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Posts Tagged ‘White House’

A New Online Look for the Justice Department

October 2, 2009 Leave a comment

This Friday evening, I lingered at my desk and took a pleasant visit through the pages of Justice.gov, the new online home of the Department of Justice.

The site has most essentials of a good site re-launch – improved navigation, multimedia (including the Department’s own YouTube channel), and the usual social networking tools (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace).  And the color scheme – black, gold, and parchment –  manages to be both official and stylish.

Functionally, Justice.gov works for DOJ observers, Beltway types and legal practitioners – especially those that regularly practice before the Department. If you know the general bucket that your query falls into – agencies, press releases, etc. – the site generally gets you to the right place.

What’s absent, however, is some articulation of how the Department’s mission is executed through its constituent agencies,  and how the Department’s actions impact our daily lives. For example, how do actions by the Antitrust Division – such as those dramatized most recently in The Informant! – impact the US consumer?

I think the situation is easily remedied with some strategic fixes.  For instance, the “Agencies” section – which currently serves as little more than a portal to Justice Department agency websites – could be re-purposed.  It could link to a series of jump pages – which would sit between Justice.gov and the agency’s site.  The jump pages would contain text, graphics and media to help explain how the linked agency relates to the larger Justice Department organization.  A clickable organization chart would further illuminate understanding of how the Department is organized.

Providing this type of context would help promote the type of informed democracy that was envisioned by President Obama in his memo on Open and Transparent Government.

It will be interesting to see how the site unfolds.  For now, its aesthetics and newer content are worth the visit.  History buffs will be particularly pleased with the profile pages (complete with gilt-edged portraits), of the 81 “distinguished individuals” who have been appointed Attorney General since the Office was first created in 1789.

More details about Justice.gov are available on – yes, you guessed it – the Department’s new blog.

Note to Commerce: Entrepreneurs need Tech Training too

September 30, 2009 Leave a comment

Last week, Commerce Secretary Locke announced the creation of a new Office of Innovation & Entrepreneurship that will focus on helping entrepreneurs achieve their business goals.  According to the Washington Post blog post by “Federal Eye” Ed O’Keefe, the new department will:

…” help coordinate the federal government’s efforts to help entrepreneurs turn their ideas into actual products, companies and jobs. It will also focus on education, training and mentoring issues; improving access to capital for small businesses; and help create government-backed incentives for entrepreneurs and potential investors.”

This new initiative comes at a crucial time for small and medium businesses.  Many smaller companies face mounting costs (wages, healthcare, insurance) and are struggling to stay alive in the current recession.  At the same time, most industries are witnessing a massive wave towards consolidation as big companies swallow up smaller companies whose share prices have been greatly depressed in the global economic downturn.  As noted most recently by the Economist, this trend – which is particularly prevalent in the healthcare and technology industries – presents a new challenge: how does a smaller company remain relevant in a world dominated by larger, better-funded competitors?

I believe a big part of that answer lies with technology. Web technologies and cloud computing are truly leveling the playing field thanks to innovations like email and websites which give smaller companies the same level of business efficiency and professionalism as their larger counterparts. It’s important that we train future entrepreneurs – not just on business issues, but also on the technologies that can them gain an edge in today’s fiercely competitive markets.  Educating entrepreneurs on current business productivity technologies is crucial to the success of the Administration’s efforts to revitalize the small business sector.

The Administration already recognizes the importance of technology in stimulus and job-retraining efforts.   Let’s hope they also see how important technology and effective tech education is for the entrepreneurs who will run the businesses of tomorrow.

Categories: Policy Tags: ,

Cloud for the government, by the government (with video).

September 15, 2009 Leave a comment

Launched today, the federal government’s cloud solution – apps.gov – is designed to help government agencies harness the flexibility, scalability and innovation provided by cloud services.  Even if you aren’t a federal agency looking to purchase apps online, the site is worth visiting to understand the approach of the Obama White House to cloud technologies.  The explanatory video illustrating the benefits of cloud computing is brilliant – with a different background theme, it could be mistaken for one of the more instructive episodes of Schoolhouse Rock.  Most importantly, the video clearly spells out how the Obama White House defines cloud technologies while highlighting its benefit for government: scalability (pay as you go), ease of implementation, reliable service with 24/7 support, freed up resources and of course, environmental sustainability.

Plus, apps.gov opens up the market for smaller, innovative companies to market their applications to government clients.  This is significant when you consider that the government currently spends $75 billion annually on IT. Portions of the site have yet to be populated – you cannot yet store data or host proprietary web applications through GSA’s Cloud IT services (but these offerings are coming soon).  What you can do – as a federal or affiliated state agency is purchase applications through existing GSA contractors, including offerings from Google and Salesforce.com.  Also featured – in the site’s specially designated “social media apps” section are links to numerous free applications that are being offered directly by companies like Blip TV, Socrata, and Slide Share.

Also interesting is how well the site works towards the goal of centralizing purchasing and research of IT services across federal agencies.  As federal CIO Vivek Kundra said today, “[I]n these tough economic times, the federal government must buy smarter.”  Centralizing purchases is standard business practice in large corporations and organizations, but amazingly, yet to be adopted by the federal government.  I wish them well in this noble endeavor.  For more, read Kundra’s blog post at whitehouse.gov, which includes some insights on how the White House plans to approach the important and unresolved subject of privacy and security in the cloud.

A 2-Track Society?

August 20, 2009 Leave a comment

The recent flap over a White House email tip line ended this week when the feature was disabled. I won’t go into the details that drove the White House to this decision – they are captured quite well in this Washington Post article.  But the incident has led me to wonder: in the future, will the benefits you receive as a US citizen (or resident) increase depending on your willingness to surrender certain personal information about yourself to the government?

Perhaps the idea of a White House email tip line is a bit premature.  Governments are just starting to connect with citizens using technology.  Trust needs to be built.  Trust in your government (that your personal information will not be used in a way that violates your privacy). Trust in technology (that it will be secure and robust enough to protect your personal information from misappropriation).  Given the White House’s recent proposal to scale back the ban on tracking technologies on federal websites, I’m sure this question will be re-visted again.

But let’s assume the White House is successful in scaling back the tracking ban.  This would mean that citizens who “opt-in” to being tracked by a federal agency website – such as whitehouse.gov – will be asked to set up a personal profile (similar to what already happens when you shop online or have a website remember your customized settings and preferences). According to White House CIO Vivek Kundra, the federal government will then use this information to provide better, more targeted customer service.

Arguably, by knowing more about you, the government could serve your needs better.  Here are a couple examples. As a business owner, you could receive real time updates – from a pertinent federal agency – about the laws and regulations that impact your business. Most businesses do not have currently have access to this type of information (short of hiring a lawyer or other expert for advice).  Another example: under a technology pilot being spearheaded by US CTO Aneesh Chopra, the process to gain US citizenship or residency is being overhauled.  Now, after creating a profile, INS applicants will be able to get real time updates on the status of their US citizenship or residency application.  For anyone who has been through this process or knows someone who has, this will be a tremendous improvement to the normally onerous INS process.

All of this also means that people who choose to “opt-out” of the government’s tracking system will miss out on certain benefits (the magnitude of that loss would depend on personal and work situations).   This isn’t just a lack of information, it’s also a lack of engagement.  And over time, we will have two types of citizenry in our country – those that remain engaged and connected to government, and those who don’t.  There will be a cost – even if you don’t interact with a federal agency on a regular basis, you will still be deprived of valuable information – that may impact life and work decisions – if you opt out of this system.

Let’s circle back to where we started – the White House’s email tip line.  In the end, the situation has been resolved to some extent.  People who are in search of a response to “disinformation” about President Obama’s health insurance reform plan are being directed to the White House’s Reality Check website with specific questions being answered through a web-based form.  But this is a country where many layers of bureaucracy and protocol stand between the average citizen and the President.   Did “fear-mongering” and “online rumors” lead us to miss an opportunity to engage more deeply with the White House and enrich the national debate on a deeply important subject?

We’ll never know.  For now, at least with regards to health insurance reform, the White House wants your query to be completely anonymous.

Whose Privacy – Yours or Mine?

August 17, 2009 1 comment

The White House has invited comment on its proposal to scale back a 2000 ban on use of “cookies” and other tracking technologies on federal websites. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra and OMB’s Michael Fitzpatrick defended the proposal on the White House blog back in June.  The news raises (once again) the unsettled question of regulating online privacy.  But before  the debate begins anew, a threshold question begs to be asked:  how do we define privacy in a world where the Internet is becoming such a critical part of daily life?

A recent Pew Study suggests that Internet users fall into two, very different categories (although the study does not attempt to quantify what percentage of total Internet users each group comprises).  The first group regularly divulges their personal information through blogs, social networking sites and other online technologies. In contrast, the second group remains guarded about discussing personal details online, viewing the Internet simply as a utility – for research, news and perhaps the occasional purchase.

So when we talk about privacy online, whose concept of privacy are we referring to?  The Internet user who routinely puts their life online and views an embarrassing disclosure of personal information as a necessary rite of passage? Or the Internet user who carefully calibrates their online behavior to avoid disclosure of any personal details?

If we accept the notion that Internet users have different definitions of what is private, then the need for more empirical data and the integration of such research into internet policy making becomes apparent. As regulators increase their oversight of online activities, they must first examine the nature of the audience they seek to regulate.  Industry and other stakeholders should work with regulators to identify a research-gathering process. And because the expectations of what constitutes privacy online changes daily, the identified process must be dynamic – just like the Internet itself.  Such a process will create a policy that reflects differing attitudes towards online privacy, while meeting the needs of an evolving Internet.

Now that’s a choice that all Internet users – regardless of how they view privacy – can accept.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,