the thing I wanted to do but didn't know it

Do you ever hear about an analysis done with publicly available data and think-- "Yeah, lazy ass.  You could have done that but didn't.?"  No?  Ok, fine.  It's just me.  Then, none of y'all will feel bad when you read about what GovTribe is doing with procurement data from fbo.gov and usaspending.gov.  You can check out their site to see the suite of tools and reports aimed at helping government contractors make better decisions on what to bid and what to leave well enough alone.

The release that caught my eye this morning was the NAMED ranking of annoying contracting officers (COs) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) posted on nextgov.com.  And you thought you were having just an average, crappy Monday? You'll have to admit that it's a pretty tough day when someone has gone to the trouble to quantitatively prove that you're annoying then put out a press release*.  Love that kind of sass.

Back on topic, I dig any efforts to make the procurement process more transparent.  I've dabbled in these downloads but hadn't thought to pull them together in the way that GovTribe has. This specific analysis around COs is probably more intriguing than it is really useful but, none the less, it is intriguing.  In their defense, COs are often caught in the middle between their technical buyers and the contracting community. Clearly though, some try harder than others to rigorously enforce the process and the result can be a smoother, more fair procurement experience for all.

None the less, I'm curious to see what, if any, impact this has on the average CO psyche.  Does it incent officials to draw a harder line on deadline change requests from contractors or refuse updates from the technical staff?  The metrics might cause some unintended or undesirable behaviors. Modifications to the instructions, scope or deadlines can maddening-- except when it's you that needs them.  And, we all need them from time to time.  It'll be interesting to see. I'd love to check-out semi-annual updates on this who's who list.  Hint, hint.

In the meantime, I'm signing up now for the GovTribe app.  The information and report interface seems totally fabulous.  I'll let you know how it goes.

*Does this remind anyone else of that embarrassing site called something like "dontdatehimgirl" from years ago?

No big picture for big data

I've yet to come across an expert who is able to explain the potential uses, benefits, and risks of "big data" in a big picture sort of way.  Yet, I'm still hopeful and drawn to the headlines like everyone else.  Yesterday, Defense One released this article that amounted to 10th grade book report (complete but lacking insight) by trend-tracking author, Patrick Tucker.

Tucker summarized a report released this week by John Podesta-- an advisor to the administration leading a working group on Big Data and Privacy-- that was supposed to be about the future of big data.  Tucker's piece starts off taking about the typical sources for big data that we all hear about including weather and demographics and the uses we already know around storm tracking and advance notification.  The article then takes a sharp right turn to cover recommendations out of the working group on privacy. 

While related and an interesting debate unto itself, the laundry list of people's should-be rights didn't line up with the headline.  So, the search continues. 

What I'd love to see is a clear (can be long-- that's cool) description of how data from disparate sources can be combined to create interesting insights.  Throw in a handful of case studies and I'd be on big data cloud 9.

Destination Innovation

Who doesn't have this problem-- an information need, access to thousands of files, and no clue where to start? For me, the intersection of these three things always sparks waves of deja vu coupled with some pointed self-feedback on the need to better organize my stuff once and for all.  Dammit.

Magnify this problem by thousands of people, decades, and dozens of administration and policy shifts and you get a sense of the challenge many agencies face with information access and knowledge management.  So, the Post's announcement of LMI's Destination Innovation award* for OpenPolicy-- an in-house developed, search tool-- caught my eye.

Through program manager Gus Creedon, they've refined and advanced text-based search capabilities. But, perhaps more importantly, they've developed an approach to help clients think through a framework and taxonomy that enables better returns on keywords. They call it ontology.  Whatever.  The goal is to help federal programs that need something (like tomorrow) better access their own organization's working papers, key decisions, and track record on a topic.

Seems cool and handy-- though I can't think of a client problem off the top of my head that would benefit.  Maybe that's not exactly true.  Maybe you have to get more creative.  I am working for a client facing tremendous turn-over because of retirements.  This might be part of the solution for ensuring continuity.  Another use might be more within the science-y or academic organizations to help them sort through past research papers and make sense of someone else's interpretatation of old data.

In any event, I love seeing organizations put themselves out there with new tools.  Congratulations to Gus and LMI. 

*LMI won Destination Innovation in the government category.  The contest is cosponsored by the Northern Virginia Technology Council and the Washington Post. Click here and follow the link in the upper right to hear Gus talk about his vision.

Another perspective on performance-based pay

A couple of months ago I wrote this post on performance-based pay.  Like many (at least on the outside of government looking in), this proposed change seemed like a no-brainer. 

Most of us on the private-sector side are highly accustomed to working within performance-based systems and can't really imagine life any other way. And after working with so many stellar federal employees, it's hard not to feel the unfairness of the traditional General Schedule (GS) approach and want something better for them.  Well, it turns out that many see needed improvements in the current system but a bold move towards performance-based pay ain't it.

In fact, there are some real concerns about performance-based pay systems (within the federal environment)-- specifically around how they're implemented and executed. Jeff Neal outlines a number of issues in his interview with Federal News Radio and this related blog post.

I've had the pleasure of chatting with Jeff on this topic and can honestly say I learned something.  Jeff is a true guru on federal HR stuff.  Not only does he make a lot of sense, he's pretty funny too-- a killer (but rare?) combo.  Check out more of Jeff's work on his blog at ChiefHRO.com.

New Innovation Lab planned at USAID

Innovative techniques and breakthrough technologies are often (maybe too often?) aimed at increasing convenience, efficiency, or productivity on a very personal, micro scale.

So, this is exciting news coming out of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). They’re organizing previously ad hoc or disparate research and development investments into an innovation group. Way cool.  I’d personally love to see a focus on clean water and infrastructure development but they haven’t yet called to ask me for my opinion.

From an organizational perspective, in the best of worlds, this new group would bring leverage, visibility, and accountability to the process of solving these tough, intractable global problems.  We're all too familiar with the momentum-crushing pitfalls to avoid.  Rigorous approval gates, subjecting proposed projects to changing political moods, and initiating some “one size fits all” performance measurement approach will hamper more than help. 

Perhaps it’s counter-intuitive but intentionally underfunding (by traditional yardsticks) the management and oversight functions might be a path to early—if not long-term—success.  In addition to being cutting edge in their approach, I hope USAID looks for light, agile organization and management structures to match.

Getting Proactive (and Qualitative) with Return on Investment (ROI)

Just reading that will give some people hives.  I know.  Sorry.  There are the hardcore analysts out there that will pursue a quantitative approach to ROI—at the exclusion of all others. The unfortunate impact of this mindset is that we forego any efforts to evaluate the return because we don’t have data and, in doing so, inadvertently create a bigger problem. 

With most projects, the sponsor, benefitting community, or passive observers (Congress, OMB, etc.) will let an investment go for some period of time until…. Wham!  Someone, somewhere raises a seemingly innocent question in a meeting that goes something like, “So, what are getting out of all this effort and money spent?” 

At first blush, it seems straightforward and reasonable but sends shockwaves out to the program/project team.  They know that coming back with an answer that seems satisfying once you get to this point is nearly impossible.

I’m working with a federal client now who wants to/needs to evaluate the return on an internally-developed training program. Based on informal participant and manager feedback, the course is actually pretty good.  However with budgets being what they are, all special projects within this program are being evaluated.  Should they continue to invest or cut it and refocus on the funds? 

So in reactive mode, the team is scrambling a bit to come up with some numbers that tell the story in the most compelling, irrefutable way possible.  It’s not easy and not because the investment itself is bad.  The numbers just don’t really exist—at least, not in the way we’d ideally like them to right about now.

An alternative approach is to start gathering snippets of feedback, industry news/trends, and informal observations right after project launch.  Let them accumulate for a couple weeks then convert them to a living, evolving document that demonstrates the value (or not) of the project.  Having something like this handy when the inevitable questions come up is incredibly compelling in and of itself. 

While doing this, we need to be completely upfront (and proud even?) of the fact that, “yeah, I don’t have the hard numbers (after all, everyone knows that you don’t anyway) but look at the kind of feedback we’re getting.”  Being proactive and telling the story early and consistently is critical.

It seems so fitting that ROI also translates to “king” in French, non?

Call for investigation into parks

I didn't but probably should have guessed this was coming. Three senators sent a letter yesterday to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting a closer look at National Park Service operations. 

The inquiry stems from widespread concern over the growing deferred maintenance backlog and questions regarding how the efficiently the park system is organized. Not surprisingly, Senator Coburn is one of the three-- his suspicions on the root causes of the backlog and other NPS issues shine through in his October 2013 report, Parked.

If the GAO takes this on, I hope they take a holistic look at the numerous challenges facing parks. Decades of underfunding, lack of certainty in federal priorities, and environmental and economic shifts have all taken a toll on the assets and the experience.  And greater still, one of the biggest issues in ensuring that the more than 400 unites across the country from Yosemite to Monocacy are relevant to and valued by future generations.

NPS is all over this in a good way-- something families, communities, schools, and Congress all could and should jump on board to help.