Archive for November, 2013

Wrapping Philly’s Trains in street art

Pretty incredible partnership.

The Gentrification Paradox

When improvement becomes hindrance.

These conversations often lead people to odd and paradoxical places. I caught one long-time Brooklyn woman describing how upset she got when the city began improving her neighborhood park, because it meant she’d be priced out of her home. My old friends from Brooklyn told me they were “hoping for a crime wave during the new mayor’s term, so that people would stop moving here and rents would go down.” They were only half joking.

The way that cities change can sometimes lead us into these odd paradoxical moments where things I consider to be improvements — a new transit project, a streetcape investment, replacing a parking lot with an apartment building — are greeted with frustration or anger. It’s what I call the gentrification paradox. It’s because our cities are so deeply intertwined with complex social histories of race, class, and neighborhood. It’s impossible to separate these issues, and they often lead us into tangled logics.

McConnell’s big mistake

The real question is why Senate Republicans made such an obvious strategic blunder. The filibuster in general is more beneficial to Republican interests than Democratic ones, and it seems likely that Republicans could have stopped reluctant Democrats from detonating the nuclear option by letting one or two D.C. Circuit nominees get a vote earlier in the process. Why did they allow this to happen? I can think of three possible explanations:

Senate cloture votes weren’t even a thing before 1917

After the Senate’s move to soften the necessity of cloture votes for judicial appointees, it’s a good time to recall the history of the filibuster and subsequent invention of cloture votes.

Perhaps we should have never messed with thing at all. Why not return to the talking filibuster, expand rules to define the procedure of filibuster, and let’s get rid of cloture votes altogether. The silent filibuster and cloture requirements have perverted the upper chamber into the mess it is today.

Talking filibusters bring attention to issues by focusing the media to cover topics that may otherwise not make the daily news cycle. If a bill is really worth filibustering, the filibuster will serve its purpose by exposing the horribleness of the bill leading to electoral consequences in the next election. But a filibuster (and the 60 vote cloture threshold) should not be used as a weapon to keep the majority party from effectuating change.

✁ as allegory for government woes

Last month I quickly linked to a couple pieces about the botched rollout. I’ve been thinking a bit more about the matter and think it is microcosm of everything that is wrong with the way politics and policy is covered in the media today. I am going to flesh these points out a bit more.

According to a recent Computerworld report, 93.6% of government IT projects over $10 million are successful. (To be clear, 41.6% were actually failures by the colloquial definition. 52% were what Computerworld is calling “challenged”, which means over budget.) Even a 41.6% failure rate is high (though, I would love to see the success rate for technology sites; We only really see or hear about successes, as failures rarely get their 5 minutes of fame). But why is this? Is it that government is, by definition, incompetent in producing successful IT projects? Or is it something else? If government must be incompetent, what is it about government that makes it so? It’s way too convenient to merely say government is the problem (or even government is the solution). And it tells us absolutely nothing except about your philosophical beliefs.

As with the Affordable Care Act, a vast majority of major government goods and services are conducted by private vendors. These services are almost always conducted via the government procurement process, whereby winning bids to government requests secure contracts for goods or services. The process is governed by procurement regulations that provide rules as to how government contracts should be executed. A few weeks back, Ezra Klein wrote on the lessons we can take away from the website launch. I think a few points are worth revisiting. Klein asked Clay Johnson, founder and CEO of the Department of Better Technology. He recently authored an ebook (which can be read for free, here) about modernizing these procurement procedures.

If you take a look at a government RFP ..(sic) Request for Proposal[s]. They tend to be really long and hard to read. They begin with a page of abbreviations and pointers to clauses in the federal regulation. No normal, functional human being would read those clauses and understand them without years of experience and some legal help. This legal language and tone of authority really turns away people who might bid on these contracts. A lot of businesses look at these contracts, decide they can’t even understand them, and it makes it unattractive to them.
I want government to decide that part of its responsibility is to get the best people bidding on these projects and the RFP is the government selling to businesses about why they want to work with them and should work with them. And part of that is using great language to decide what it is that they’re doing.

I’ve personally drafted responses to RFPs and there are a lot of boilerplate requirements to them. In many cases they don’t make sense to particular applicants, like carrying liability insurance for positions that are not professional in nature and carry no sort of professional or consumer liability with them. Yet they’re still required, with no exception. In many cases, the requirements are even more bizarre and make presumptions about the applicants that only apply to the traditional types. But if a company does not answer all aspects of the RFP, they risk being disqualified. A Federal contract can take weeks to fully respond to and failing to fully complete a single section could cost a firm millions of dollars.

The takeaway is that these things are long, hard, and stressful. And unless you’re in the business of filling out many responses to RFPs, the time and effort invested may not be an effective use of company resources. So why have these regulations? Well, because tax-payers demanded checks and balances on the abuses of government. No one likes to hear about contracts awarded to friends of politicians or to those who spend money on getting these politicians re-elected. And that’s the way the system used to be. We’ve grown as a society and demand accountability, openness, and fairness in these processes. But, unfortunately, these demands introduce their own problems and prevent businesses who execute government services from functioning as efficiently as a normal business might. Scrapping the procurement regulations only reintroduce the earlier problems.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t modernize such regulations (which involves both strengthening and weakening particular parts). Johnson continues,

The second reason is that because of the amount of money involved, government becomes really afraid of failure, which is a bit ironic, as this ends up leading to failure. But that fear of failure leads them to only want to work with known quantities, and known quantities mean contractors who’ve done this work in the past. That puts them with a group of entrenched vendors who haven’t really had to compete in the world of technology.

The other part is that there aren’t enough people inside government with the technical knowledge to oversee this stuff. In 1996, Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolution took out this Office of Technology Assessment that was kind of the digital brains of Congress. It was like an internal think tank on technology issues that advised Congress. That got axed. So there isn’t a real technical brain inside of Congress because there’s no one really advising them, the way lawyers advise them on the law, on technology. And you have some of the same problem in the executive branch. You have people like [CTO] Todd Park but it’s not in every agency.

There’s a lot to unpack in these two paragraphs. The first explains why the biggest players in government contracts repeatedly obtain them: government risk aversion combined with firms who possess experience navigating these applications successfully. With respect to risk aversion, the government’s solution is to bog down the RFP process with a long checklist of requirements, as opposed to general goals that must be accomplished. This Checklist dysfunction assumes that all vendors meeting the checked requirement, must be equivalent, overlooking other important considerations such as the proposed solution’s user experience, design, and simplicity, which are much harder things to measure. Unfortunately, it seems as though these intangibles are ultimately more important to good and successful implementation of public policy.

Five-hundred page RFP requirements with complex legalese lead to something that can be even more toxic: the more experience a firm’s legal team possesses or the bigger the firm’s government procurement department is, the greater the likelihood that firm will win a bid. In turn, we’re measuring a firm’s ability to perform a contracted service based upon the skill of people who won’t even be performing these services. And much of the overhead in these contracts go towards paying such entities so that they can secure even more contracts in the future. While having a quality procurement department is not a direct cause of IT (or more general) project failure, the point is that this ability should not count at all in determining the qualifications of an applicant. To use a loose analogy: we are evaluating contractors by how well they answer exam questions instead of by how well they can perform a given task. And we’re probably spending more money administering the tests too.

The second paragraph of Johnson’s explanation is even more troubling though. It suggests a very pernicious issue with the way our politics functions today. It’s becoming ever more common to hear stories like this one, where a particular political party downsizes or completely eliminates an office which later turns into the same people complaining about how poorly the government does its job.

As long as one side of the aisle is committed to completely preventing the improvement of government efficiency (arguing instead that all government, except for perhaps the very bare essentials is by default bad and inept), our government will never be able to internally solve complex problems. And as long as the procurement process continues to miss the forest for the trees, private contractors will be similarly unable to solve such problems.

If the government is neutered to the point where they are incapable of solving big and important policy issues and private industry is prevented from solving them either, who will? We get it, Republicans want very little government and Democrats want a lot of it. But until the people reporting start measuring success in terms of real world effectiveness, nobody gives a shit about a particular political affiliation. Evaluation of public policy solutions need to focus less upon the right vs. left’s view of government and instead focus on results.

UPDATE: By results, this is the type of thing I’m talking about. It hardly matters if policy change experiences hiccups (nearly every change does). What matters is if it’s working. Lower healthcare costs, more people already signed up to pay into the insurance system, getting rid of pre-existing condition termination, and protecting consumers, all of which have already been demonstrated to some noticeable effect, does.

#BlackFriday = media trap

The always astute Seth Godin,

Here are some of the steps involved in creating a marketing phenomena like this:

GIF of the day.

Great visualization of how mass transit reduces urban congestion.

Almost 50 years later, “Like A Rolling Stone” receives video treatment

Written in 1965, Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, arguably the best rock song ever written, received an interactive music video makeover.

Treating a classic right.

Sure, let’s drug test everyone who gets a federal benefit — as long as it’s everyone

Chris Satullo, Vice President of News and Civic Dialogue for WHYY:

Some lawmakers at the federal and state levels are pushing to set up drug testing for anyone getting food stamps.

I fully understand the impulse behind this notion. It offends many hard-working, law-abiding citizens to see their tax dollars go to people who harm themselves and others while breaking the law.

What I don’t understand is why this impulse is not more widely applied.

Food stamps are hardly the only broad, costly benefit the federal government offers.

Slice of Life #4: Keepsake

Idea: Instagram has taken over the captured moments that individuals treasure, mostly because cellphone cameras are good enough and always connected to the Internet for instantaneous uploading. But cellphone photography has taken away the beauty of living in the moment, because god forbid we miss that shot.

I fall victim to it as well. Kodak moments are special and capturing beauty gives one the sense of momentary accomplishment. There has got to be a billion dollar idea in a company that provides photo services for events so that their guests can compliment their Instagrams with professional photos of memorable moments of concerts, sporting events, and parties.

Imagine flipping through a digital book of sorts that interweaves your Instagram photos (using location and timestamps) into a digital scrapbook. For example: a trip to Yankee’s game would display a spread of the shot of you and your buddy with a hotdog and beer, a professional photo (think: here’s your number to see your photo after the game) of you in front of the Babe Ruth monument, an aerial shot of Yankee Stadium, and a couple captured turning points in the game. Perhaps even a box score and your digital ticket stubs.

How does the company make money? Service contracts with organizations. MLB, Ticketmaster, or the Yankees would pay for this value-added service because it creates impetus for creating more memories in the future. These contracts would pay for portrait photographers to take personal photos and to purchase rights to quality photos of the events.

Bonus: Imagine if artists were paid to bring back the lost art of ticket design.

Contact me if you’d like further consulting on this idea. I think it’s a real winner.