The Federal Island Of Insanity

SOS

So a colleague at work was supposed to get something done. 


Well it didn’t happen, and someone else got left holding the bag–not really very fair.  


Too make matters worse, the guy sort of unapologetically and clouded pops in my door and says to me, “What are we doing here?”


Taken aback and not sure what this guy is talking about, I say “Excuse me?”


He looks up into space for a moment, and turns back toward me and repeats emphatically, “I mean, like what are we e-v-e-n doing here?”


Getting more than a little frustrated at this point, I ask quizzically and with some sarcasm, “You mean on planet Earth?”


Again, turning and looking oddly away and then back my way, he says, “In this building!”


I must’ve been looking at him at this point like is he on drugs, and I say, “We’ll there are important laws that we’re fulfilling here (implicitly referring to FOIA, Records Act, Privacy Act, E.O. 13526, etc.).”


Unbelievably, he continues, now shaking his head, “Well that’s what I mean…why we need that?”


Having too much work to play out whatever this toxic game was any longer, I’m like, “[if you don’t believe in transparency and safeguarding/security of information,] Maybe you should write your Congressman,” [smile!] and with that went back to the million and one serious work things I still had waiting for attention.


In retrospect, I can’t help but think that incredibly, there are people coming to work here in D. C. that either don’t know why they are there in the first place (but should know!) or don’t believe in the mission or meaning of what they are doing.  


In the private sector, I certainly don’t think this conversation would’ve even gone on as long as it did…the consequences there seeming more pronounced, abrupt, and in a definite way connected with reality. 


With more than 16 years into the Federal sector, I still can’t believe a lot of what goes on–both good and hopeful, and bad and more than a little disappointing. 😉


(Source Photo: Danielle Blumenthal)

Records Manager Appreciation Day!

Records Management is not about 45s, 33s, or 8-track music collections, but managing key document and electronic records.

It’s critically important for an organization to be able to archive and access needed information for managing their business, and enabling transparency and accountability.

Managing records saves us time and money in the long run

Moreover, as information workers in an information economy, information is power! And we need to be able to get to information, whenever and wherever we need it.

While records may not be sexy unless you’re Lady Gaga or Madonna, information is the lifeblood of the 21st century, so say thank you to your records management and information access professionals today! 😉

To Archive Or Not

To Archive Or Not

Farhad Manjoo had a good piece in the Wall Street Journal on the Forever Internet vs. the Erasable Internet.

The question he raises is whether items on the Internet should be archived indefinitely or whether we should be able to delete postings.

Manjoo uses the example of Snapshot where messages and photos disappear a few seconds after the recipient opens them–a self-destruct feature.

It reminded me of Mission Impossible, where each episode started with the tape recording of the next mission’s instructions that would then self-destruct in five seconds…whoosh, gone.

I remember seeing a demo years ago of an enterprise product that did this for email messages–where you could lock down or limit the capability to print, share, screenshot, or otherwise retain messages that you sent to others.

It seemed like a pretty cool feature in that you could communicate what you really thought about something–instead of an antiseptic version–without being in constant fear that it would be used against you by some unknown individual at some future date.

I thought, wow, if we had this in our organizations, perhaps we could get more honest ideas, discussion, vetting, and better decision making if we just let people genuinely speak their minds.

Isn’t that what the First Amendment is really all about–“speaking truth to power”(of course, with appropriate limits–you can’t just provoke violence, incite illegal actions, damage or defame others, etc.)?

Perhaps, not everything we say or do needs to be kept for eternity–even though both public and private sector organizations benefit from using these for “big data” analytics for everything from marketing to national security.

Like Manjoo points out, when we keep each and every utterance, photo, video, and audio, you create a situation where you have to “constantly police yourself, to create a single, stultifying profile that restricts spontaneous self-expression.”

While one one hand, it is good to think twice before you speak or post–so that you act with decency and civility–on the other hand, it is also good to be free to be yourself and not a virtual fake online and in the office.

Some things are worth keeping–official records of people, places, things, and events–especially those of operational, legal or historical significance and even those of sentimental value–and these should be archived and preserved in a time appropriate way so that we can reference, study, and learn from them for their useful lives.

But not everything is records-worthy, and we should be able to decide–within common sense guidelines for records management, privacy, and security–what we save and what we keep online and off.

Some people are hoarders and others are neat freaks, but the point is that we have a choice–we have freedom to decide whether to put that old pair of sneakers in a cardboard box in the garage, trash it, or donate it.

Overall, I would summarize using the photo in this post of the vault boxes, there is no need to store your umbrella there–it isn’t raining indoors. 😉

(Source Photo: here with attribution to Spinster Cardigan)

What If They Can Read Our Redactions?

What If They Can Read Our Redactions?

The New Yorker has a fascinating article about technology advances being made to un-redact classified text from government documents.

Typically, classified material is redacted from disclosed documents with black bars that are technologically “burnt” into the document.

With the black bars, you are not supposed to be able to see/read what is behind it because of the sensitivity of it.

But what if our adversaries have the technology to un-redact or un-burn and autocomplete the words behind those black lines and see what it actually says underneath?

Our secrets would be exposed! Our sensitive assets put at jeopardy!

Already a Columbia University professor is working on a Declassification Engine that uses machine learning and natural language processing to determine semantic patterns that could give the ability “to predict content of redacted text” based on the words and context around them.

In the case, declassified information in the document is used in aggregate to “piece together” or uncover the material that is blacked out.

In another case prior, a doctoral candidate at Dublin City University in 2004, used “document-analysis technologies” to decrypt critical information related to 9/11.

This was done by also using syntax or structure and estimating the size of the word blacked out and then using automation to run through dictionary words to see if it would fit along with another “dictionary-reading program” to filter the result set to the likely missing word(s).

The point here is that with the right technology redacted text can be un-redacted.

Will our adversaries (or even allies) soon be able to do this, or perhaps, someone out there has already cracked this nut and our secrets are revealed?

(Source Photo: here with attribution to Newspaper Club)

Head Spinning From All The Spin

Head Spinning From All The Spin

The Nazi Minister of Propaganda, the evil Joseph Goebbels said, “He who controls the message, controls the masses.”

All dictatorships function very much from this premise as we see even now a days in totalitarian governments that limit Internet access, block websites, and filter news and messages from the people, so as to keep them docile and servile.

However, even in a democracy as fine as ours, the ability to control the message is a very powerful tool in directing how events are understood by the public and what action is taken, or not.

Some recent examples:

1) Syria’s Use of Chemical Weapons:
Numerous allies including England, France, and Israel say they have intelligence about Syria’s use of sarin gas against their own people…So did Syria cross the red line and use chemical weapons requiring us to take action or is this a matter for investigation and evidence?

2) Iran’s Violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty:
Iran is one of the world’s richest in energy resources and reserves…So is Iran violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty necessitating that we stop them or are they just building nuclear facilities for peaceful civilian energy needs?

3) Egyptian Military Coup and Roadmap For Reconciliation:
Egypt’s military overthrew the Egyptian Prime Minister from the Muslim Brotherhood who oversaw the rewriting of the constitution in 2011 to be based on Islamic law and not inclusive of other more secular elements of society…So is the restoration of true democracy and civil rights for the Egyptian people or a brutal coup?

4) Sudan Committing Genocide in Darfur:
With over 400,000 killed, 2,500,000 displaced, and 400 villages completely destroyed in Darfur…So did Sudan commit genocide requiring prevention, intervention, and punishment or was this just Sudanese internal conflict?

5) People Employed in U.S. at 30-Year Lows:
The proportion of the U.S. population that is working is at low rates not seen since the recession of the 1980’s…So is the unemployment rate still a critical national issue or is the unemployment rate really better and the economy strong again?

6) Edward Snowden Leaking Classified Information:
Snowden sought out the job with Booz Allen Hamilton to gather evidence on classified NSA surveillance and when he did he leaked this information to the news and harmed national security…So is Snowden a traitor or a whistleblower?

7) An $82 Billion Federal IT Budget:
The Federal IT budget is anticipated to rise to $82 billion in 2014…So are we still spending on large troubled IT projects or realizing billions in IT savings from new technology trends in cloud, mobile, social computing and more?

As Bill Clinton in 1998 said when questioned about the Monica Lewinsky affair…”It depends what the meaning of the word is, is?”

We see clearly that definitions are important, interpretations are important, and spin can make right seem wrong and wrong seem like right.

How we communicate and present something is very important and has critical ramifications on what is done about it whether in terms of action, attribution, and retribution.

Moreover, we should keep in mind that “He who knows doesn’t tell, and he who tells doesn’t know,” so there are limits to what even gets communicated from the get-go.

What is communicated, when, and in how much clarity or distortion is a function one on hand of people’s agendas, biases, career building (including the desire to get and keep power), as well as the genuine need for secrecy and security.

On the other hand, the desire for openness, transparency, truth, and healthy debate (facilitated by the media, checks and balances in government, and the judicial system) provides a counterbalance.

We the people must press to determine–is the person telling it like it is or are some things being contrived, manipulated, edited, and Photoshopped.

In the end, critical thinking and looking beyond the surface can make the difference between what we know we know and what we think we know. 😉

(Source Photo: here with attribution to Jah~)

FOIA Making Us Stronger

To commemorate 46 years since the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed on July 4, 1966, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) came out with a infographic showing the significant progress that has been made in government transparency and areas they still see for possible improvement.

Similarly, Government Executive Magazine ran an feature article in June 2012 called “The Truth Behind Transparency,” calling progress with open government as “tough to gauge.”

The basic idea of FOIA as the website for Sunshine Week put it is: “the public’s right to know about its government.”

Obviously, as GovExec points out, one of the main questions over the years with FOIA is “how quickly and fully do agencies respond to FOIA requests?”

To much and too soon, and do you perhaps put at risk various sensitive information, jeopardizing elements of the functioning of government itself?

Too little and too late, and then is the opportunity for mismanagement, waste, fraud, and abuse simply an after fact?

As Beth Novek, former deputy chief technology officer for open government, described it, open government is a “shorthand for open innovation or the idea that working in a transparent, participatory, and collaborative fashion helps improve performance, inform decision-making, encourage entrepreneurship and solve problems more effectively.”

Transparency can aid in accountability by shedding a light on leadership and its performance management. It can also be a great opportunity to bring new ideas and opinions to the fold, perhaps leading to better decisions and results, at the end of the day, for all.

The challenge for government is to guard against any information risks to the safety and security of our nation.

An informed nation, is a stronger nation–to me, it is a foundation of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Government and the people working together, duly informed, to confront our toughest challenges and solve our greatest problems.

Robots, Coming to An Agency Near You Soon

There is an article today in the Wall Street Journal (10-11 March 2012) about how an Anybot Robot attended a wedding party in Paris dressed up as the man’s 82-year old mother who logged on from her home in Las Vegas and by proxy of the robot moved and even danced around the party floor and conversed with guests–she was the hit of the party.

While sort of humorous, this is also amazingly incredible–through robotics, IT and telecommunications, we are able to close the gap in time and space and “be there,” even from a half a world away.

The QB Anybot robot is life size, rolls around on 2 wheels like a Segway, and has glowing blue eyes and a telescreen for a forehead on a long skinny cylindrical body that can be controlled remotely and costs only $9,700.

While this is the story of a robot “becoming the life of the party,” I believe that we are at the cusp of when robots will be reporting for duty at our agencies and organizations.

The function of robots in workplace has been tested with them performing everything from menial office tasks (like bringing the coffee and donuts) to actually representing people at meetings and around the office floor–not only keeping an electric eye on things so to say, but actually skyping back and forth with the boss, for example.

As robots become more dexterous, autonomous, and with better artificial intelligence, and abilities to communicate with natural language processing, we are going to see an explosion of these in the workplace–whether or not they end up looking like a Swiffer mop or something a little more iRobot-like.

So while we are caught up in deficit-busting times and the calls for everything from “Cloud First” to “Share First” in order to consolidate, save, and shrink, maybe what we also need is a more balanced approach that takes into account not only efficiencies, but effectiveness through innovation in our workplaces–welcome to the party, Robots!

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)