Matthew Burton

Category: Featured

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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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.

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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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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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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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Why I Help “The Man”, and Why You Should Too

Three years ago, when I told a mentor from the tech sector that I was soon leaving my job as an intelligence analyst to start a technology Masters program, she replied, “It’s good that you’re getting out of that field.”

She didn’t like the Intelligence Community’s work, and in her eyes, the longer I stayed, the more it would corrupt me. I’ve always thought of it in reverse: the longer I stayed involved, the more opportunities I would have to change it. Afterall, if you want something to get better, should you entrust the job to those who caused the problem in the first place? Or should you take care of the problem yourself? To me, it’s a pretty simple question. (That’s why I still work with the Intelligence Community as an outside consultant.)

Unfortunately, among my colleagues—fellow politicos and geeks who are trying to reform the U.S. Government—my mentor’s philosophy seems to be more popular than mine. It’s a philosophy that won’t get us very far. By not engaging our government directly, and instead choosing to merely blog about it from afar, we are surrendering the most important, most influential roles to the very people we want to get rid of.

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