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Astroturf vs. Grassroots. Now vs. Then?

Summer Politics: Cut and Dried

On the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, people reminisce about large public gatherings in open spaces. Central Park used to be a mecca for such events, not just music, but serious political gatherings. On June 12, 1982, a million people assembled in the park to protest the nuclear arms policies of the Reagan Administration. Each person had traveled by bus, car, or train to offer their voice and show patriotism. A million people all simultaneously caring about the same issue took time off from work to collectively send a message to government -- just like democracies encourage people to do. Shortly after they convened, Reagan opened nuclear arms talks with the Soviet Union. The Cold War waned. To date, the 1982 protest remains one of the largest in America's history.

Grassroots Change

Today, we all see very few of these grassroots assemblies. Of course, people explain, there's work and family that get it the way, less leisure time, and entertainment dependent on television "reality" shows. Governments play a role too. They have much less tolerance for public gatherings.

Take Central Park, for instance. After three years of "litigation" over the of the park for peaceful protest by several left wing groups prior to the Republican National Convention, New York City decided to address the question by conducting a formal study on "the optimum and sustainable use of the Great Lawn for large events".

It was a very particular study, though, limited to figuring out how the grass would endure the weight of humans. After careful deliberation, scientific, of course, the study's soil scientists, plant pathologists, and groundskeepers recommended limiting the use of the Great Lawn in Central Park to 55,000 people for 'safety reasons and to protect the grass'.

True, The Great Lawn cost millions to restore, but the decision rankled some people. A lawyer for the Partnership for Civil Justice told the NYT: "We would call it junk science except that it's not science". Rather, she said, the report supports: "a political declaration of intent by the mayor to limit free speech rights by New Yorkers." The decision of belied ideas about the park's original purpose. Central Park historian Sarah Cedar Miller once told a reporter: "Parks are a gathering ground and where democracy happens. Literally, the grassroots happen on the grass." 1

Even the current US President, Barack Obama has often talked about the importance of grassroots action to motivate change. In "Dreams From My Father", he wrote about his decision in 1983 after graduating from Columbia College to become a community organizer:

Said Obama: "....There wasn't much detail to the idea; I didn't know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn't answer them directly.

Obama continued: "Instead, I'd pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won't come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots."

Grassroots From the White House?

Twenty-six years later Obama resides in the White House after campaigning on a platform of Change. In his acceptance speech he attributed his victory to a strong "grassroots" campaign. Obama assured his grassroots supporters that corporations wouldn't have all the seats at the table. He urged them to continue their grassroots fight for the causes he would champion during his presidency.

But of course President Barack Obama also won the presidency by effectively implementing well-organized fund-raising to corral not only onesie-twosie grassroots donors, but large donors and bundlers as well. Now, as constituents, stakeholders, and lobbyists wrestle over American healthcare, headlines detail the president's sincere efforts to appease those non grass-roots, large-donor interests.

Last week, we learned of the president's concessions to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). The White House will oppose drug importation in return for the hazy promise by PhRMA to cut government and citizen pharmaceutical expenses "up to" $80 billion (that's $0 - $80 billion)

Also, last weekend, Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius declared the public option was not an important component for agreement -- therefore the public option off the table.

Obama promised that pharma wouldn't have the only seats at the table when he campaigned. But now it seems that if there are any other seats for non-pharma, they're rickety chairs in the peanut gallery, and when people dareth speak from those chairs, they're ejected by security.

Obama encouraged his grassroots organization to continue their work when he was in office. But when it comes to healthcare, he'd rather not hear from them. And besides, among Obama's once 13 million strong grassroots supporters, who among them has the time, attention, or money for politicking? Furthermore, if the president's supporters did have time and knew what they were supposed to be rooting for -- not a viable public option, that's not allowed -- how would they express their opinions? Are we even a "grassroots" kind of country anymore?

Is It All Astroturf or Have We Changed?

Public protests and large gatherings of past decades can't be idealized. They've always been contentious affairs, with riot police, shootings, covert and overt suppression. There was a certain community achieved by those Central Park protesters in 1982, who all gathered in one place to express the hope for a less nuclear world. But that was almost three decades ago, in a different place and time. Central Park was overgrown and scary then, and New Yorkers say they invited anyone to the park just to keep the more dangerous criminal elements at bay.

Today, large protests are not necessarily a viable option for petitioning the government. Not only is there a personal inconvenience of taking the day off to march around in a park, there's violent government aggression, arrests. The Department of Defense (DOD) recently labeled protests "low-level terrorism".

Businesses surrounding Central Park, the ones that contributed to Obama's campaign, have no use for a bunch of protesters agitating outside their windows, challenging the very premises of their businesses. They may want the park to serve as their private conference room backdrop. For all those frenzied deal negotiations, a lush, peaceful, untrammeled million-dollar-grass lawn, as far as the eye can see.

Perhaps a manicured lawn is not an asset to be trifled with. Even Obama wasn't explicit about which turf he wants grass-roots activism to happen on. Protestors can always be routed by riot police to cement, or the unkempt DC mall. Or, perhaps, if in 2009 public protests are limited on Central Park's Great Lawn, they will continue to flourish at "town halls".

Townhalls -- "A Dip In A Cool Stream?""

Town halls, after all, can idealistically be an idyllic way to exchange ideas. Obama wrote about his experience when he was an Illinois State Senator in the book: "The Audacity of Hope":

"One of my favorite tasks of being a senator is hosting town hall meetings....And as I look out over the crowd, I somehow feel encouraged. In their bearing I see hard work. In the way they handle their children I see hope. My time with them is like a dip in a cool stream. I feel cleansed afterward, glad for the work I have chosen"

You may say that today's town halls are a quite different brand of love-in than Obama's. Sure, there may be some heart-felt questioning, but too often that's drowned out by individuals ferociously confronting their representatives with apparitions they've concocted in their heads about government. This week they're yelling about the scurvy of government-run healthcare. Next week the topic will be the upcoming the energy bill.

Fox News insists that this brand of town hall "anger is not 'manufactured' it's REAL". Others say that corporations, are helping manufacture the town-hallers' messages against change, that is, townhalls aren't "grassroots" at all, they're corporatized astroturfing. Either way, it's certainly a different beast from the "cool stream" Obama described. Some representatives probably want to shower after their events.

Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says the Democrats running town halls can handle it, but they need to "know the difference between grassroots and astroturf." While elected officials may be able to distinguish between astroturf and grassroots; however, the broader audience is reached by TV. And television news does not necessarily differentiate between astroturf and grassroots protests, it duly broadcasts discontent. Unfortunately but importantly, whatever the source of townhall agitation, even if it's astroturfing, everyone's paying attention to it.

TV Cameras on the Ruckus -- The Limits of Technology

The internet remains an alternative grassroots medium mobilized to good effect by and the Obama campaign. But even if Obama's grassroots organization were to see fit to mobilize and use the internet to its previously powerful effect, it would be a very quiet effort.

As Obama said last week "TV loves a ruckus". Email campaigns don't attract television cameras the way even the smallest collection of agitated people waving scrawled signs do, email campaigns are quiet click, click, clicks. Which is why businesses vigorously oppose 200,000 people gathering in Central Park, and it's why they send their own messengers to town halls.

A million emails don't make a televise-able ruckus. Perhaps the literal grassroots protest is a bygone era and nothing is lost by limiting people's right to protest on public greens. Perhaps email is not only quieter but better suited to our "service economy", no tiring marching, exposure to the elements...

Woodstock is overrated, NYT columnist Gail Collins writes, forty years later. Too much mud; not enough sandwiches; mind-boggling traffic jams. She describes her experience with detached amusement, as if obliged to watch youthful antics on a scratchy home video pulled from a trunk at a family gathering.

But can we trivialize a whole era that way? And how will the current brand of town hall protests look forty years from now? If pundits and participants don't think back fondly on Woodstock today, how will they recall the shouted, spit-laden confrontations from people insisting that healthcare reform is facism, death panels, and communism all wrapped up in one ideologically impossible hairball of anti-reform? Not "Change" or "No Nukes" -- but "NO-CHANGE!", ie: "Long-Live the Uninsured!" -- delivered with a swagger that only a pistol strapped to one's leg can assure.

I'm not trying to idealize the old, flowers in your hair days that I didn't even live through. But does an insistence on pretty, well-kempt lawns discourage the public's inclinations to join a peaceable protest? To express views about the government? Isn't something lost if we've reached an age when the TV news will never again televise over a million individual people (not organized by business, gathered in a park with a vision of a changed and better world? When "Astroturf" -- always capitalized for the always capitalist world striving to prevent change and progress -- is for all intents and purposes the only "grassroots" we know?

1 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 17, 2005



It's a new day.

"...His triumph was decisive and sweeping, because he saw what is wrong with this country: the utter failure of government to protect its citizens. He offered a government that does not try to solve every problem but will do those things beyond the power of individual citizens: to regulate the economy fairly, keep the air clean and the food safe, ensure that the sick have access to health care, and educate children to compete in a globalized world..." (NYT)1

Yes, there's work to do. Yes, it will be difficult. But today we recognize how much America's just accomplished.


1Obama won despite warnings about possible GOP ballot fraud stemming from information dribbling out of the Ohio trial concerning 2004 Ohio ballot fraud. In the latest episode, Michael Connell, a consultant whose firm has been accused of computer manipulation, denied knowing anything about GOP rigging the 2004 Ohio election results. Connell works for Randy Cole. Cole owns 15 companies that work simultaneously on GOP election campaigns (Bush/Cheney 2000/2004, McCain 2008, many others), anti-Abortion groups and churches, GOP mass mailings, government contracts, etc. Stephen Spoonamore, a key witness in the trial brings the allegations, explains in a multi-part series starting here.

Books On-line

Book Search, More, Better

Google recently reached a settlement with the Author's Guild and the Association of American Publishers, which will pave the way for digitization of copyrighted books for on-line use. The authors and publishers brought suits against Google in 2005, accusing the company of copyright infringement. Google wanted to digitize books for internet perusal, but the publishers had their own opinion of that: "They keep talking about doing this because it is going to be good for the world. That has never been a principle in law. They 'do no evil' except they are stealing people's property."

Google paid $125 million to settle the suit, which will cover legal fees and fund the Book Rights Registry, to be modeled after the music industry's copyright clearing house ASCAP. Google will structure a deal to put thousands of digitized books on the web. Readers will be able to access books or buy a digitized copy and publishers and authors will get some percentage of the customer fees.

Newspapers Stop Printing

Print is steadily moving on-line. The Christian Science Monitor announced yesterday that it will soon (just about) cease printing:

"in April 2009 the daily print edition of The Christian Science Monitor will shift to a 24/7 daily Web publication. This will be combined with the launch of an attractive new weekly print publication that looks behind the headlines..."

The continued cuts to newspapers is not always seen as a good thing. Some papers aren't ready to give up their print editions (with much more lucrative advertising than on-line). Instead they cut staff. Noted one commenter:

New Jersey, a petri dish of corruption, will have to make do with 40 percent fewer reporters at The Star-Ledger, one of the few remaining cops on the beat. The Los Angeles Times, which toils under Hollywood's nose, has one movie reviewer left on staff.

As everyone knows, this won't be too good for many blogs and on-line media outlets either.

And Textbooks?

The textbook publishing industry should be next to change models and offer more open content. Congress recently passed a law that helps keep textbook prices transparent to students, professors and colleges. Six states have similar laws.

In the past couple of years the textbook and learning divisions of several publishing companies have changed hands, including Houghton Mifflin in the US to Riverdeep, Thomson Learning, Worters Kewer's educational arm, and Reed Elsevier's Harcourt Education. The companies weren't adept at changing their business strategy to meet the increasingly web savvy customer base, and alternative on-line options were increasing. Although five textbook publishers have now launched CourseSmart to offer online textbooks cheaper, it's not clear that this is a burgeoning enterprise.

In addition to the "traditional" textbook model, the Christian Science Monitor mentioned in a recent article a couple of "radical" textbook alternatives. One, Connexions (, is a project of Rice University. Connexions offers Creative Commons licensed learning tools that are "non-linear modules" authored by independent authors and hosted on their site. The Connexions philosophy is based on their contention that the traditional textbook "system is broken." California State University has a site called Merlot, which I can't say I understand after spending, well, not very much time browsing through. There's also Wikibooks, and of course many professors simply write their own books from lecture notes.

Seamless Mess Mesh Computing

Microhoo, Forward to the Future

Microsoft's Chief Technology Officer Ray Ozzie talked at a Las Vegas technology conference recently about the company's plans to build a "seamless mesh" computing infrastructure, inclusive of online applications and mobile devices. Microsoft is of course looking to extend its reach and in keeping with this goal aggressively proposes to merge with Yahoo. In public relations efforts focused on its Yahoo offer the company spins out comforting nuggets of merger wisdom. Ozzie told the Financial Times Monday: "'Technology companies, if they dive in and just smash things together for smashing them together's sake, it's reckless, it's just simply reckless.'" ("Microsoft in No Rush to Merge Yahoo Technology.") The message for investors, employers and customers is that Microsoft understands the risks of large mergers.

Meanwhile, as Mr. Ozzie spews sage adages about the heedless smashing together of things, Microsoft contends with product fallout from its latest operating system. In "They Criticized Vista. And They Should Know", the New York Times describes Vista's incompatibility problems and quotes three top executives who make disparaging on-the-record remarks. Granted they don't sling zingers worthy of Democratic presidential campaign staff, but one Microsoft executive who bought a "Vista Capable" PC, then thrashed through reckoning with its limited functionality told the Times: "I now have a $2,100 e-mail machine."

According to the story, many users refuse to upgrade and instead run XP because of Vista's reputation for various issues like: "[t]he graphics chip that couldn't handle Vista's whizzy special effects. The long delays as it loaded. The applications that ran at slower speeds. The printers, scanners and other hardware peripherals, which work dandily with XP, that lacked the necessary software, the drivers, to work well with Vista." All these problems after multiple launch delays. Is Vista a "smashed together" product?

Trash From The Past

If Vista had been launched at another time in history, like after any one of its proceeding operating systems -- MS-DOS, Windows 1.0, 2.0, 286, 386, 3.0, or Windows for Workgroups 3.1 or 3.11, for instance, these users might be duly appreciative. Today's new operating systems are comparatively customer friendly. Mind you today's customers have every right to complain heartily -- but lets get some perspective from the systems of yore.

Once operating systems didn't come bundled on PCs and setting them up took hours. This was often a collaborative group effort, as individuals all over the world, through trials and tribulation, would acquire tricks for easing the process then share their expertise on websites or via newgroups. Here's how one set of instructions for installing Windows for Workgroups 3.11, circa 1995, touted the new operating system from the Redmond company: "WFWG 3.11 is a real product with a real manual and Microsoft support. If there is a problem installing it, then there are many other sources of information available for troubleshooting the problem." Hard to overemphasize the importance of other sources back then.

If you weren't blessed with a CD-Rom, you'd do the installation by floppy, and so for Windows for Workgroups you'd get your pile of installation floppy discs and settle down at your computer for some fun. Four steps in, the guide offered some advice on the part, "add network protocol"

"With a bit of luck, the TCP/IP-32 protocol will be in the list. If not, then it is an "Unlisted or Updated Protocol" which is the first choice. Unfortunately, even if the TCP/IP protocol is listed, WFWG generally doesn't really know where to find it. It may invent a plausible but incorrect directory...No matter what choice is made, be prepared to fill in a dialog box with the letter and directory where the Microsoft TCP/IP distribution directory is found. Once the files are located, WFWG will copy them into the WFWG system and will add the protocol to the list in the Network Drivers and Network Setup panels. Back out by clicking the various OK buttons."

That's how it went, not mind-boggling, but tedious. If the installation was successful it was a great moment, but you'd keep that pile of floppies close at hand because who knew? If soon after you tried to install some software in an order that the operating system found offensive or if the computer for no apparent reason ceased to function in a predictable way, often your only recourse was to "reinstall". Vista is a system with today's problems, as all Microsoft operating systems have had age appropriate glitches for perpetual cutting edge user demanded technologies.

Crash To the Past

Vista problems were accompanied by a less than straight-forward marketing scheme with confusing (some say deceptive) advertising. In order to market Vista to lower end computers, the NYT says, Microsoft changed the label on new PC's. from the definitive "Vista Ready", which it wasn't, to the more wishy-washy "Vista Capable", a dubious distinction that many customers assumed meant "able", but actually meant "unable", and "incapable" of running any version of Vista except the scaled down one called "Home Basic", missing many of Vista's advertised features. There's the catch.

The judge in the lawsuit against Microsoft granted the case class-action status, so the plaintiffs who bought a PC labeled "Windows Vista Capable" could seek compensation for the company's deceptive marketing aimed at increasing demand. Microsoft appealed the class-action status, saying since customers had "different information" they weren't all in the same class, and because, "[c]ontinued proceedings here would cost Microsoft a substantial sum of money for discovery and divert key personnel from full-time tasks." But doesn't Microsoft systematically buck for court proceedings in lieu of nicer, profit-curtailing behavior? What better use of key personnel then?

They DOS Protest Too Much

Sure, some key personnel -- top executives -- spend time complaining to the New York Times about Vista. The paper quoted Microsoft VP Mike Nash saying "I personally got burned", which is interesting because VP's usually don't get "burned" on operating systems they (buy?) at steep employee discounts, especially when they have a stake in the company's rising stock. But still, when your executives go on the record with such admissions it can't be good -- or can it? Since key personnel are unlikely to join the class action suit, maybe their playing the we're all in it together card?

Some key personnel also make soothing sounds about the future and Microhoo, and some more stay busy shaking off the past and a chaffed EU, which seethes over MS refusals to share code and play nice. Last month the EU fined Microsoft 1.3 billion Euros for interoperability issues. The company has 3 months to pay off the fine which increases daily as the value of the dollar sinks.

Some complained that the fine was staggering, but to keep this in perspective -- Microsoft is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. No company likes piles of cash to whither away but this relatively small fine is also an important piece of the business model, balanced by profits rendered from the same strategies that peeved the EU. Yes, Microsoft has promised to be less secretive and more open in the future but it will no doubt will appeal the decision.

The company may express yearning to be free on the internet and in mobile devices, but its bread and butter is embedded in its desktop products -- its software, its browser and its operating system -- mainframe as that may seem. Steve Balmer commented that the fines were for past issues now behind the company. But the company's profit is in proprietary systems and maintaining market share by shutting down competition. So what to expect? Naturally, Microsoft will continue to conduct business "competitively", as usual.It will build impressive backwards compatible software and strategize about how to squeeze profit out of some of Yahoo's services. To do this still more "key personnel" will be the large teams of razor-teethed lawyers, ready, no doubt, for many court bouts. Brussel's just initiated two new antitrust investigations against the Microsoft.

FEMA Fakes It: Learning From Past Mistakes

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had a disaster on it's hands in 2005, with all the reporters asking Michael Brown sweat-inducing quesions that he could not answer during Hurricane Katrina. Despite purchasing a new Nordstrom shirt for the occasion and rolling up his sleeves to simulate working, Michael Brown and FEMA became the butt of criticism and lampoon for their blundering mendacity.

During the hurricane clean-up, FEMA tried to prevent the news media from reporting on the New Orleans body recovery, but this tactic was prevented by a lawsuit brought by CNN. Therefore, when disastrous fires struck California this year, FEMA had prepared, figuring out another way around the pesky reporters.

The agency called a news conference about the California fires on Tuesday 15 minutes before the event, and also gave out an 800 number so that reporters could call in (but not ask questions). Then, reportedly because not enough reporters showed up, FEMA staff asked the questions and FEMA staff answered the questions. These questions were supposedly not premeditated: "What type of commodities are you pledging to California?" Detail questions like -- "What's the difference between an "emergency declaration as opposed to a major disaster declaration?" could have been plucked from the a FEMA bureaucrats entry examination.

The fake FEMA questioners asked: "Are you happy with FEMA's response, so far?" FEMA's answer? "I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far. This is a FEMA and a federal government that's leaning forward, not waiting to react."

FEMA, having learned from from the Hurricane Katrina debacle that news conferences demand intense disaster preparedness, are so "forward leaning" that they'd prefer not to even have reporters at their news conferences.


Acronym Required previously wrote about FEMA here, and during and after Hurricane Katrina, here and here and here, and here.

Cheapening Your Vote?

Voting Machines Hackable

Electronic voting machines are famous for their susceptibility to hacking, as shown by several groups, including Ed Felten and his team at Princeton, who write the Freedom to Tinker blog. The group has repeatedly shown various problems with electronic voting machines. Last fall they published a widely read paper on multiple problems with the Diebold Accuvote-TS, which they also demonstrated in this short video posted at Google.

Last week, following more research on voting machine fallibilities, California's Secretary of State Bowen decertified several voting machines in use in the state and imposed new conditions on the machines based on the findings.

There has been some mixed press about Bowen's move. Most of the press seems positive, however a few reporters focused on the "high costs" of implementing the system. Of course "cost" arguments always cause public hesitation but in the end catch up with us.

Bridges Fallible

"Bridge Disaster Could Mean Gas - Tax Hike", the New York Times warns today, noting that the catastrophe "could tip the scales in favor of billions of dollars in higher gasoline taxes for repairs coast to coast". It probably sent shivers down the backs of politicians and citizens alike, from coast to coast.

Of course, inspectors had warned about the structural integrity of the Minnesota bridge for years. But fortunately the warnings were quieted by an outside bridge review in 2001, under Mr. Elwyn Tinklenberg, former Governor Jesse Ventura's transportation commissioner. Current Governor Tim Pawlenty and the transportation commissioner Helen Molnau, (known as "Ma"), say they "relied on experts" to certify the bridge. They have steadfastly resisted tax increases that would have paid for road improvement.

As levees sink and pipes burst, U.S. infrastructure grades fall to C's and D's. Environmental waste clean up "costs", as does implementation of carbon regulation or taking the bus. Education costs are exorbitant too.

And Democracy's Costs So Malleable

But interestingly driving an SUV -- this site we previously linked to guesstimates that about 30% of the cars in NYC are SUVs -- doesn't "cost" too much even though gas is $3.00-4.00 per gallon. Almost any city budget can accommodate a new baseball stadium, lobbying groups spare no cost in attaining 30 second spots promoting their measures, and politicians spare no cost at getting elected.

But it seems like venturing down a dark path to suggest that a certifiably honest and accurate voting system costs too much. Doesn't this cheapen our vote, or even suggest perhaps, with twisted logic, that our votes can be bought?


Acronym Required posts regularly on government spending dilemmas, especially with regard to the federal role in oversight (for instance with health issues), and less frequently public infrastructure.

FEMA: It's All Fun And Games until....

We recently noticed the new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) site for kids. We don't know when the kids site launched, but how could anyone consider preparing for or managing a disaster without "Herman, the spokescrab"?

The bright yellow site, I would say, is geared towards kids 2-25. Activities range from downloadable songs and coloring pages, to a "Hidden Treasures Activity", on the kids site. There's Julia and Robbie: The Disaster Twins stories, and if you're ambitious, a "FEMA Careers for Kids Site".

The Kids Activity Survival Kit provides a list of items to pack in a disaster such as crayons, a "keep safe" box with "items that make you feel special", a puzzle, books, pictures of "the family and pet". and action figures:

"small people figures and play vehicles that you can use to play out what is happening during your disaster -- such as ambulance, fire truck, helicopter, dump truck, police car, small boats."

Maybe you can make life preservers for them and float them down the river. No, hopefully your action reenactment will play out what is actually happening during "your disaster". Action figures can be handy in a disaster.


Acronym Required previously wrote about FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, here and here and here, and last February, here.

Kaiser IT: Whistleblowing in Internet Time

The Wall Street Journal published a front page story today about Justen Deal, who last year confronted Kaiser Permanente management about a 4 billion dollar IT project he thought had gone awry, and a projected 7 billion dollar budget deficit at Kaiser. In "How an E-mail Jolted a Big HMO", (temporary link) the Wall Street Journal noted, "flicking away whistle-blowers isn't as easy as it once was".

Acronym Required wrote an account of the story, "Healthcare IT: The Perfect Storm", last November. Why this story bubbled up on the front page of WSJ now, (albeit in their middle, soft news, people focused column ), when there's not exactly a dearth of seemingly critical world news, we don't know. Local papers have pretty much spurned the story. The IT aspects have been mentioned sporadically in healthcare blogs, the IT media, and the LA Times. This is an interesting business case not only in terms of dealing with internal IT implementation strategy and PR, but also for corporate human resource teams, who in this case, perhaps anachronistically, underestimated his kamikaze-like persistence.

DHS: Glacial Reorg, Passing the Buck

DHS Management Woes

A survey of federal employees in 36 federal agencies recently found that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a massive department with over a hundred thousand employees, was at the bottom of the rankings:

  • 36th on job satisfaction.
  • 35th on leadership and knowledge management.
  • 36th on results-oriented performance culture.
  • 33rd on talent management.

Just last week news outlets reported that various concerned parties criticized the agency on its borders program, its treatment of asylum seekers, and its management of contracts.

The agency's troubles aren't new. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) put DHS on its "high-risk" list as the agency faced significant management challenges in its mission to combine 22 existing agencies into one. The designation indicates potential for failure with catastrophic consequences. In 2005, the GAO kept the DHS in the "high-risk" category, because the agency had not made significant progress in several key areas such as financial accounting, information technology, and meeting goals previously highlighted by the GAO. This year the GAO put DHS on its "high-risk" list yet again because the agency failed to make the requisite progress.

In his address to the House Homeland Security committee last week, David Walker noted: "The current financial condition in the United States is worse than is widely understood and is not sustainable." However the security threats the US faces demand that DHS "operate as efficiently an effectively as possible in carrying out their missions." The GAO criticizes DHS leadership for many things including lack of transparency and slow progress meeting objectives. During his first outing to the new Congress last week, Secretary Michael Chertoff, a former judge, responded to questions and criticism about the DHS. He defended the the agency's progress, saying in his opening remarks:

"the Department of Defense took 40 years to get configured properly and the first secretary of defense committed suicide."

We're not sure whether someone should call a helpline on his behalf or whether, more likely, his statement was part of a defensive tactic to sooth his potentially hostile audience. Another official DHS official reported to a congressional committee looking at reports that DHS wasted millions of dollars:

"It is still the case that the department is just a collection of disparate, dysfunctional agencies," Ervin said. "There is yet to be an integrated, cohesive whole."

Then when ABC news interviewed a spokesman for Homeland Security about its dissatisfied employees, the spokesperson blamed the media and its focus on FEMA for the "low morale".

The official comments, if relayed even partially accurately by these sources, indicate that the Department of Homeland Security is trying to muddy the waters around its management responsibilities and evade culpability for its awful track record. We'll just pass that buck along, thank you very much, they seem to say.

FEMA -- Once Lame and Now Lame Again

DHS officials cast a wide net all the way to the media to find someone to blame. It's a familiar ploy, however its unpersuasive. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was one twenty-two departments rolled into the DHS when it was formed in 2003. FEMA received very well deserved criticism during and after Hurricane Katrina, but the media doesn't control or manage FEMA, FEMA and DHS do.

Many of the agencies rolled into DHS were no doubt "dysfunctional" before the reorg. But to unmuddy the waters a bit, we should point out that contrary to assertions, FEMA, for one, was not always dysfunctional. Acronym Required wrote several articles about the agency's performance during and after Hurricane Katrina and took a look at the history of the discombobulated organization.

In "FEMA-Turkey Farm Redux?", we reported that FEMA was once the laughing stock of government. In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when George H.W. Bush presided over government, Senator Hollins once commented that the FEMA staff was "as sorry a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses as I've worked with in my life". Through the early 1990's the agency continued to be known by unkind labels such as "a turkey farm", and "a political dumping ground". Four-fifths of FEMA's employees were dissatisfied according to one survey.

But FEMA turned itself around during the Clinton administration under James E. Witt. Many people were taken aback by the suddenly effective agency, including Senator Feinstein, who practically gushed: "I really think FEMA is a new is the difference between day and night".

FEMA is once again dysfunctional, now that its been subsumed by the Department of Homeland Security. The MBA President's administration formed the dysfunctional DHS, and the dysfunction prevails despite intense post Hurricane Katrina FEMA scrutiny and reorganization. We all know that the challenges of public management can be stupendous, but can the US afford to condone continual failure in such a critical organization?

Management in Never Never Land

Is Chertoff suggesting that forty years is a management turnaround timeline suitable for the 21st century? Although he may be well on his way to meeting this goal, it doesn't seem as though the Department of Homeland Security is stepping up to the type accountability demanded by effective businesses or government. Not to mention, the image of responsibility shirking doesn't become the Administration of the MBA president.

According to the President's government management plan we have a new type of government now, one run more like a business. The administration announced the new management plan back in the summer of 2001 and fleshed it out in the document "The President's Management Agenda", released in 2002. At the top was a quote attributed to Governor George W. Bush. Government always "begins" things, he said and, "declare[s] grand new programs..." But this isn't the way it should be.

".....What matters in the end is completion. Performance. Results. Not just making promises, but making good on promises. In my Administration, that will be the standard from the farthest regional office of government to the highest office of the land."

Bush wanted to revamp a government full of "underperforming agencies..[that] rarely face consequences for persistent failure". His agenda pledged a new era where "high performance will become a way of life." Under the sub-heading "Manageable Government", the President's promised to "focus on results", and to "impose consequences" on lackluster performing agencies.

"Underperforming agencies are sometimes given incentives to improve, but rarely face consequences for persistent failure. This all-carrot-no-stick approach is unlikely to elicit improvement from troubled organizations"

But in a recent 240 word summary of progress called "What are our management practices like today? (1/30/07)" published on "", DHS, the agency well known for its catastrophe bumbling and financial incompetence, escaped mention. is dedicated to tracking the administration's government management goals. The performance summary mentions two agencies that apparently have "the greatest ability to be effective", and six others "who did what they said they would do this past quarter". High standards indeed, but DHS wasn't among these agencies.

Optimistically, points out that "most agencies continue to make good progress on the Faith-Based, Real Property and Improper Initiatives...". Perhaps the agency performed these amorphous goals superlatively? Because the President visited DHS this week and said that he was "proud" of the work they had done on terrorism. OK, there's the carrot, but where's the "stick", and who is accountable for these "grand plans" for government reorganization?


Acronym Required previously commented on FEMA and GAO in the Project & Process Management part of the site.

Healthcare IT: The Perfect Storm

The Perfect Storm, Corporate IT vs. Determined Employee

Kaiser Permanente employee Justen Deal noticed few months ago that the custom implementation of the health care provider's Epic Systems records management system, dubbed "HealthConnect", was costing billions of dollars but was plagued by persistent problems that effected health care delivery. In addition, the employee projected future operating expenses and expected revenues and asserted that Kaiser faced a $7 billion dollar deficit in the next couple of years. He wrote some letters to individuals in charge of corporate oversight, to the board, and to various internal parties who he thought should be concerned. They said they'd investigate his concerns, they warned him not to talk to the board, they said he was mistaken, and at times claimed they didn't understand his complaints. He sent more evidence. Finally Kaiser lawyers said they investigated his complaints and said they were all baseless. Not satisfied, he sent letters to several California state agencies. All of these communications are now posted at his site called, and make for very interesting reading. Finally he sent a letter to over 50,000 employees, again listing his concerns.

In response, the CEO of Kaiser, George Halvorson, wrote a letter of his own to all 151,000 employees refuting Justen Deal's allegations. "The person who wrote the e-mail is a young man relatively new to KP whose job involves publications...", he starts out. "Overall, the e-mail was an unfortunate combination of partial facts, old data, incomplete data, "conspiracy" thinking, and naivete´.", he ends. He addresses the complaints. Responding to Justen's comments about his replacement of the board right after he was hired at Kaiser, he says, "I suspect he hasn't evaluated very many Boards."

He dismisses Justen's questions about an audit of his position at a previous employer, a Minnesota managed healthcare organization called Health Partners. The Minnesota Attorney General's Office's audit was "critical" his $5.5 million dollar compensation package when he left and his financial oversight as the CEO. But Halvorson said the 'routine' audit cleared him: "no actions, no citations, no regulation violations and no mandatory results of any kind."

Justen Deal also criticized the CIO of Kaiser for simultaneously serving as a director of a company hired as a consultant for Kaiser, while he was employed at Kaiser. Halvorson's letter declared that the CIO "was not, in fact, a principal or Board member of the "Tanning" company when they did our systems evaluation work. However, "J. Clifford Dodd", the CIO of Kaiser, was indeed at Kaiser when he hired Tanning Technologies, a consulting company that lists him as director "John C. Dodd", at least according to Tanning's own SEC filing in 2002.

Mr. Halvorson also addressed the technical problems implementing Epic Solutions system that Deal outlined: "KP HealthConnect issues are both inaccurate and wrong". The HealthConnect system is working well, he said. However a ComputerWorld author wrote an article titled "Problems abound for Kaiser e-health records management system: An internal report details hundreds of technical issues and outages", which details a few of the hundreds of problems listed in the 722 page internal report on the system's issues and outages. The system has been down for hours at a time causing various critical disruptions within the Kaiser healthcare system:

  • "On May 10, a power outage that lasted for 37 hours and 9 minutes affected multiple facilities [causing pharmacy and tracking problems]..If a patient were transferred during this time they would need to track their location manually [and]....users are reporting that multiple patients are showing in the wrong beds"
  • March 26, for 3 hours and 51 minutes, "users in multiple locations..were unable to access patient info or update patient info"
  • April 10 for 1 hours and 23 minutes, drug information is not population for nurses, pharmacists, and technicians in one office and they "cannot see patient updates for new [drug] orders or changes in meds, such as stopping orders..."
  • "On June 7, for 6 hours and 34 minutes, labs were unable to collect data, run tests and provide test results."
  • "On Oct. 10, for 3 hours and 24 minutes, doctors and nurses in several facilities were unable to retrieve critical medical information to treat patients."

These were only a few of the issues. IT is tough business, especially for critical systems in healthcare and banking. Clearly, this is a massive system subject to significant challenges. Kaiser Permanente has 151,000 employees, 37 medical centers, 12,000 physicians, 8.6 million members and $31 billion in operating revenue. The plan to get the system up and running in three years was ambitious. So someone like Justen, who is not accustomed to the thorny business of IT would be rightly shocked at the messiness of it all. That the system was supposedly written in "MUMPS (Massachusetts General Hospital Utility Multi-Programming System) -- a health care programming language originally developed in the 1960s", may or may not be relevant, but the software had certainly never been scaled to this size organization. Various sources report different issues, architecture, planning, personnel and management failures.

Throughout his communications, Justen Deal expressed concern about a projected $7 billion dollar deficit that Kaiser was facing. Halvorson said in his letter, "The memo leads off with a mention of our financial future. Interestingly, that's the one area where the e-mail may have done us all a service". Halvorson says he warned about the looming deficits in internal memos. The projected deficit was news to the San Francisco Chronicle, which published a story about Deal's email and the impending deficit titled: "Kaiser: Critical need to cut rising costs $7 billion in losses if no action taken, HMO report says". Halvorson told the Chronicle that Kaiser has started cutting costs -- that wouldn't affect patient care.

Many, many of the details of this story are unknown. In the end, similar to Katrina, if there's a massive hurricane brewing off the coast, then FEMA's assurances that they're prepared and everything is fine will only subdue the masses until the storm hits. Kaiser will hopefully get the system up and running -- and if so it will be a feat. In the meantime, the turmoil is very real. The CTO, Cliff Dodd, resigned the day after Deal sent his mass email. Kaiser denies that the Chief Technology Officer's resignation is at all related to Justen's allegations.

Business and the Web 2.0 Generation?

On one hand Justen Deal believes he's preventing another Enron, which is arguably an idealistic or grandiose idea. Its easy to imagine that he was infected by disgruntled IT employees whose project was canned in the decision to license Epic. It's easy to argue that he's young and naive, which is the tack that Kaiser took in their correspondence. However, while anyone can make these points, a reading of the letters on the website shows that the organization handled him abysmally. One letter written by outside counsel addresses just one of his complaints by curtly listing about 30 other organizations using the Epic System, followed by: "Do you have any concerns that you can list with us about the decision-making process used by these providers to select Epic?".

It was clearly a fishing expedition and Deal quickly questioned why the lawyer, who Kaiser used to defend itself against wrongful termination suits, was fielding operations questions addressed to the board. He writes back in a letter posted on his site that his opinions of Kaiser's Epic selection processes are "irrelevant" and that engineering documents addressed this. Obviously he couldn't answer her question about other organizations' decisions, he said. He did offer information about the relative sizes of some of the organizations she listed. Some had several hundred members, compared to Kaiser's 8.6 million, others had several hundred doctors, compared to Kaiser's 13,000, doctors, etc.. In this view then, the system wasn't proven to scale or architected to an organization the size of Kaiser.

Clearly, his opinions of the system aren't isolated, since outages have caused turmoil across the organization. A recent article in Harvard Business Review talks about different IT implementations including enterprise systems that impose process changes at all levels of the organization. The author gives the example of another health care organization that failed:

"In 2002, a Boston-based hospital set up an IT system that replaced handwritten prescriptions with online orders. ...Even though studies had demonstrated that the system would reduce medication errors, physicians bitterly resisted. They complained that the computer-based process was slower and less convenient than paper-based ordering and that the built-in error checking didn't work. They protested so strongly that the hospital was able to roll out the system in only a few departments. Today, most of the doctors continue to write prescriptions on paper and fax them to the hospital's pharmacy..."

It wasn't the only Healthcare IT project to fail. On a larger scale, Britain's 2002 healthcare initiative evidently wasted $24 billion, and apparently two Members of Parliament say the project is "sleepwalking toward disaster." The author of the Harvard Business Review article says, "In fact, the biggest mistake business leaders make is to underestimate resistance when they impose changes in the ways people work." He quotes a CIO, who said '"I can make a project fail, but I can't make it succeed. For that, I need my [non-IT] business colleagues."' Successful system implementations need to broad support at all levels. This may be even more important in the future.

Deal was definitely a thorn in Kaiser's side, someone who was young, unintimidated, and apparently not yet appropriately practical (or cynical, depending on your view). Kaiser's tactics, aimed at quieting him, seemed to have the opposite effect. The internet gave easy public access to SEC statements, newspaper articles, attorney generals' audits. He dug deeper, found more evidence, wrote precise, articulate letters, and did not back down. He thought he had important insight that was being ignored. In a way, Kaiser executives underestimated both technology and Mr. Deal.

Twenty somethings virtually grew up with the internet. Deal's identity is available at his blog, and anywhere else on the internet, which is typical to many people his age, who for better or worse, have markedly different attitudes about privacy then previous generations. The attitude that information, personal, corporate or otherwise is free and accessible, flies in the face of a certain corporate theology in which information is coveted and hoarded, and top down management restricts open exchange especially between personnel levels. In this age, is this an effective way to manage? Is it an effective structure with which to implement an enterprise wide system? The corporation's attitude about information clashed with today's information accessibility.

Is Justen Deal and Kaiser an isolated event or a new trend? Either way, it could be a wake up call for organizations. But whether Kaiser is contemplating this, or as we speak rewriting the employee handbook rules and toiling over their public relations effort, remains to be seen.


Acronym Required has written other articles about management issues here.

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