Subba’s Serendipitous moments

September 20, 2009

U.S. Federal government to use the cloud and the App Store

Vivek Kundra — the Federal CIO and who is actively promoting the innovation agenda announced Apps.Gov. It includes a variety of business applications, hosting and social applications all housed in a cloud.

All the federal agencies will be able to buy the cloud computing applications and services and this will surely bring the cost of IT services in the federal budget. It is also a very innovative way of standardizing applications.

What Apps.Gov also ensures is that the government enjoys the same benefits that technology changes and pricing models have to offer to the consumer. The government also can reduce the cost of IT infrastructure like building data centers a, servers, storage. Some applications may even be free.

I do not know how he is going to handle the privacy and security issues, but I guess given the size of the federal IT budget, many vendors will come forward to build the standards needed for the Government to be their customer. Google has already responded by announcing that it would dedicate a part of its computing infrastructure to serve the federal government.

Sure, other vendors will follow.

All in all, this is a great initiative and something that other Governments should also consider.

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July 1, 2009

Social network for Government 2.0

Government 2.0 is clearly gaining momentum. I just stumbled on a social network platform to discuss government 2.0 initatives. GovLoop is the Premier Social Network for Government 2.0 connecting over 12,500 Federal, State, Local, Academics, and Good Contractors.

This is what I call tapping the wisdom of the crowd something that I have been strongly advocating. Some prefer to call it crowdsourcing.

The U.S. Government’s dashboard — Elegant and simple

After Vivek Kundra launched the open access to U.S. government data he has now launched a new U.S. government dashboard that tracks the U.S. government spending.. This tracks government spending with charts and lists ranking the largest government contractors (Lockheed, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, etc.) and assistance recipients (Department of Healthcare Services, New York State Dept. of Health, Texas Health & Human Services Commission, etc.). Well, the site design is neat, user friendly but what took my breath away was the way the various trends that were displayed. Certainly they got inspired from gapminder.

This site has been built on Drupal– a open source content management software.

This clearly shows that the U.S. leads in transparency and even the Governments can innovate if they have the right leadership.

I strongly suggest all the Government CIOs visit the site.

Which other government will follow next?

Australia launches Gov 2.0. Will Singapore follow?

Another major country with pronounced democratic traditions and openness has set up a Government 2.0 task force. They rightly describe the opportunities that current technology provides, The current change in media behavior and habits is again seen as an opportunity not as a threat. The enthusiasm is clearly visible and the charter for the task force is clearly ambitious and could serve as an inspiration to other governments.

Many of the points made resonate strongly with me and I have written about it here and here. I only hope that Singapore also embraces this and does it soon.

I call it the inevitable path, because if people in government don’t wake up, the citizens will find some methods of forcing it to happen.

June 27, 2009

In Government spin zone

In the times we live, the quality of a first rate mind is to be able to identify spin. The only negative side effect is that in the process one gets labeled as cynical. What was once purely seen as creating an image to put a sheen on performance, has now degenerated into an orchestrated spin often to substitute performance.

The best way to do spin on a co-operating and conniving media is to use data. Since the art of spin was invented in the U.S. let’s start there:

The data dished out indicates that continuous claims for unemployment benefits dropped. The naive reader would be led to believe that job creation is happening and unemployment is declining. The reality however is that once continuous claims are made, the recipients drop out of the claims rolls. This is confirmed by my economist friend — Dr. Ananth in his column as well. So, the drop in unemployment claims has nothing to do with generating jobs. This disclaimer is not stated even in the fine print.

The US non-farm economy lost only 345,000 jobs in May though it was expected to lose 500,000. One just inflates the “expected” figures and when the real number comes it is seen as better than expected, notwithstanding the fact that even the real numbers are high.

The flurry of visits to China by important officials in the Obama administration goes beyond the apparent significance. The US Treasury Secretary’s visit and before that the U.S. Foreign Secretary’s visit reiterating their U.S. was committed to a strong U.S. dollar is laughable. This is crude spin at best.

The U.S. is the biggest debtor and China has no choice but to accumulate U.S. dollar assets and suffer erosion of value as its currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar. As long as U.S. outsources its manufacturing to China, and as long as vested interests dictate that China’s economy has to be export driven, a weak U.S. dollar serves both sides. The U.S. keeps asking China to revalue its currency is nothing but a meaningless side show. Another case of spin.

The reality is that job creation in the U.S. since 2000 has been very low, and yet to keep the economy expanding the interest rates were kept low which created the asset bubble. We saw the repercussions of the asset bubble. Despite the bubble and the meltdown, China didn’t seize the opportunity to build a domestic economy. It simply increased the export rebates and boosted manufacturing capacity. Making the shift from export driven economy (which helped China taste success) to a domestic economy is akin to making the step from a state led economy to a market led economy. The present Chinese ruling elite has chosen to postpone the inevitable.

So, to keep up with the fact that Governments are doing something and that the economy is recovering we are entering the “spin zone”. Markets have rallied sharply since March 2009 and this is often cited as saying that all the stimulus spending is working. President Obama’s stimulus may become the cause of another bubble.

However if there’s more transparency and if the governments follow the principles of Government 2.0, by sharing all data and empowering citizens, it would be hard pressed to reveal the truth and curtail the spin.

Investors like bubbles. Media, to be relevant loves them. And Governments these days are too willing to generate one. And did I say that getting firmly entrenched in the “spin zone” and expanding the zone is often the first step.

I would certainly like to hear about the other spins that the Government puts across.

June 21, 2009

Will Singapore learn the lessons from the financial crisis?

Just finished reading Daniel Gross’s book, Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation. It is available as an e-book too. It is a book that I recommend to all executives and civil servants who are responsible for developing policy and strategy because it is important to place emphasis on perception tools as much as we do for analytical tools. There are similarities between the actors in the dumb money operation and in the Singapore civil service.

Dan writes:

“The Dumb Money creed rested on four pillars: perpetually low interest rates, perpetually rising asset prices (especially for housing), borrowers of all types remaining perpetually current, and perpetually strong markets for debt. The high priests of this cult were the nation’s central bankers.

In 2007 and 2008, each of the pillars of Dumb Money began to crumble. The rules of physics still applied to finance. Interest rates, it turned out, could rise. Asset prices could, indeed, fall. Borrowers, having seen no income growth in a decade, fell behind on their debts. All of which helped cause the markets for securitizing debt and derivatives to break down”

The people who blew up the system weren’t anarchists. They were members of the club: central bankers and private-equity honchos, hedge-fund geniuses and Ph.D. economists, CEOs and investment bankers. And the (overwhelmingly legal) con they perpetuated on themselves, their colleagues, their shareholders and creditors, and, ultimately, on us taxpayers makes Madoff’s sins look like child’s play.”

Looking back, the investors who believed the stories told by Madoff and Stanford—that they could deliver steady, positive, market-beating returns in any type of climate, despite the manifest failure of virtually every other money manager to do so—were obviously foolish. But our best financial minds also spun tales and theories with great assurance, making seemingly irrational and unprecedented activity seem completely sensible. And we bought them.”

So, Why do the best and brightest get it so wrong? One easy way to explain it is here.

The arrogance of power. Combine that with great wealth, quick progress, a group think syndrome, limited thinking style and big responsibility at a relatively immature age and you have a potent mix. It invariably leads to hubris. Hubris was typically responsible for the downfall of heroes in Greek tragedy.

In addition, people in positions of great power and/or wealth will often interact primarily with people like them, both at work and in their social life, most of whom share a similar world view. They start believing that they are the only ones who understand what is going on and what needs to be done. Everyone who disagrees with them is just plain wrong or worse downright stupid. When problems occur, they tend to circle the wagons and become even more isolated.

Now Singapore’s civil servants are intelligent people, but they have become ensconced in their ivory towers. There is too much group think and there is rarely a marketplace where ideas compete. Most Ministers and civil servants come from the same elitist institutions and often have a tendency to very much function like a club. I do not know how much debate happens during the cabinet meetings, but after observing Parliament proceedings closely I have rarely seen a good debate or alternate viewpoints being pursued.

More importantly, having seen civil servants and executives in Ministries and statutory boards interact, the “group think” syndrome just continues to strengthen because they don’t want to be left out of the club. Worse, any alternate view is interpreted as a challenge to the authority, not just to a point of view. Has kowtowing the superior become the SOP (standard operating procedure) or is it a “survive and grow” strategy or worse the natural default behavior? With so many Minsters and civil servants coming from the military side, I would not be surprised if compliance fetches a better premium than creativity.

The Singapore media has never had a track record of triggering new ideas or debating current ideas. It has always served to propagate official thinking and giving it a spin.

Now, can the top honcho always get it correct? And what’s the risk of his reading the situation wrong or coming up with the sub-optimal solution? I shudder to think.

If the financial crisis has one thing to teach the Singapore government and civil service, it is that systemic failures of massive proportions are possible. And the best and the brightest (in Singapore they are judged when they are 18 years old based predominantly by their school leaving scores) with their group think cannot be the fountainhead of wisdom.

Wisdom and government dominance have been strange bedfellows. And incompatible too.

June 13, 2009

Government 2.0 — Empowering the people at the Malaysia NICT

I was an invited speaker at the Malaysia National ICT conference at Putrajaya, organized by MDEC between 9-11 June 2009. I was pretty impressed with the scale, size and involvement of everyone concerned.

My presentation slides can be viewed/downloaded here. My special thanks to Zern Liew, who really helped me with some of the visuals. He is a fantastic visual thinker and we tuned in well with each other.

I was also on the panel discussion moderated by Roslan Bakri Zarkaria of MDEC. He was energetic and mingled with the audience and thus kept the tempo high. I was equally impressed with the fellow panelists James Smith of futuregov who talked about teh research project on the perceptions, initiaties of Gov 2.0 in different parts of Asia. The other speaker Ashran spoke about Open Innovation which is increasingly gaining currency and it was wrapped up by Ashraf of Consoci talking about specific Malaysian initiatives.

I was equally impressed by Devan’s attempt of explaining the mash-ups where he talked about possible applications integrating the data on parks and incidence of dengue fever. He brought about the possibility so well that I hope the Government CIOs were listening. Just reinforced my point about data.gov which I mentioned in my talk. I was equally impressed with Joel Neoh of Youth Asia where he shared research data about the Malaysian youth expectations from the Government. Clearly it seems to me that the Malaysian youth is not apathetic to the workings of the Government. I wonder what would be the results if the survey was done in Singapore.

I got the impression that the MDEC is doing its best to seed initiatives and support efforts to usher in Web 2.0 models into the government. It is tough ushering in change; more so in a government set up. Malaysia has always taken a cautious approach towards deploying new technology or even making social interventions due to the nature of businesses there and the kind of social structure. It would be interesting to see how they are able to bring in openness, a culture of sharing and a more transparent pubic-private partnership.

One thing about Malaysians that has always impressed me is the quality of talent amongst the entrepreneurs and their strong commitment to Malaysia. Surprisingly most of them do not have a global vision and are content to stay within Malaysia. Given the opportunities that Malaysia itself provides, it is easy to understand.

But in this hyper-competitive and inter-connected world, is it a smart thing to be a walled garden?

While I was at the airport I bumped into a friend and he asked me a profound question: His question was: Isn’t an empowered people a threat to the government itself in Asia ? The perfect answer still eludes me.

May 27, 2009

Will Singapore usher in Government 2.0?

President Obama will surely go down in history for a number of things. Amongst many things, he was the first one to use the power of social networking so effectively which led him to win the Presidential elections decisively. He appointed Vivek Kundra as CIO in his administration and Aneesh Chopra as a CTO. Surprisingly they are not marquee names as one would have expected, but people who have blazed a new trail defying conventional practices. Some prefer to call them the iconoclasts.

Vivek Kundra, the CIO for the Obama Administration launched a new website called Data.gov which for all its radical breakthroughs was announced quietly. I hope it gets the publicity it so rightfully deserves. The intent of the website is to release vast amounts of raw data so that tax payers can see what’s happening in the government and buraucracy.

The new site has 50 feeds and is intended to grow to about 240,000 feeds next month itself. It will be a one-stop shop for free access to data that will be generated across all federal government agencies.

This is a paradigm shift and in some sense unparalleled in the history of Government IT. First, it establishes beyond doubt the credentials of President Obama to be as transparent as possible. Second, ingenious entreprenuers can quickly develop Web applications more easily (with mash-ups becoming so common) using government data and take it to market. Finally, interested citizens can provide ideas to the government’s problems, now that they have access to better, reliable and immediate data. Finally, it also goes to show that the government is prepared to accept that it may not have all the answers to its problems and that crowdsourcing must be encouraged.

The Singapore government has been not just an early but a staunch user of IT. It has in the past, pioneered effective applications and can rightfully claim credit for the high level of IT penetration in Singapore. Yet, in recent years it seems to have lost both the momentum and direction. The Government IT directions are managed in a hybrid model with the Government CIO being part of the IDA. One look at the Government CIO mandate here shows it is inwardly focused, tactically driven and continues to o continues to operate from a traditional mindset.

At this stage of IT maturity merely notching up some incremental percentage points on the efficiency scale is not going to help either the Government or the citizens. It needs a more forward looking radical approach if it has to remain relevant and regain the respect that it once had. It needs a President Obama philosophy and a Kundra’s impetus for action.

If what is stopping this leap is imagination, it needs new blood; a set of iconoclasts. If however they believe that the government knows best and that there is no wisdom in the crowd, then sadly, only a serious failure will force a rethink. If the Government does not want to be more transparent, it is only inhibiting the natural empowerment and evolution of the citizens. If the government needs a role model, President Obama has accepted to be one.

Let’s not forget that one constant dimension of the various developments in the IT world is empowerment. This has happened not just within the firewall but as part of the extended enterprise. Choosing to ignore the philosophical underpinnings of empowerment is choosing to ignore the true potential of IT and in a way also choosing to ignore true progress.



I will have the opportunity to speak on Government 2.0 at a National IT conference very soon and this gives me a lot to conceptualize things better.