On Thursday, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko confirmed that a small aircraft piloted by democracy activists had violated Belarusian airspace in July when it crossed over from Lithuania. The aircraft was carrying a cargo of teddy bears, which parachuted into the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on July 4.
Lukashenko was peeved at his military commanders and air traffic control had failed to stop the plane’s raid into Belarus. Government officials have been trying to sort out how the activists planned the attack and why national security operatives failed to stop the small planes raid into controlled air space.
The plane was piloted by the cofounder of a Swedish ad agency on behalf of Charter 97, a Belarussian democracy advocacy group. The group has since organized other teddy bear assaults, including staging of teddy bears in front of the Belarusian Embassy in London-which caused embassy officials to call the police– to protest Lukashenko’s repression. Protestors have adopted the teddy bears as a symbol of resistance against Lukashenko.
“Last Friday was my last day at the White House. As I begin my fellowship at Harvard University, I’d like to share my reflections on public service…”
So begins, Vivek’s 12-page summary of his time in the Obama administration (the full version can be found via Alex Howard’s GovFresh piece).
I’ve been a big fan of Vivek’s, since his days as the CTO of Washington, DC. When he was named the first Fed CIO, it was big news in the tech community, especially in DC.
Each and every move he made, we followed. You have to remember that during the Bush years the exciting news was that the White House press core “had a blogger” (not to mention Bush didn’t use email). Then Obama came into office full of blackberry, twitter, facebook, and web prowess.
Every geek in the nation was rooting for some gear to get into the White House. We wanted cell phones, laptops (Macbooks!), modern websites, social media, podcasts, etc.
In the midst of this Bush/Obama collision arrived Vivek, fresh off amazingly innovative programs in DC: real-time tracking of city projects, GIS for municipal services, and co-location of engineers in schools.
Then he hit the Federal bureaucracy.
On the first day “they handed me a stack of documents with $27 billion worth of technology projects…years behind schedule…millions over budget.”
“Those documents were what passed for real-time updates on the performance of IT projects. My neighbor’s ten-year-old could look up the latest stats of his favorite baseball player on his phone on the school bus, but I couldn’t get an update on how we were spending billions of taxpayer dollars while at my desk in the White House.”
That stack of documents became his fighting spirit. No IT professional could claim any cred if they worked off binders and printouts.
“…from a small, nondescript office in downtown Washington, we spent many long nights fueled by coffee, thinking big about how we could transform our Government through technology.”
“I was ready to embark on a technology revolution…that would crack down on wasteful spending; increase the efficiency and effectiveness of government; enable an open, transparent, and participatory democracy; advance the cybersecurity posture of the nation; and most importantly, improve delivery of citizen services.”
Yeah, he was on fire.
The first big step was to bring that same real-time tracking pioneered in DC to the Federal Government, which is a lot like going from a tricycle to a spaceship.
“The Federal Government is the largest purchaser of IT on the planet, with over $80 billion spent on over 12,000 systems every year…to shine a light on (that spending) we launched the federal IT Dashboard in June 2009.”
“The Dashboard is a website where people can monitor every IT project..as easily as they can monitor their personal investment portfolios. If a project is over budget, or behind schedule, the Dashboard tells you so – and shows a picture of the person in charge.”
You gotta love the picture of the person in charge. Imagine having your face next to a project that is $100 million over budget. In quick order they “saved $3 billion and cut the time to deliver projects in half.”
And then to show that good ideas have legs, they “open-sourced the IT Dashboard and released all of our training materials. Within hours, 38 states and multiple countries reached out to express interest in adopting it to improve transparency and accountability. It’s already been downloaded more than 2,500 times across the world.”
Within months we went from a President who doesn’t have email to open source code!
My favorite section from the piece is not the numbers and projects but the personal anecdotes that Vivek shares. It’s part of what, in my opinion, makes him such a great leader (and great person).
“I was born in New Delhi, India, and lived in Tanzania until I was eleven. I came to America in 1985…I couldn’t speak English when I first arrived. I recall my first days at school in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and seeing a couple of African American kids around my age. They reminded me of my friends in Tanzania, so I walked up to them and starting speaking in Swahili. I was promptly met by strange looks, so I started speaking even louder to make sure they understood me. I suspect they thought I was making fun of them because the next thing I knew, I was being beaten up. Not the warm welcome I was expecting.”
But back to the tech: we get to the biggest project of his tenure, cloud computing.
“With the economy facing the worst recession since the Great Depression, one program – Cash for Clunkers – provided rebates to people who traded in older cars for new, more fuel-efficient ones. But just three days after its launch, the system for processing these rebates collapsed.”
“One hot DC August night during the height of this mess, I emerged at 4 a.m. from the Department of Transportation after 14 straight hours working…to keep servers online and the site operational.
“When I was Director of Infrastructure Technology in Arlington County, I knew down to the street address where each of our data center facilities was located and what was in them. Yet when I asked how many data centers the Federal Government had, nobody could give me the answer.
“It took agencies eight months to produce an initial inventory of their data centers. All told, the number of Federal data centers has more than quadrupled since 1998, from 432 to more than 2000. Yet on average, they are only 27 percent utilized.
“That’s why the Federal Government is actively shutting down 800 data centers by 2015.”
As of now the Federal Government is moving full speed into the cloud.
Which, of course, brings up the security concerns. As more of our critical systems go online we face an increasing risk of cataclysm.
“From power plants to stock exchanges, hospitals to banks, our Nation’s critical infrastructure systems are increasingly wired and, as a result, increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attacks.”
Finally, the last of Vivek’s projects, transparency.
“In this approach we also need to be mindful, however, that security is used too often as an excuse to justify the Government operating in a closed, secretive, and opaque manner.
“We almost have an IT cartel that’s made up of a few companies that benefit from government spending because they understand the procurement process better than anyone else, not because they provide better technology.
His response was to re-create the Apps for Democracy program but in a bigger, more permanent way.
“…we threw open DC’s warehouse of public data so that everyone – constituents, policymakers, and businesses – could meet in a new digital public square. We started with 200 live data feeds – everything from government contracts to crime statistics to economic development. And to spur citizens to turn this data into applications that the government didn’t have the resources to create on its own, we launched the “Apps for Democracy” contest, offering prizes for the best applications based on the data we released.
“We ran Data.gov like a lean start-up. On day one, we launched with a Minimum Viable Product with only 47 datasets. Two years later, there are 389,907 datasets covering every government mission area, from health care to public safety.
“Data.gov has spawned a global movement – 21 nations, 29 states, 11 cities, and several international organizations have established open data platforms.
In many ways Vivek is not a traditional White House appointee. His projects were big but not flashy. They tackled the hardest problems big IT faces (spending, cloud, security, and openness) and did so in a lasting way. Each of these projects are now fundamental elements of the Federal Government, which is an awesome legacy.
Americans may not know his name or even understand his work, but in Vivek’s own words: “We saved billions in taxpayer dollars; we adopted game changing technologies; we strengthened the cybersecurity posture of the nation while making it more open, transparent, and participatory.”
A truly successful CIO.
Good luck to you, Vivek, in your new position:
“…my work at Harvard, focusing on how we can use information technology to solve our nation’s and the world’s most pressing problems.
With democratic revolutions spreading from Tunisia to Egypt, I was wondering…how many democracies exist in the world?
According to the 2010 Democracy Index, a report published by the Economic Intelligence Unit, a division of The Economist magazine.
Seventeen of them in Europe, two in Latin America, two in Asia, one in Africa, and the last four are: US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
This is quite disheartening. As a child of a democracy I expected the number to be 200 or something. How could any country/person not want to be caught in the fire of liberty!
Then it gets me thinking that perhaps it is a cultural thing. Christianity is fiercely independent (“thou shall not kill”) and capitalism is selfishness at its very core. Hey, it could even be from the vast wealth we gained through colonization and subsequent exploitation.
East vs West
I often hear of this divide between the West and East. As if democracy is a Western value not shared by those in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
Is this true?
To answer I dug into what makes a democracy. The report classifies one according to five categories:
Functioning of government
Electoral process and pluralism
Then every country is rated and ranked as a full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid, or authoritarian regime.
The previously mentioned 26 countries are the full democracies. Beyond that another 53 are ranked as flawed democracies. Add up both and it accounts for about half the world’s population.
Which goes a long to prove that democracy is not limited to the Western world. Among the flawed ones are several in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
These ideals just seem extraordinarily hard to achieve. Several countries, even strong European nations like Italy, France, and Greece, have seen their ability to maintain them drop. Even the United States has recently seen its civil liberties erode and many of us definitely lack political participation.
I guess I can chalk up these reports of democracy being a Western value as propaganda. Probably the same line a dictator uses to keep people under his thumb.
What do you think, is democracy appropriate for the Middle East? Will it do well in Egypt?