MeriTalk - Where America Talks Government
Tom Temin

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Posted: 4/30/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

The Department of Transportation (DOT) recently announced, with much fanfare, that it had launched 2,000 projects under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.  DOT got $48 billion for stimulus.  At an event this morning put on by the immixGroup, Martin Gertel, a member of DOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (or TIGER) team, put the number at 2,400. 

A 30-year Federal career civil servant, Gertel did a stint at the Government Accountability Office, so he knows in advance what questions will be asked.  He said that DOT rallied around ARRA, already obligating $44.8 billion, obligated $9.3 billion, and expects outlays (paid to grantees at the state and city levels after they do something to be reimbursed for) to start soon.
Gertel, whose title is Director of the Office of Audit Relations, said the Department of Defense accomplished in 30 days what in different times would have taken several months.  Unseen by the public is the department’s creation of the separate accounting codes required for tracking stimulus dollars, its forcing IT systems into pretzel positions to produce the required reports, and its adaptation of the Federal Managers Financial Integrity Act (FMFIA) for risk management under ARRA.
DOT also is building a geographic information system, initially for internal use but eventually for the public, to visualize where money is going for all those shovel-ready transportation projects.  Think of how useful that would be the next time Congressman Blowhard calls a hearing on spending by district.
This is all nuts-and-bolts government at the operational level, No doubt all this process is messy and cacophonous up close, but for process wonks it’s like the music of a construction site.
Posted: 4/28/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

Now that the Obama administration has announced its commitment to high speed rail, I think the rail industry should think about some modernizing of itself. 

I know whereof I speak, having been for the past several years a “select plus” customer of Amtrak, on whose Acela and regional trains between Washington and New York I was a regular.  Several years ago, my family and I made a round trip on the high-speed train between London and Paris, the one that goes under the English Channel.
Trains in this country – and that pretty much means Amtrak unless you are a pile of coal or a herd of animals – could benefit from some technology investments.
My suggestions:
Why not build an up-to-date reservation system for the high speed trains? It could be tested on the Acela.  Amtrak has a reasonably good on-board booking system, and the railroad is constantly improving it. But here’s what it should do that it doesn’t now:
  • On the premium trains, reserve a seat. It’s done in Europe, why not here?  Eliminate the cattle call nature of getting on the train.  On the milk run trains, with their frequent stops and people getting on and off, this would be impractical, but not on the point-to-point haulers
  • Add a bar code to tickets so conductors could scan them, rather than fiddle with the 19th century cardboard punches that litter the floor
Rolling stock should better accommodate 21st century travelers.  Why in heaven’s name don’t train cars have:
  • Ethernet ports connected to a broadband router in each car?
  • Tray tables with cup holders and the capacity to accommodate a notebook computer and whatever snack the passenger is working on?
  • Reading lights that shine brightly in the passenger’s own lap, but not at all peripherally?
  • Sufficient bag storage at each end of the car, instead of having everyone drag their bags to wherever they are sitting?
Some other time I will share my suggestions for on-board plumbing.
Posted: 4/23/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

Now that a couple more of the principal functionaries are in place for the Obama administration’s technology plans, the water cooler conversations are centering on who’s going to do what. 

Vivek Kundra is the administrator for e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and carries the additional title of Chief Information Officer (CIO). He’s been making the rounds of pretty much all of the conferences, including IMRCO, which concluded Wednesday. And now Aneesh Chopra will be chief technology officer. He’s not within OMB but rather is positioned as a White House advisor.
At the IRMCO late-night bar scene and in the hallways between sessions, people are speculating about who will actually implement policy. The predecessor to Kundra during the Bush administration, Karen Evans, had been a Federal CIO, knew what it was like from within a department or agency, and so was an effective, if sometimes a bit stern, taskmaster over carrying out a variety of technology policies such as the Federal Core Desktop Configuration. Kundra, though he is articulate and knows the lingo of the Web 2.0 era, still has to show he can relate to experienced Federal managers by demonstrating his understanding that this ain’t the District of Columbia.
Chopra clearly has the broader governmental experience from a big state, but he’s not at the operational level. Kundra, though, has a deputy who, like Evans, grew up by moving up and through the Federal machinery. Mike Howell, who moved into the deputy job when it was designated as career last year, comes across as confident and forceful. In the opening IRMCO session of high level career OMB and Office of Personnel Management types, he talked about how something basic – the content change system for OMB’s Web site – had been overhauled to where changes take hours instead of days or weeks. The tone seemed to be, “and folks, you better figure out how to do this too.”
Kundra at this point is still a bit enigmatic to the CIOs and program managers. He is repeating the themes of cloud computing – a buying vehicle for which is said to be in development – and the planned Web site. Both are knotty.
Cloud computing carries security, control, and cost issues that few Feds feel have been settled. And will impose on agencies standards (such as taxonomies for information) and procedures (such as how, precisely, they feed in their data) that most aren’t fully equipped to meet.
Posted: 4/21/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

Contractors are a little wary of dollars coming their way from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act – stimulus. That’s because of all the rules that the Office of Management and Budget are issuing in batches about how both agencies and contractors must report data on awards. 

So at the IRMCO conference, there were plenty of questions for a panel from OMB talking about the stimulus bill and its requirements. Danny Werfel, the deputy controller in OMB’s office of financial management, fielded one worried question from a vendor in the audience. Will we be screwed, or, has the questioner put it, face a “gotcha” pillorying if a contract is later found to be out of compliance with guidelines published after the OMB guidance came out.
Legitimate worry, given what Werfel acknowledged was an unprecedented degree of reporting required of each stimulus project – eight layers worth just in agencies alone. That leaves aside the OMB oversight and the watchful eyes of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board composed of inspectors general.
But Werfel said there was “no intention” to launch gotchas “against early awards before detailed guidance came out.” And he promised to bring the question up to the Recovery Board’s chairman, Earl Devaney, former Interior IG.
Werfel also reported that questions about stimulus continue to pour in from agencies. In an initial meeting soon after the bill became law, he said that after a eight-hour session of Q&A at a White House meeting, “there were still 50 hands in the air” hoping to get more questions answered.
From some of their comments, the OMB officials sound as if they’ve been at the center of a maelstrom trying to meet the demands for guidance in the context of the speed and transparency requirements of the stimulus money and, of course, the requirement that the money be spent in some way that, like, stimulates the economy.
Werfel said that in recent weeks, he’s learned more about acquisition and IT than he ever did. Lesley Field, the deputy OMB administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said she’s learned a lot about finances and IT.
Posted: 4/16/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

I have a confession. I just started on Facebook a couple of weeks ago. This is not a phishing expedition for friends, but to say I find the process, I don’t know, voyeuristic.

I joined LinkedIn a couple of years ago, and plainly confess to not having the time or maybe inclination to work it to my professional advantage. But it did turn up some people from college I was delighted to hear from again, in one case after a hiatus of 30 years.
But with Facebook, I am hearing from high school friends. Just last evening I friended, or was friended by, not sure which, by someone who was a girl when we last spoke. The friending leads to viewing the profile photos. Nothing strange there – her husband, kids, dogs. But, like, who was I to be looking at this photo album, the shards of a life of someone I hadn’t spoken with or even thought about in more than a third of a century?
On the other hand, why not? I have mostly pleasant memories of high school. In some ways, being in touch with one’s past in Facebook makes life a little more 19th century, when people tended to be born and grow up within a small physical radius and so were likely to have the same circle of acquaintances for a lifetime. Now we tend to have successive lives we leave behind like old cars.
My goal for my Facebook account was professional networking, and that is happening. Lots of people in the greater community of federal IT and communications are already in the Facebook swim. But I am finding a slightly weird fascination with these ancient relationships, the renewal of which somehow collapse the telescope of life. And give me a new look at myself.
Posted: 4/15/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

If you want to see the nation’s infrastructure, look at it on foot. Driving by or flying over you can’t really see its complexity or delicacy. Overhead wiring, dilapidated little pump houses in many a woods beside the road, even the mooring plates where guys wire that steady tall radio towers terminate: All are accessible on foot and usually unguarded. I am regularly astonished at how much of the electrical grid utility designers manage to hang on a single wooden pole. At one intersection in Potomac, Md., I counted 27 separate strands, thick and thin, hanging on one pole. If that pole fell over, I wondered, how far would the consequences radiate? 

We now know about another, unseen danger. The recent Wall Street Journal story detailing discoveries of foreign software on electrical control networks underscored the danger that an adversary could damage or cut off electricity on a side scale.
One reason the grid is so vulnerable is because its control network is no longer isolated. It is connected to the corporate information systems of the utilities, which are in turn connected to the Internet.
Greg Garcia is the former assistant secretary of cyber security and telecommunications at the Homeland Security Department, now a private consultant. He told me on Federal News Radio the other day that utility executives question the expense of hardening their systems to prevent infiltration. They ask, what is the business case?
But when we interviewed Howard Schmidt, the former White House cyber security adviser, he was a little less alarmed, saying that many utilities in fact do air-gap their control systems from their business networks.
Pretty soon, the decision whether to make cyber security investments might be out of the exclusive hands of utilities, and any companies responsible for infrastructure, the damage to which would cause an emergency situation for the government. Several think tanks – notably the Center for Strategic and International Studies – have recommended that federal government cyber security standards and practices be applied to industry, and a pending bill in the Senate, S 773, would make it so.