Matthew Burton

Category: Essays (page 1 of 2)

Government service is a civic duty

The Internet has changed what it means to be a citizen. Our voices used to be heard merely through voting and the occasional letter. Now, our voices are heard through voting, and getting others to vote. Raising money, and tracking where others get their money. Building civic technologies that let citizens more easily consume government services, and pushing government to be more transparent in its own operations. Without the Internet, “Yes we can” would not exist.

But there’s danger in that phrase. I’ve seen this phrase make people optimistic, and that’s great. But I’ve also seen it make them think the Internet makes their job easy—that democratic participation in the 21st Century = voting + clicking; that truly getting your hands dirty in civics means going to a open data hackathon; and that the Internet is our most powerful weapon in ensuring our government works for us. That’s bad.

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How one government agency builds great web products

This is the third in a series of posts in the aftermath of my term as Acting CIO and Deputy CIO at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The first post was my announcement, followed by lessons from my time as a CIO.

In December 2010, I joined the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as an early member of its technology team. I spent the second half of my three years at the CFPB as the Deputy CIO and Acting CIO. Our team earned lots of praise for its web products (and will continue to do so, I’m sure). Now that I’ve left, I’d like to share some lessons I learned.

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Should We Let Apple Decide What We Read?

The below essay appeared in The Guardian on January 26, 2010, in advance of Apple’s public announcement of the iPad.

On Wednesday, Apple is expected to unveil a product that will be, among other things, a competitor to Amazon’s Kindle. That will be a crucial test for Apple, and for society. If the company lives up to its reputation for revolutionizing media, this new product and its successors will one day replace physical books. The test for Apple is in whether they try to control what we read. The test for society is whether we let them.
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A Peace Corps For Programmers: A proposal for reforming government technology innovation

In the coming weeks, O’Reilly Media will publish Open Government, a collection of new essays on how technology can make DC more transparent and efficient. Today, O’Reilly released a preview (PDF) of the book that features the first eight chapters. My chapter on improving government technology is included; its entire text is below.


The federal government should fire me. Like the thousands of other contractors who develop software for government agencies, I am slow, overpaid, and out of touch with the needs of my customers. And I’m keeping the government from innovating.

In recent years, the government has become almost completely dependent upon contractors for information technology (IT). So deep is this dependency that the government has found itself in a position that may shock those in the tech industry: it has no programmers of its own; code is almost entirely outsourced. Government leaders clearly consider IT an ancillary function that can be offloaded for someone else to worry about.

But they should worry. Because while they were pushing the responsibility for IT into the margins, the role of IT became increasingly central to every agency’s business. Computing might have been ancillary 20 years ago, when the only computers were the mainframes in the basement. Average employees never had to worry about them. But today, a computer is on the desk of every civil servant. Those servants rely on their computers to do their jobs effectively. Every day, they encounter new problems that could be quickly solved with a bit of web savvy, were there only a programmer there to help.

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The Death of BRIDGE: The US Government’s IT Failure of the Year

UPDATE: Given the events of the past day, I feel it’s worth referring back to my post from last February in which I discuss how intelligence failures are normally dealt with, and propose a more common sense solution. BRIDGE, the program I discuss below, would have provided a model for doing some of the things I recommended.

Back in October, the Director of National Intelligence killed a program called BRIDGE. (I’ve written about BRIDGE before.) As such a vocal advocate of BRIDGE with a financial interest in its success, my bias is clear, but for whatever that biased opinion is worth, BRIDGE’s death was the biggest government IT failure of 2009.

The cause of BRIDGE’s death is the most frustrating aspect of it, and it’s a reminder of what makes government innovation so logistically difficult: BRIDGE wasn’t deemed a failure or a waste or a PR risk. Technically, it wasn’t even killed; it was just put on ice. Following the presidential transition, new priorities were made at the top levels of the bureaucracy. These priorities had nothing to do with BRIDGE in particular, or any other tech-related goals. BRIDGE just got lost in the shuffle along with countless other programs that deserve attention. Continue reading

On the Weaponization of the Collaborative Web

Around this time yesterday, I, along with countless others, tried to bring down the Web sites of Iran’s information and justice ministries, and state-sponsored media outlets. The idea was to silence the pro-Ahmadenijad, anti-dissent messages coming from these outlets, and in so doing, strengthen the opposition protests in Tehran.

You didn’t have to be computer smart to take part: a developer in San Francisco had set up a push-button tool that would, upon your click, immediately start bombarding 10 Web sites with requests. I clicked Start, and in the 10 little boxes below, I could see the pages load and reload. About half of them were already down.

This was exhilarating. The goal was to promote democracy, and I could actually watch as it happened. Empowering.

But there’s more to it than that. I’m conflicted about the virtue of this idea. I’m still trying to sort out my thoughts about what happened, but I know that we will be talking about yesterday morning for years to come. We turned our collective power and outrage into a serious weapon that we could use at our will, without ever having to feel the consequences. Network warfare became available to the general public. That is frightening. Here is how my thinking evolved throughout the day:

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Open for Questions Needs MORE Pot Smokers!

For comments, see the original post on Personal Democracy Forum.

In the aftermath of Thursday’s virtual White House town hall, most of us in the tech-politics arena have been pondering one question: How do we improve upon this system to create a better virtual democracy experience? The conversation usually comes back to the problem exemplified by the marijuana questions, which were far and away the most popular questions asked of the president. Some thoughts:

To the tech-politics gurus bemoaning the marijuana questions:

“The marijuana people” did not “game” the system. They didn’t “sabotage” it. They didn’t get advanced notice. There is no (public) evidence of astroturfing or systems exploitation. They played fair. “Sabotage” is shouting from the back of a room during a Senate testimony. All these people did was show up at the polls. It’s the same thing you and I do every other November: they voted. If that’s sabotage, then senior citizens are incredibly cunning saboteurs. It’s fine to look for better ways of building this system. But stop equating fervent yet fair participation with cheating. I see the marijuana questions as a huge success, in two regards.

First, people participated. Yes, marijuana was #1 and #2 in the energy category, and this was caused by disproportionate enthusiasm for Open For Questions. But instead of bemoaning the marijuana questions and figuring out ways to silence them, we should be thinking about why the other more topical questions fared so poorly by comparison. Those questions have constituencies. But those constituencies didn’t turn out. Why? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure pot smokers aren’t the reason. I’m ashamed that our first reaction has been to blame enthusiasm when we should be celebrating it and trying to generate more. It’s fair to recommend improvements to the system that will make it more representative of public interests. But it’s not fair to blame the people for being vocal.

Second, I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of people asking how the president is going to “bring back jobs from overseas” or “why we don’t have a better health care system.” He’s gotten those questions for the last two years. He knows the answers like the back of his hand, and so do we. The entire point of Web-based interaction with the president is to see something that we otherwise never would. We have wanted this for so long, and now that the medium has finally created that unique opportunity, we’re calling it a problem. The marijuana questions were the only questions that could have taught us something new about the president’s thinking. Outcome: he laughed them off, and now, so are we.

To Macon Phillips and Bev Godwin:

Open For Questions wasn’t perfect, but I’m glad you’re experimenting. Know this: too much participation was not your problem. You want participation. Your problem was lack of participation from a broad base of the populace. That, and a dearth of intriguing questions that inspire interesting answers. For the next iteration, please do not think of ways to–ahem–weed out questions that might embarrass you. Instead, think of ways to create the unexpected. That is the only reason to try new things.

For comments, see the original post on Personal Democracy Forum.

An Information Age Strategy for Government Information Technology

The below is a chapter I wrote for Threats In the Age of Obama (Amazon), recently published by Nimble Books. The book is divided into two portions: one set of chapters on future threats, and another set on ideas for dealing with them. My chapter–in the latter section–focused on information technology solutions.


What is the perfect information technology solution to coming national security threats?

There isn’t one solution to multiple threats. Rather than searching for a single solution, our national security community should adapt its IT procurement strategy to develop many solutions, each addressing a specific threat at the lowest possible cost. Continue reading

Apps For Democracy: An Idea For This Time and Place

The Washington, DC government just procured 47 Web-based tools in 30 days.

That’s gotta be a record, because government software procurement is a nightmare. For a single piece of software, it probably takes 30 days just to write the RFP–Request for Proposals, a document that explains what the government wants and how much they’ll pay for it.

Once the RFP is announced, government contractors spend the next few months submitting their bids, before the government at long last chooses a winner. It’s already been several months, and not a single line of code has been written. The winning contractor delivers the final product a year or two later. (Oh, yeah: even if the product stinks and nobody ever uses it, the contractor keeps the money–your money.)

So what government contractor is responsible for this unprecedented success in DC? None. The DC Chief Technology Officer (Vivek Kundra) simply opened its data catalog and asked the general public to have at it. One month later, the DC government has dozens of new mashups and mapping tools for city transportation, tourism, law enforcement, and public safety. The CTO estimated that the normal contracting process would have taken up to two years.

This is phenomenal, but it’s not the best part. The best part is, this whole program–called Apps for Democracy–cost a total of $50,000, which was awarded only to the best submissions. Estimated cost of doing it the normal way: $2 million-plus.

This is good news in any year. But this year, it is a blessing. A deep recession is coming, and government technology budgets will fall. Government IT executives can take the lazy way out by simply spending less money on their poor system.

Or, they can use their budget shortfall as an opportunity to create a better system. They can starve their slow-moving, wasteful systems, or they can try newly evolved, more efficient systems. Compared to a government contractor, independent Web developers are cheap–even free, sometimes.

A faster, cheaper, and more honest system will always be needed, but it will never be easier to push through than it is right now, when leaders are most desperate for cost-saving measures. If a crisis is the best time for bold ideas, then Apps for Democracy couldn’t have come at a better time.

I hope Kundra’s example will do two things: give other creative CTOs the cover and courage to get their own disruptive ideas out the door; and make all chief executives wonder why their own CTOs aren’t already doing this. Politicians will always be antsy about public campaigns like Apps for Democracy–after all, if you don’t try anything new, you don’t risk embarrassed.

But at some point, the potential payoffs outweigh that risk. I don’t know where that point lies, but a 4,000% return on investment is obviously above that point of equilibrium: DC is already preparing for their next contest.

The Value of Open Source Information: Two Military Intelligence Coups by the Web

Recently, I was a panelist at the Director of National Intelligence’s Open Source Conference. The title of my panel was “Young Analysts Talk About the Value of Open Source.” The intelligence field’s definition of “open source” is different from what you might think: all it means is “information derived from public sources”: newspaper articles, television broadcasts, Web sites, etc.

To outsiders, it might seem odd to have a conference about this: doesn’t everyone understand the value of information? But when your desk has piles of secrets stolen from the enemy, it’s understandably difficult to spend time reading about things the whole world already knows. And because network security is extremely important, many intelligence analysts do not have easy access to the Web. So the Intelligence Community is slow to realize the power of publicly available information in anticipating threats.

Many of the product booths in the exhibit hall showcased products that harvest Web content en masse so that it can be delivered to analysts on a non-Web network. (This is an important point to emphasize to readers outside the intelligence world. Analysts have access to infinite stores of foreign newspapers and news broadcasts, but this content is stored privately, copied from a public medium to a private data store, with an interface that looks like a card catalog rather than the Web sites where the content was originally found.)

What to do with all of that information? Is open source intelligence somehow special or different from classified sources? The title of the panel implied that it is different; it also implied that I would have a unique take. I do.

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