing scarce.

Colorado needs innovative ideas to raise revenue, so that the state can continue to provide the services the people need. 

One new idea from left-field I’ve had is to create a Colorado speed pass for drivers.  Drivers would be able to buy a monthly pass that would allow them to drive over the speed limit on state and interstate highways. 

The speed pass would mechanically operate similarly to a toll pass.  Drivers would put a transmitter in their car that would send a signal to a receiver in police and highway patrol cars.  Drivers could renew their speed pass online each month.

Of course, speed limits are set to help ensure drivers’ safety, so precautions will be necessary.  In order to qualify for the speed pass, a driver would be required to have a valid driver’s license and to be ticket free for six months.

Drivers would still be subject to reckless driving tickets.  Speeding excessively in poor weather conditions, following too closely, excessive weaving, and other reckless tactics would still be causes to be pulled over.

The price for the pass is uncertain, but it could probably go for a couple hundred dollars a month.  The speed pass would create additional revenue, would improve driver satisfaction, and would enable law enforcement to focus on other issues.

The speed pass idea may need some revision and might be pretty far-fetched, but we need to start brainstorming somewhere.

The legislative session starting on January 13, 2010, should be interesting.