MeriTalk - Where America Talks Government
Tom Temin


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Posted: 5/26/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

Compared to the propaganda/brochureware that is recovery.gov, the initial version of data.gov shows promise.  One reason is that the data for recovery.gov, details on how Federal agencies are spending their stimulus dollars, doesn’t exist as envisioned.  It may eventually, but there are seemingly innumerable technical problems to be overcome before recovery.gov will come close to providing the information the administration has promised for it. 

Data.gov is a different matter.  Nearly every Federal agency keeps statistics and records on something.  Most of them make the data available now.  Often, it takes industry expertise to decipher what you are looking at.  Or to know where to look in the first place. Businesses, academics and researchers that rely on government data make it their business to know where to look.  Often they know the person within an agency who produces the data.
 
But like Medieval scholars who sought to make the Bible accessible to all by translating the Latin Vulgate into English or French, the Obama data policy seeks to make the riches of government data easily accessible to everyone.  So it seems to be data.gov has three challenges:
  1. It has to be a superior portal, with search capability that takes into account the taxonomies of different domains.  This is a problem long known to scholars such as those working on the semantic Web
  2. It has to be complete.  That will take years.  Library card catalogs grew each time a book was added.  But the “books” are already out there in 600,000 servers, and now the pointers have to be backfilled.  This will take a lot of cooperation between OMB and the agencies who originate the data
  3. It must have vault-like security.  Imagine what determined cyber criminals could do if they could somehow infect every data server in the government
Posted: 5/22/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

If you like the way the Clinton administration pursued the anti-trust case against Microsoft, then stay tuned.  Because the Obama administration’s Justice Department is said to be licking its lips over the prospect of refreshed anti-trust enforcement in the high tech industry.  In one published report, the Wall Street Journal quoted Silicon Valley anti-trust lawyer Gary L. Reback as expecting more business.  Reback was a player in the Microsoft case, and he is a strong proponent of government’s role in maintaining competitive markets. 

Chip-maker Intel is in the crosshairs, having just been assessed a $1.45 billion fine by the European Union for business practices alleged to have unfairly limited the market access of rival AMD.
 
So is Google, whose technology advice is sought by administration officials and in some quarters has been the toast of the town.
 
One wonders if Apple, which created an EU version of its iTunes program in 2004 has had to work hard to ward off regulators there because Apple had priced songs differently depending on the country. Will it be sued here for, say, having too big a share of the MP3 player market.
 
Companies should play by the rules.  But what are the rules when companies create markets by the sheer talent of their engineers, the imagination of their product people, and the effectiveness of their marketing?  Is it monopoly if you invent the market?  Google’s online services, Intel’s microprocessors, and Apple’s downloading mechanism fit those criteria.
 
The Obama administration, in its short life, has already created a very strange relationship with the business world.  It has made a hash out of the contractual rights of bond holders in corporate bankruptcy proceedings.  It has applied muscle to executive pay agreements it was found to have had knowledge of beforehand.  It is working with Congress on a plan to massively tax multiple industries that produce carbon dioxide.  All while it is operating in what it calls the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
 
Why, then, now should it saddle, or even threaten to saddle, some of the nation’s richest and most successful companies operating in the fastest-moving markets with distracting, burdensome and expensive litigation?
 
I can envision some future settlement with Intel in which lawyers will get millions and anyone who bought a computer with Intel Inside over the past however many years will get a check for $1.79.
Posted: 5/19/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

Ever since former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R) lost his seat last fall, I, along with many others observing or part of the Federal acquisition scene, have been wondering when Congress will take up the matter of Alaska native corporations, or ANCs. They have for many years received preferential treatment in Federal contracting. They can get sole-source awards of any value. Owners can possess multiple companies in the 8(a) program. 

Water finds its level, and if a contracting officer can find an easy way to get something done (little competition) instead of a hard way (lots of competition), like water he’ll go the path of least resistance. So ANCs have experienced startling growth over the past few years.
 
But the party may be coming to an end. GovExec, which estimated that ANCs received 68 percent of $5 billion in Federal contracts during 2008 without competition, reports that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, is asking questions of ANCs, including about their practice of giving people their communities’ shares.  It is not casual, hey-how-are-ya questioning, either. McCaskill’s letter to the largest ANCs is sure to make them sit up and wonder what is going on.
 
In the grand scheme of things, $5 billion is not a big number.  But it’s the arbitrary choice of one ethnic group in one geographic area to receive an unencumbered pipeline to Federal dollars that rankles. Extended to its logical conclusion, this type of thinking would collapse the entire procurement system.
 
In 1971, when the Alaska Native Claims Act established these preferences in pursuit of, well, native claims, perhaps there was some justification for it. There still probably is a case for some kind of help for persistent poverty out there in the distant regions of Alaska.  But too often the ANC preference has curdled into a simple competition workaround, since Stevens threw the corporations into the 8(a) pool back in 1992.  It not as bad as, say, HUBZones, the scandal-ridden Small Business Administration program in which Federal dollars often go to scam companies operating from phony addresses.  Or Indian casinos with their unsavory notion that gambling and liquor zones are somehow the salvation of another population.  Come to think of it, Sen. McCaskill might not want to stop at ANCs.
Posted: 5/14/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

A friend with a career in intelligence behind him recently described Defense Secretary Robert Gates as someone who has gotten better as he’s risen through the ranks, a type of reverse Peter Principle.  For sure, it is an unusual person who can serve presidents as diametrically different at George W. Bush and Barack Obama. 

I find it hard to tell if he is a military visionary or a supremely deft bureaucrat.  But he sure has shaken up the Pentagon.
 
The unceremonious sacking of Gen. David McKiernan as commander of forces in Afghanistan was spearheaded by Gates, who is not squeamish about such things, regardless of how humiliating it might be to a 4-star with 37 years of service.  Back in June of last year, Gates fired Michael Wynne, the Air Force secretary, and Gen. Michael T. Moseley, chief of staff, after all those nuclear mishaps and the fact that Gates was frustrated over the Air Force’s slowness in getting more unmanned aerial vehicles deployed.  And a year before that, he jettisoned Army Secretary Frances Harvey after revelations of cruddy living conditions at Walter Reed military hospital in D.C. Heck, Gates had no problem in 2007 dumping the popular Gen. Peter Pace instead of nominating for a second term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
 
In those earlier incidents, the generals didn’t take matters seriously enough to suit Gates after shocking lapses came to light.  In Pace’s case, Gates said at the time that the renomination hearing would be a contentious referendum on the previous several years of war in Iraq with Donald Rumsfeld, a failed Defense secretary.  Those were examples of Gates the supreme bureaucrat-manager.
 
In the case of McKiernan, it wasn’t anything the man did, more that his style and background seemed, to Gates – and apparently to Central Command Director Gen. David Petraeus – unsuited to the unconventional swamp of Afghanistan.  Gates is equally unsentimental about dumping cherished generals’ programs.  Witness his deletion of the F-22 fighter and the Future Combat Systems ground vehicle.  These are examples of Gates the visionary trying to orient the military towards the wars it is actually fighting.
 
And what of President Obama in all this?  As columnist Peggy Noonan observed recently, Barack Obama kills softly.  His fingerprints aren’t directly on much of what Gates has done.  But it would be logical to suspect Obama is working through Gates to put his, the president’s, imprimatur on DOD.
Posted: 5/12/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

You probably don’t remember the Merlin, the Allison V-1710, or the Wright Double Cyclone.  They are famous piston engines of yesteryear, and they were key components in the development of well-known aircraft.  The pity is that the magnificent sound of these hi-octane gasoline guzzlers has largely disappeared unless you get to a good air show. 

Like hardware and software, airplanes and what are now called their propulsion systems are developed and acquired separately, even though each is useless without the other.
There’s a nasty and ongoing battle over a new engine, that of the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).  The engine is about as big as a school bus. The F-35 that looks to be the winner of this year’s Defense budget battles, and which Defense Secretary Robert Gates said should get the go-ahead for some 2,500 copies.  There versions for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force.  The prime contractor is Lockheed, and the plane’s single engine has been developed by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies.
 
The development program for the JSF has been long and expensive.  This is nothing new.  The legendary Merlin engine took years to perfect so that it wouldn’t conk out on a combat mission.
 
It is through buying in high volume, aided by sales to allies, that DOD gets any economy out of such a program.
 
So –- it is more or less expensive to have two engine suppliers competing with one another?  For more than a decade, Congress has forced money on the Pentagon for development of a second engine, from an alliance of General Electric (GE) and Rolls-Royce Group.  That is, the Pentagon has never asked for the money.  Some say a continuing competition for the thousands of engines that will be needed over the several-decade life cycle of the program will drive down cost and improve efficiency.  Other say the redundancy will simply add expense and is nothing more than Congressional patronage of GE and its workers.
 
In this week’s 2010 budget submission, the Pentagon zeroed out funding for the GE/Rolls Royce engine. In earlier budget cycles, President George Bush tried to kill the second engine.  President Obama may face the zombie engine if Congress resurrects it.  Quoted in a New York Times story, Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) promises to do just that.
 
Funny, sole sourcing is a concept that the procurement reformers have hit pretty hard.  But whether it is good or bad depends on the context.
Posted: 5/7/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

One of the newspapers recently carried a perennial story – what journalists call “evergreen” – about how Microsoft continually updates the dictionary embedded in Word and other programs as the language and vernacular change.  When computer users get an update push from Microsoft, it likely contains a new dictionary update.  So, for example, as everyone knows by now, at some point in the last 18 months, the Microsoft dictionary team added the words “Barack Obama” so that, when users type them, Word no longer flags them as misspellings. 

But some words in the Federal, political, and IT domains you’d think would have made it in, if not long ago at least in recent weeks still have not.  Here is a chart of words I typed up randomly, words and names in common use still getting the misspelling underline in Word.
 
MS Word doesn’t like
MS Word recognizes
Biden, Snowe
Carper, Dingell, Markey, Murkowski, Murtha, Pelosi, Waxman
Devaney, Sebelius, Vilsack
LaHood, Napolitano, Obama, Orszag
Wikis
Wiki
LinkedIn, Facebook
Twitter
Cybersecurity, foo, phish, phishing, phreaking
IPv6, Kluge, netiquette, spam, vaporware
Ahmadinejad, Karzai, Ki-moon, Odierno, Petraeus, Rumsfeld
Bin Laden, Hussein, Shah
Cernan, Schirra
Gagarin, Soyuz, Sputnik
Accenture, Battelle, Pricewaterhousecoopers, Verizon
Deloitte, Lockheed, Northrop, Unisys
 
I know you can add words to your own Word dictionary, so don’t send me instructions on how to do it.
Posted: 5/7/2009 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

The grandly-named national dialogue on how to get the www.recovery.gov site right couldn’t have happened too soon.  Because the administration’s signature site is – can we finally admit it? – nothing but a collection of press releases and pretty colored charts. Anyone hoping to see contracts, individual projects, detailed spending patterns, or anything else beyond the entrance threshold of transparency will be sorely disappointed. 

I still think recovery.gov is the right idea, and so far as it goes, it presents at least some information gathered from the agencies.  But its shortcomings with respect to the promises made for it by the president result from issues far larger than the builders of recovery.gov itself can deal with.  The Federal agencies providing the source data are barely able to gather the information themselves, much less ensure that it all comes into one site uniformly formatted and tagged.  Building a data environment like what recovery.gov hopes to be is like filling a ten-story grain silo so that it lets people find the single kernel of corn they are seeking.
 
In case you’ve been in Tahiti, a few days ago the National Academy of Public Administration wrapped up a week-long gathering of recovery.gov ideas from a Web site it created, called www.thenationaldialogue.org. You could not link to it from NAPA’s site; at least I couldn’t find the link.
 
The Dialogue site, still available for viewing but no longer taking new ideas, is in some ways a masterpiece.  Although refreshingly simple to navigate, it was architected such that it managed to keep a wide range of ideas organized and easy to peruse.  Many tech types from IT vendors submitted ideas without turning the site into a sales pitch platform. Respect for ideas seems to have been the dominant tone for thenationaldialogue.org.  I especially liked the three tabs showing which ideas were the latest in, which were highest rated, and which garnered the most comments.  One flaw is that a single person could vote to give an idea – including his or her own – five stars.
 
If the parties to recovery, including the Office of Management and Budget and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, can apply the best ideas to recovery.gov with reasonable alacrity, then NAPA will have done a remarkable service.  In congressional testimony this week, board chairman Earl Devaney indicated he would look seriously at the output of the NAPA effort.