South by Southwest isn’t generally associated with the federal government. But this year, between panels on “10 Things Your Band Can Do To Not Get Sued” and “Austin Breakfast Tacos: The food, people & history,” the festival will host “It’s Not About Tech: Hack the Bureaucracy.” The pitch: “Bringing geeks into government won’t make a difference if they can’t crack the code on bureaucracies.” Steering the panel is veteran government code-cracker Richard Boly, former head of the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy.*
That the State Department embraces technology should not come as news. The department’s “21st Century Statecraft” initiatives have been well covered in the press, and officials from the secretary down to the interns use social media. But the SXSW panel focuses on a far thornier issue than getting ambassadors on Twitter: how to foster a culture of innovation and openness in a bureaucracy built to resist change.
The term “bureaucracy” has few positive connotations. It’s been called the “death of all sound work,” (Einstein), the “giant power wielded by pygmies” (Balzac), the “slime” left behind when revolutions fade (Kafka), and a “symbol of hell” (C.S. Lewis). Though it isn’t America’s only bureaucracy, the federal government is probably its most infamous one. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows only 28 percent of Americans viewed the federal government favorably in 2012, its lowest rating since the poll began in 1997. The study didn’t delve into why, but perhaps part of the answer is the perception of federal agencies as bloated, ineffective bureaucracies that stifle creativity.
But there’s hope government can change this.
Read more. [Image: Edward Dodwell]
Decades from now, some lazy historian is in danger of confusing Obama for an anti-government radical.
Basically, he’s going to look at the president’s record of job creation and see that Obama presided over a historically bizarre period of private-sector job creation combined with public-sector-job destruction.
Adding last week’s meh jobs report to the pile of meh jobs reports, Bill McBride finds that this private sector employment recovery has been stronger than those under George W. Bush or his father. These are private sector jobs, only. (Obama’s record in BLUE.)
Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, made a pledge to listen to its 10.5 million residents. So now, the city has a giant ear-looking thing in front of City Hall to speak into when you have something to say.
[Image: Lifethings ]
Myanmar is opening up politically, and among the first, largest civil society campaigns is a social movement organized over Facebook for cheaper cellphone calling plans. Syria has been locked in civil war for almost two years; despite the strife—or because of it—cellphone subscriptions have taken off. In Nairobi’s largest slum, a local initiative to digitally map the muddy streets, open sewers, and infrastructure needs has bloomed into a network of community groups that deliberate over development priorities and then collect taxes to spend on those priorities.
Wherever governments are in crisis, in transition, or in absentia, people are using digital media to try to improve their condition, to build new organizations, and to craft new institutional arrangements. Technology is, in a way, enabling new kinds of states.
It is out of vogue in Washington to refer to failed states. But regardless of the term, there are an unfortunate number of places where governments have ceased to function, creating openings for these new institutional arrangements to flourish. Indeed, state failure doesn’t always take the form of a catastrophic and complete collapse in government. States can fail at particular moments, such as during a natural disaster or an election. States can also fail in particular domains, such as in tax collection.
Information technologies like cellphones and the Internet are generating small acts of self-governance in a wide range of domains and in surprising places.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
No matter how hard you try, you realize there’s a good chance you’re grading some students more harshly than they deserve, and giving others more credit than they deserve. This doesn’t have anything to do with favoritism (a whole other problem), but with human error and weakness. Your temperament and disposition change over the hours or days you spend grading an assignment. In fact, your frame of mind can change in moments for any number of reasons: Five weak essays in a row can put you in a foul mood; fatigue can set in; a too-hot or too-noisy room can set your nerves on edge. Maybe you’re suddenly reminded that you have only 48 hours left to finish clearing out your deceased parent’s apartment. How can any teacher be confident that his or her assessment of student work is always fair and accurate in the face of such vagaries? An essay that earns a B+ at one moment might earn a B- the next day. It shouldn’t be that way, but any honest teacher will admit it’s true.
Read more. [Image: Michael 1952/Reuters]
In Taiyuan, in northern China’s Shanxi province, construction began on a new high-end residential compound last year. When developers needed to excavate a cemetery for the building’s foundation, they offered to pay villagers to relocate the remains of loved ones. One family refused to budge, complaining that the compensation was too low. In China, such disputed plots are typically known as “nail houses,” and developers continue to build around them while the issue is resolved. In this case, workers carved out a “nail grave” belonging to the family of Chang Jinzhu. The small, bizarre column stood 10 meters above the foundation floor for months. This week, it was reported that Jinzhu’s family had reached an agreement with the construction consortium, receiving 800 Yuan ($128 USD) in compensation. A platform and bridge to the gravesite were built, and the family had the four coffins and gravestones removed.
See more. [Images: Getty]
It’s not hard to imagine making one or 20 or even 200 decisions about photographs or status updates in a week, but it’s mindboggling to consider that Facebook has to process 2 million reports per week, and that’s not including simple “mark as spam” messages.
How do you design a system to deal with that workload? I spoke with James Mitchell, who helms what Facebook calls “site integrity” within its user-operations department, and Jud Hoffman, the company’s global policy manager about the reporting process. They are the architects of Facebook’s technocracy.
Read more. [Image: Reuters/Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg]
With partisan gridlock and congressional dysfunction, Americans may have lost faith in their federal government, but an overwhelming majority view state and local government favorably. More than 6 in 10 Americans hold favorable views of state and local government, while just 33 percent view the federal government favorably – down from 64 percent a decade ago.
Read more at The Atlantic Cities. [Image: Pew Research Center]
The Obama administration hopes to wind down the long Afghan war by shifting responsibility for securing the country to Afghanistan’s nascent army and national police. One thing’s for certain: It won’t be cheap.
The overall U.S. mission in Afghanistan is already shifting from direct combat to training and mentoring the Afghan forces, which are slated to grow to 352,000 by the end of 2012. Boosting the numbers of capable Afghan forces would carry both human and financial benefits for the U.S, reducing the likelihood of American battlefield casualties and allowing the withdrawal of U.S. troops costing a whopping $1 million each per year to station there.
Still, a close look at U.S. military statistics shows that Afghan soldiers and police officers are far more expensive than you’d expect. They are paid an average of just $1,872 a year, but the overall cost of training and fielding a police officer is roughly $30,000 per year, while the cost of each soldier is nearly $46,000 per year. the United States bears virtually all of those costs, adding up to more than $3.5 billion a year.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
What do Republican presidents Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II have in common that Obama doesn’t? Total government grew under those presidents after they faced recessions. By contrast, federal, state, and local government has declined by more than half a million workers in the last three years. Big government ain’t what it used to be.
The graph above comes courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute. Since the recession officially ended in January 2009, the economy has bid goodbye to 584,000 government jobs (private sector employment is up by 2.8 million). That’s a roughly a 2 percent drop. Though the federal workforce actually grew between 2009 and 2011, it’s now shrinking at the fastest rate since the 1950s, as my colleague Derek Thompson has written. By comparison, government payrolls increased by at least a full percentage point during the thirty months after each of the last major recessions, while Republican presidents presided over the economy.
Read more. [Image: Economic Policy Institute]