NDN Blog

From Politico's Arena: Obama tiring of 'class warfare'?

President Obama has made a remarkable recovery from the political "shellacking" he took just a few weeks ago. If he ends the year with the tax cuts for the middle class he just negotiated with the Republicans in place, a new tax cut stimulus package that is likely to generate an additional 500,000 jobs in 2011, and Senate approval of his "reset" policy with Russia through the START treaty debate, he will have put a firm stamp on his reputation as one of the most successful legislative tacticians in presidential history. The legislative accomplishments of his first two years will place him in the top ranks of all of our presidents, on a par with LBJ's record and even exceeding FDR's if you look only at the first two years of a presidency. Saddling Republicans with the responsibility for temporarily extending "Bush tax cuts" for the wealthy and lower estate taxes for the very rich, as the price for this legislative legerdemain is hardly a bad political move either.

Furthermore, he has reserved the right to continue the essential debate of how to ensure America's global leadership continues in the 21st Century, framing the 2012 campaign on his terms, even as he demonstrates real presidential leadership. While Obama still needs to do a better job of enrolling the American public, including Democrats who are in an uproar about this week's deal, in where he wants to move the country, he can hardly be faulted for getting the 111th Congress to go along with practically everything he sought to accomplish during its reign. Assuming of course Democrats finish venting shortly and realize the victory that Obama has placed within their grasp.

This is cross-posted from Politico's Arena.

There’s an App for Government Too

Even as the nation's capital remains consumed by the continuing controversy of over how best to contain the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history, the Obama administration is attempting to highlight the work they are doing to bring the workings of government into the 21st century. As someone who labored for four years to make the government work better and cost less, I can only salute their efforts and wish them well.

When Vice President Gore and his NPR team were reinventing government in the 90s, we highlighted the potential of the Internet to completely transform government's relationship to its citizens and established the first federal government portal to provide access to its online information. But the data was sparse and the formats discouraged interactivity.  Today, the Obama administration has made enormous strides in making data on the performance of government both available and user friendly. Coupled with the rising popularity of smart phone technology, these efforts hold out the promise that citizens will soon be able to take advantage of a wide variety of applications built on this government data.

As OMB Director Peter Orszag pointed out, data.gov now offers over 270,000 data sets that provide information ranging from work site safety statistics to the safety ratings on different children's car seats.  But the key to unlocking the values of such information is making all of it as open and transparent as possible so that developers, not government, can create citizen friendly applications for its use. Just as the iPhone and mobile phones built off of the Android operating system have educated consumers on the value of having data customized to their needs, the Obama administration is working hard to put its data in machine readable formats with open APIs that accomplish the same purpose.

The potential for application-based government has already been demonstrated at the local level. For instance, NDN member Hylan Dixon relates this wonderful story about how the Massachusetts Department of Transportation created an application to tell Bostonians when the next bus would arrive at a given stop. They announced their decision to provide the GPS data from buses on an open source basis at a web developers' conference before lunch and by the time they got back someone had already put the data into Google maps.  Within two days the information was on a website and within a week it was posted as an Apple widget. Within five weeks it was an application available on both iPhones and Android phones without any further government effort or expenditure. The key to such rapid gains in government's productivity and value is to make more and more data available for the public to use as it sees fit.

While the administration's efforts in this area are admirable, they would be even more effective if Congress would pass  H.R.4858- Public Online Information Act of 2010 which establishes an advisory committee to issue nonbinding government-wide guidelines for  making public information available on the Internet, requires publicly available Government information held by the executive branch to be made available on the Internet, and expresses the sense of Congress that publicly available information held by the legislative and judicial branches should also be made available on the Internet. The bill incorporates all eight principles for making government data open including ensuring it is  complete, timely, accessible, machine readable, and license-free. Unfortunately, the bill has not attracted enough sponsors to make it the priority it should be with Democrats in Congress.

Twenty-first century America will not look like or behave the way the country did in the last century. Technology, particularly broadband mobile computing, will enable us to be connected to billions of people throughout the globe and conduct our lives with increased efficiency and effectiveness as a result. It is imperative for government to keep pace with these changes and not fall so far behind that people conclude it is inherently wasteful and inefficient. As Vice President Gore used to say, there was a time when being "good enough for government work" was a compliment not a dismissive criticism. If those of us who believe in the good that government can do to create economic opportunity and greater social equity want to gain the support of the nation's 21st century electorate for our ideas, then we all need to join the Obama administration's efforts to make citizen's daily experiences with government as good as anything Google or Apple deliver. Government by application promises to make such a future come true sooner rather than later.

Shop... And Make the World a Better Place

Having totally disrupted American politics with the election of President Barack Obama, America's youngest and largest generation, Millennials (born 1982-2003), are about to overturn the rules of retailing with equally dramatic implications for the country's economy. Underpinning this shift is the deployment of broadband speed mobile services that take full advantage of the capabilities of America's favorite new toy-- smart phones. But just as Millennials transformed the Internet from a libertarian tool for individual action to one that provides a new capability for connecting everyone through social networks, these new broadband services will be put to work in ways that reflect the values and beliefs of Millennials, especially their fondness for doing good while doing well.

The FCC's recent announcement of a National Broadband Plan, almost exactly a decade after President George W. Bush announced he was thinking about having one, establishes some very ambitious goals for the deployment of a faster broadband infrastructure for the country. The plan's first goal is to provide at least 100 million U.S. homes with affordable access to broadband download speeds of 100 megabits per second by 2020. But the plan's second goal is even more ambitious, suggesting that the United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the "fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation." This will be accomplished by freeing up vast swaths of spectrum, currently owned by older media, that these new broadband speed mobile networks will need to operate.

As NDN fellow Rob Shapiro recently pointed out, the economic benefits of this kind of infrastructure deployment can lead to the direct creation of 500,000 new jobs over the next five years. But many times more jobs will be created by the way "that a basic infrastructure such as broadband stimulates additional economic activity, much as highways and railroads once did. Building out these networks creates a platform for the development of thousands of new applications," and that's where Millennials' behavior and use of technology come into play.

A recent Nielsen study of generational shopping habits found that Millennials make the fewest trips of any generation to any and all retail settings-from big box stores to the local drugstore-but really enjoy in-person shopping on those relatively fewer occasions when they engage in it. "On a typical mission, they know how to find what they need and are less likely to shop the entire store," the report concluded, reflecting the generation's penchant for going online to research their purchases before they take offline action. But once they have a smart phone in their hands, and about one out of every three Millennials already owns one, this distinction between virtual and physical buying behaviors will blur almost to the point of extinction.

About half of all mobile phones in the US today are smart phones. The iPhone alone now has eight times the number of users as AOL and is enjoying the fastest adoption rate of any Internet service, eclipsing the record set by the Netscape browser in the mid-90s by a factor of five. (pdf) Almost every smart phone comes with a camera and a GPS or location identification application that, unlike PC Internet access, enables the network to know where you are at any moment in time. This combination of capabilities enables new "location-based services" or applications that takes the information about where you are and provides you with information you might find helpful based on your location. So, for instance, you will soon be able to use your phone's camera to take a snapshot of a square-shaped bar code on a particular piece of merchandise and send that information to a service provider who will tell you where you could find that item for less money at a store nearby or perhaps even where to find it in the color or size you need. That rather mundane use of the technology may make the retailing industry even more efficient than it is today, but that's not what will soon transform this key engine of economic growth.

The real dramatic changes will occur when retailers link the Millennial Generation's constant use of mobile phones with its penchant for helping causes. Already, Millennial entrepreneurs are building social network sites to link their generational cohort's desire to improve the world with opportunities for doing so. Chris Golden and Nick Triano's myImpact.org website recently won $25,000 in the PepsiRefresh challenge to help them expand their beta site that connects service volunteers with each other and with local opportunities to help. Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, and the creator of MyBarackObama.com, just announced plans for jumo.com that will do similar things for those wanting to make a more global impact. With Facebook and YouTube becoming the preferred destinations of mobile users accessing the Net, it is only a matter of time before sites like these will attract Millennials on their cell phones in record numbers as well. This same type of connection between where you shop and what cause you want to support has just become a newly popular app on smart phones.

The capability is being accessed today by each of the three hundred thousand iPhone users who downloaded the "CauseWorld" application in its first two months of availability. Users earn "Karma points" by visiting retailers who have registered with the service in order to get Millennials to "check in" to their store. By letting the iPhone's GPS service know you are physically in the store, each visit generates more points that can ultimately be traded in for a contribution to one of seventeen selected charities, paid for by the service's corporate sponsors. "Scanning for Karma" becomes a great way to multi-task for Millennials with more time than money. And for retailers it moves the decision on where someone shops away from price comparison models of services such as "ShopSavvy" toward a more powerful generational motivation to shop at companies that support causes Millennials believe in. The application's popularity is just the latest demonstration that, in a Millennial era, the brand is political.

The technological brilliance of the Obama presidential campaign was the way it focused its "Hope Factory" organizational efforts on moving online interest to offline action. Now that same strategy will be deployed to change shopping to an activity that helps make the world a better place. Those retailers and carriers that take advantage of the opportunity broadband internet mobile computing provides will soon be rewarded with victory in their sales campaigns by a generation committed to creating change it can believe in.

Don't Mess With Census 2010

The announcement last week that Congressional Black Caucus members plan to press President Barack Obama to keep the 2010 census under White House supervision, even if the former Democratic Governor of Washington, Gary Locke, is confirmed as Commerce Secretary, brought back memories of a movie I’d seen before — a bad movie.

The statement came from U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., the caucus’ leading voice on the census, and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform panel, which has jurisdiction over the decennial count. His assertion that the White House needs “to be hands-on, very much involved in selecting the new census director as well as being actively involved and interested in the full and accurate count,” suggests that the partisan gap about what the census should accomplish is no closer to being closed than it was 10 years ago when we last undertook the constitutionally mandated exercise in counting everyone living in America. The gap was so big last time that it helped bring about the complete shutdown of the United States government.

When Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House, he decided, in his own paranoid way, that Bill Clinton and the Democrats would use their executive authority to produce a biased census whose over-count of minorities would shift, in his opinion, 24 House seats from the Republicans to the Democrats after the 2000 census. Of course, it was ludicrous to think such an outcome would occur, since legislative boundaries are drawn by the party in power in each state. Whatever numbers the census produces in our decennial exercise can be manipulated to produce any outcome each state’s ruling party desires, as U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay and his Texas Republican cronies proved a few years ago. Nevertheless, Gingrich was determined to use the Congressional appropriations process to undercut any attempt by the Democrats to overstate minority populations in the several states.

The method by which this nefarious plot was to be carried out, in the Republican Party’s opinion, was by the use of a large sample of Americans to be surveyed at the same time as the actual count, or enumeration, required by the Constitution, was taking place. In response to concerns about previous census inaccuracies — both overcounts and undercounts — the National Academy of Sciences had recommended that the Census Bureau use survey sampling techniques to validate not just the overall count but the individual demographic sub-groups that the census’s enumeration process would identify. But this was a hugely expensive undertaking. To gain statistical accuracy, about 1.3 million Americans would have to respond to a lengthy survey that would cost about a half a billion dollars to execute. And it was this expenditure that Gingrich refused to appropriate. When he and Clinton came to the ultimate showdown on funding the government, Gingrich blinked.

As part of the budget settlement that reopened the government after the shutdown, Clinton forced him to reinstate funding for the sample survey. But despite having established the primacy of the White House in the conduct of the census, matters actually got worse for awhile. When I became Director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR) under Vice President Al Gore, I was asked to monitor the implementation of the census to be sure it was done as effectively and as efficiently as possible. But the first idea on how to accomplish that came straight out of the same White House partisan playbook that is now being invoked by the Congressional Black Caucus.

In order to assure that the process was “bi-partisan,” it was suggested that a commission be established made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats who would oversee the activity on behalf of the Congress. Since the commission was to be equally divided, the Clinton White House wanted to make sure that only the most partisan Democrats — those who would never concede an inch to their Republican counterparts on issues such as funding and methodology — were selected. Names like Harold Ickes, Supervisor Gloria Molina, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters were discussed as representative of the type of Democrat who would make sure the use of sampling to confirm the accuracy of the count was preserved. Fortunately, thanks to the eloquence of Rob Shapiro, the Under Secretary for the Department of Commerce who had the actual authority to supervise the Census, cooler heads in the Vice President’s office were able to prevail over their White House counterparts, and the Commission notion was abandoned.

But that didn’t stop the two parties from continuing their warfare over the value of a sample supplemented census vs. a straight enumeration. Republicans sued the Census Bureau in federal court, demanding that only the actual count of residents as provided in the Constitution be used for any congressional redistricting by the states. The Federal Appeals court dismissed the Republican lawsuit as none of the Court’s business. Foreshadowing the outcome of Gore v. Bush in 2000, the Supreme Court surprisingly took up the case and overturned the Appeals court ruling. As a result, all subsequent redistricting efforts have used only the enumeration count from the 2000 census. On the other hand, formulas used to allocate federal funds based on population characteristics were unaffected by the ruling and could have used the sampling process, had it not met an untimely and unnecessary death.

As soon as George W. Bush was elected and the incredibly professional Director of the Census Bureau, Ken Prewitt, was removed from office, the Commerce Department’s new partisan Secretary, Donald Evans, determined that the sample that had been prepared over the strong objections of congressional Republicans was not usable. Sampling, as originally conceived, was never implemented, and the country ended up relying on a very strong effort to count households and those living in them for its 2000 census. This method tends to overcount families with two houses, who respond to the census form at both of their addresses, and college students who generally answer the form from their dorm room while their parents report them as still in their household back home. And, of course, it tends to undercount less affluent populations with fewer physical ties to a specific dwelling, particularly Native Americans, and to some degree Hispanics and African Americans.

Despite these problems, a sampling approach could not be used to help correct inaccuracies in this year’s census, even if Rahm Emanuel himself were to oversee it. We are too far along in the process to recreate it. There is, however, a substitute available that should alleviate the concerns of all but the most stubborn partisans on both sides of the issue. Under the Gore reinvention initiative, the Census Bureau conceived of a concept now known as the American Community Survey. It was designed to survey a vast quantity of households over time to acquire the kind of detailed demographic data that was usually obtained from the subset of the population, about one in 10, who were asked to complete the “long form” of the census questionnaire every 10 years. Republicans hated this form and the type of questions it asked; they saw it as an unlawful intrusion on the privacy of families by the federal government. Those of us in charge of reinventing the federal government thought the ACS could be a much more scientific and efficient way of collecting this essential data, but our challenge was to keep it from becoming a political football in the partisan warfare over the census.

Finally, it was agreed that the Clinton Administration budget proposals would include a continuing increase in funds for the ACS. In order to garner Republican support, ACS would be justified as a way to eliminate the long form by 2010. The budget request was forwarded by the head of ACS directly to the Vice President’s office, which made it a priority each year, but which never publicly acknowledged any interest in the concept. The ruse worked and the project became a reality. The long form will not be used in the upcoming census because the ACS has gathered, over time, sufficient data on the demographic details of America’s population as to make it unnecessary.

Given the existence of the ACS, those now waging a battle over sampling vs. enumeration are truly guilty of fighting today’s war with yesterday’s weapons. In this new era, those who have a legitimate interest in as complete and accurate a census as possible should instead direct their efforts to the neighborhoods where the accuracy of the count will actually be determined. During the last count, the Census Bureau formed hundreds of thousands of partnerships with community groups interested in making sure that everyone they knew got counted. Today, these programs, as well as projects such as former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer’s “Nosy Neighbors” campaign, are the best way to ensure an accurate outcome.

The responsibility for America’s next census does not and should not rest with the White House. But President Obama’s experience does offer some direction: neighborhood organizing is key. Let’s hope that community leaders will follow the advice to ‘pick yourself up and dust yourself off’… and undertake the huge task of ensuring that every person is present and accounted for in America’s next census.

Cross-posted at New Geography.

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