Sarah Schacht

Sarah Schacht

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Pro Tips for Cutting Red Tape

May 20, 2014

Short Skirt/Long Jacket, by Cake, is sort of my theme song. That lyric, “I want a girl…Who uses a machete, to cut through red tape,” it’s a mindset and a skill set (not so much an actual machete). The skill set can be taught, and the mindset comes from the experience of implementing those skills. Here are my top five tips for cutting through red tape in government and making your voice heard. To illustrate, I’ll use an example from my own life, where my boyfriend was denied his green card a couple times because of a database error.

1) Do your research before you act.

All of us can get impassioned and angry when we see an injustice or experience the dull sting of bureaucracy. If you want to actually make a difference and not just be another angry person on the internet, you have to do you research. Here’s what that research looks like: determine the government agency or office you need to engage to get the problem fixed. Who has the influence and decision-making authority on your issue? Who influences them (in their office/agency or externally)?

In the case of my boyfriend’s green card, which took 10 years to get approved (and was denied several times), I suspected that a database error was to blame for his denials. So, via research, I found out who provided the database to the USCIS, a nonprofit organization who also provides degree verification services to the public. Their fee for the public? $75, so we turned in his degree information to them, paid the $75 bucks, and viola! They confirmed that his degree met the very standard the USCIS (who used that nonprofit’s database) claimed it did not—confirming our hypothesis of a database error. So, what do you do with that information?

2) Get yourself an ally or advocate. 

Government agencies are often, sadly, bureaucratic and standoffish to the public. Unless you can find an ally on the inside (a friendly clerk, a friend of a friend, an office ombudsman you could contact, or receptive leadership), you’ve got to go to an elected representative. I prefer going to council members and members of your House of Representatives. The smaller their district size, the better. Find what district you are in and make sure that legislative body oversees the agency/office you’re trying to engage. It’s like a match game. If you have a problem with your local school, go to elected school board members. A state issue? Go to your state representative.

So, in the case of immigration, that’s a federal issue—and the matching legislative body is the US House of Representatives. We contacted our local House member’s office and asked to talk to a legislative assistant who specialized in immigration issues and “citizen services.”

We provided a letter and documentation of our case to a member of our Congressman’s staff, which she used to initiative a conversation with USCIS. In this process, she expressed to USCIS that we had evidence that a database error had erroneously held up his green card. Via the Congressional aide, USCIS asked my boyfriend to appeal again—highly unusual, since he’d exhausted all appeals–and his lawyers filed the appeal.

3) Be civil, understanding, and persistent.

People in government are understaffed, stressed, and risk averse. If you want to get anything done, you have to not take the process personally, to get through, make sure that they know you as someone who is kind, consistent, and persistent (but not too needy). It’s a tough line to walk, especially when your nerves are being tested. Try to see things from their perspective, and work with their challenges. Ask, “what could I do that would help you in this process?” Take notes. Then do it.

If you don’t hear back in two weeks, make a follow up phone call and say, “I’m just checking back. Sounds like your office has been busy lately–could you brief me on where we’re at? Is there anything else you need from me?” Sometimes, they just haven’t gotten to your case yet. This is a gentle reminder to make you a priority. Finally, thank people. At each step of the way, when someone helps you get closer to your goal, thank them. A thank-you note goes a long way to humanizing your case and recognizing the effort they’re put into it.

4) Be your own project coordinator.

If you’re starting to get traction on your issue, take a moment to map out the people you’re reaching out to, organize all your relevant documents, outline next steps for alternate outcomes. Even if it’s just with a pencil and paper, get this stuff down. It helps to reinforce the plan and help you see how far you’ve come. It’s also handy for the next phase:

5) Do the details.

You may wait a long time to get a final response. Keep checking in every few weeks with relevant people helping your case–for us, that meant pinging lawyers and cajoling them when we felt they hadn’t taken timely action. It meant going to every meeting with USCIS. It took a while, but making sure we’d done every last detail kept problems from cropping up, and even when they did, we were on top of it.

If you’re working through something larger than your own case, this point in the process is especially critical. Have you talked with all the appropriate elected leaders and/or their staff about your issue? Have you, when appropriate, engaged local media on your story to giver your issue more urgency and support? Have you examined if other governing bodies or agencies could weigh in and influence your issue?

6) Never feel too small.

Red tape can make us feel powerless, but in resigning ourselves to powerlessness, we weaken our cause. Don’t let anyone talking down to you, or placing barriers in your way, effect your resolve.

You know what happens when you show up and work the system professionally? You gain respect and experience. Those two things are valuable—you make yourself known as the civil, smart, determined citizen. This gains you respect and opens doors. If you want to be this person, you can’t let yourself feel defeated or embittered.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should get you thinking about what you can do to cut through bureaucracy and achieve your goal. Good luck on your mission! You really can make a difference and cut through red tape.

PS, If you need any inspiration, use this.

 

 

Test-Test. 1234…

January 4, 2014

Ah-hem. Hot mic.

I haven’t blogged in a while, as I spent more time working on a book, studying, and exploring new career paths. I need a creative outlet, one without the pressure of writing a nonfiction book, but the pleasure of engaging with an audience. So here I am, promising absolutely no consistency or even a theme. I’m just hung to write up topics, products, and news I find compelling, as a writing excersize.

If you find something you want to share, or chat about, jump on in.

Victory at the DOL!

January 8, 2011

Getting your license renewed isn’t usually a thrilling experience. And it wasn’t for me, until the amazing woman doing “greeting” at the Bellevue DOL this morning took pity on me and helped me get my license today.

Fortunatley, the letter from Vermont, saying I didn’t have a suspended license, had been processed by Washington’s Department of Licensing (though that wasn’t clear at first), and I got my license, skipping a long wait with 150 people at the DOL.

Bellevue DOL greeter lady with the blue scarf, this one is for you:

Gov 1.0 Nightmare

January 5, 2011 1 Comment

I pride myself on being a red-tape cutting, bureaucracy-slaying, gov 2.0 machine.  If I ever run for office, I would like this song by Cake to be my theme song.

So it was pretty surprising to find myself in a gov 1.0 quagmire on a standard government transaction: renewing a driver’s license. I showed up to a Washington State DMV office on a Saturday in mid-October, to find myself in a line of 45 people just to get a number, to then wait with 150 people in one of the few DMVs left in Washington State (state budget cuts mean more citizen time standing in line for these type of transactions—you can’t do everything online). OK, fine. 4 hours of my life goes by in a crowded room full of screaming babies.

But then my number is called and the clerk informs me that two of the state’s databases are down today.  I ask if this happens a lot. She says, “more than we like.” Part of me suspects there’s a 1960’s mainframe who just stole 4 hours of my life.   So, she runs my card saying that I’ll get my temporary license today, and if I don’t get my license in the mail, it’s because they weren’t able to check that I didn’t have a parking ticket somewhere that needed to be paid before I got my license renewed.  OK, fine. I’ll wait for the new one. I can’t think of any unpaid parking tickets, so I assume I’ll be fine.  Sure, I blinked in my photo, and I now look like a tan (spray-tanning is necessary for a decent license photo), drunk blond on my license. Fine. Whatever.

1.5 months goes by and I don’t realize that the temporary has expired until I go to rent a car and get to special session. No rental car for you, Sarah, you’ll be taking the surprisingly efficient Capitol Aeroporter to Olympia for the special session.

The DOL office folks can’t tell me why my license hasn’t arrived.  They don’t know what to do. I check the website. I call the local office. All of which takes hours on hold and searching online.  The most I can get is there is a “hold” on my license. Whaa? Why?

The people I need to talk to at DOL are on furlough. And when they’re working, the phone lines are so backed up that I spend 45 minutes here, an hour there, just waiting to talk to someone.  Finally, on a few days before Christmas, I hear that my 92 year old grandfather has broken his leg and things look bleak.  I spent nearly 2 hours on hold with Washington’s DOL, and another 20 minutes waiting for the agent to find out why there was a hold on my card.

Turns out, in 2003, I paid a speeding ticket in Vermont, but the check I mailed to them a little late, and there was a late fee.  Instead of mailing me or calling me about this fee, Vermont suspended my license in the national database. How’d they do that? They issued a fake licsene for me in Vermont, then revoked it, so that whenever I tried to renew my license, I’d have to pay the license re-instatement fee of $71.

Washington, for it’s part, does not notify license renewers if they have a hold on their card, forcing renewers to figure things out in the slow, backwards way I did.  The clerk tells me to have Vermont fax the reinstatement paperwork to them and I can pick up a license today. Fine. 90’s technology is fine. I can persuade Vermont to send a fax.

But Vermont doesn’t fax. Or email. Or update a national database except to revoke a license. But I have to see my grandpa, I protest. I need to rent a car. “Sorry, no can do, we only mail.

Yesterday, Vermont mailed me a letter saying I could get a license in Vermont again. Brilliant. Because that’s what I really need. To regain a license that never existed in the first place.

What citizens like me need is their time, and opportunities, back. We need not to have these cascading failure chains happen during a family emergency.

My grandfather passed between Christmas and New Years. I got to see him before he passed into a coma, and again before he passed, thanks to my cousins and boyfriend ferrying me up to Bellingham.  I’m really thankful for that time, but I could’ve spent more time with him if I didn’t have to rely on other people to get me there and back.

I still don’t have my license in Washington, since DOL has been on furlough through most of the holidays, and they’ve got a considerable backlog. I’m thinking I might have my license by February, if I’m lucky.

SarahSchacht Tweet:

“All government fax machines and mainframes need to meet the same, inevitable, fate:
http://player.vimeo.com/video/5944863″

My Favorite Things: Deals

December 23, 2010

Seattle Tippr Deal: $25 for $50 worth of food @ BluWater Bistro

Last night, a few of my family members said that they loved my coat. I replied that I got it for $35 bucks. They wanted to know where, and how I get all of these great deals of stuff, including travel, clothes, etc.  Running a nonprofit and being poor has made me really, really good at finding a deal.  So, I whipped up a list of the top deal sites I use, and I’m sharing them with you, too.

The sites are reputable, have good to amazing quality stuff, have excellent prices, and are fun to use.  They’re ideal for last-minute Christmas shopping, too!

For some of the sites, you get a discount for using my code. Other sites, you need the link listed to sign up (it’s a members can refer members site).  On a couple others, Gilt, Tablet Hotels, leave a comment above and I’ll send you an invite email (these sites don’t have referral links).

Enjoy!

Daily Deals

Groupon
You’re all using this. But did you know that you can plan vacations around it?  Search for cities you’re going to and buy resturant, activity, even hotel stays ahead of time with Groupon.  That’s what Guillaume and I did for a trip to San Diego. Saved a bunch of money and had fun, too! I like setting up 2 accounts, each with a different profile, because then I can customize an account for work (coworker gifts, business-related purchases like biz cards, etc. and I don’t have to worry about the purchase going on the wrong card.)

Tippr
Like Groupon, except that it’s deals are on sale for 3 days, and the more people who buy, the better the deal gets. Example: a $14 for $25 of food at a Thai restaurant will “tip” after a certain number of people, and then you get a free thai iced tea with your deal, too.  I’ve scored a lot of great services (like discounts on graphic design), and cheap food ($6 for $12 of brunch) through Tippr. I even got Guillaume’s b-day present here ($50 for 2 hours on our own personal speed boat, doing a tour of San Diego!).  It’s locally owned, and You get $5 towards your first purchase with the link above.

Home Run
Similar to Groupon, but the deals are on sale for over a week, and the more you use Home Run, the more points you accumulate, which you can use to gift deals to friends (a friend sent me a free tan at Desert Sun—I wonder if he thought I was too pale) or for yourself.  You can connect up with friends on Facebook or Twitter and share deals.  Right now, they have a deal for $1 for a cup of chowder at Pike Place Chowder. It’s pretty cool, even if it seems a bit complicated at first. Strangely, the more time you spend on the site, the more credit you accumulate.

Daily Deals + Travel
Living Social
Also like Groupon, with a deal a day.  They have a new travel feature, with fun, luxurious trips to nearby “escapes.” Recently, they had a great deal for 2 nights in Whistler for $150, including breakfast, parking, and other add-ins.  There’s escapes for Oregon and for all over the West Coast. With this link, you get $5 towards your first purchase!

Travel
Jetsetter
This site has “private sale” specials for travel destinations around the world. Often, its packages like hotel and dining at a spa/hotel in Tahiti. But, there’s also great hotel deals like Portland’s swank Ace Hotel for $80 (sale going on now, book for any time in the next couple of months!). You need the invite link to join.

Tablet Hotels
This is my favorite place to book hotels from.  Tablet screens hotels to meet it’s style, quality, and general awesome-ness standards. I’ve never been disappointed with a Tablet-selected hotel.  They’ve got really good deals on hotel rooms, and even some “budget hotels” like the Jupiter in Portland, that are under $100 but still cool, safe, and comfortable.  The also have a private sale area, similar to Jetsetter, and I’ve scored some killer deals at really amazing hotels.  With each hotel stay, you earn $10 in credit that you can apply to another stay. Hence, you should book each night of a multi-night trip separately. Sneaky, but awesome. Great searching tools, like, “search by destination” or “I want to get away.”

Retail and Travel

RueLaLa
This site is like Groupon, Jetsetter, and Nordstroms Rack rolled into one.  High end clothing, home accessories, amazing getaway packages (Like… Go on safari! In a luxurious tent! And get a massage!), and new local deals. Seattle’s deal right now? Oh, just half off some kind of non-surgical procedure that will remove neck wrinkles, for the low price of $1,200. Despite that deal, there’s actually some good stuff to be had here. I picked up an awesome swimsuit for cheap, and there’s really high quality home stuff being sold here for super cheap.  Only caveat, their shipping is SLLLLOOOOOOW.  Do not expect it to arrive on time, but it will arrive.

Retail

Gilt
I got this gorgeous pair of blue plaid shoes here for 80% off. Don’t laugh. They are way cuter than they sound.  They have clothing, home stuff, great items for gifts, esp. for babies or little kids, and they have private sale items through the whole site.  Their sales go fast, but you can see what sales are going to come up.  It’s a great place to get high quality shoes for cheap, or home stuff. Clothing tends to run on the small side.  Good customer service and fast shipping. Invite 10 friends, and get free shipping on our order.

Haute Look
Got my super cute Harajuku jacket here for just $35 (retail: $95), a pair of boots for $30, and face mask packs for $3.  They’ve got a mix of clothing, makeup (including a makeup deal of the day), travel deals, and shoes.  Fast shipping, make sure to ask customer service to group your items together so you save on shipping.  Good quality stuff, except for the shoes. Stick to the brand name shoes on this site.

Special Occasion: Rentals

Rent the Runway
RtR rents gorgeous, designer gowns. Unfortunately, they only go up to size 12 or 14. However, they also rent fabulous designer accessories for about 5% of the retail price. Rent some gorgeous earrings or baubles for a special occasion, wear ’em, ship ’em back.

Avelle (Formerly Bag, Borrow, or Steal)
Need a gorgeous designer bag for an event, or for a few months? -But not at a designer price? Rent a purse! Rent jewelry, and more.  Get gorgeous stuff for a fraction of the price and return it at the end of the month.

If a bill drops in the legislature & nobody sees it…

December 15, 2010

When Governor Gregiore called special session on Thursday, the 9th, to be held on the 11th, just 36 hours later, I expected a copy of the new budget bill to be made available to the public on Friday. On Thursday, I called the Washington State Legislative Service Center (LSC) and confirmed that the budget bill would be made available through the legislature’s webservice. So, I focused on getting Knowledge As Power’s services up and refreshed for the special session.

But on Saturday, I found our feed of bills from a midnight Friday pull was missing the budget bill. There were about 15 bills, pre-filed for the 2011 session, but no special session bills. I called LSC again and found out that the bill had just been introduced online, at 11 AM. However, the House Ways and Means committee was voting on the bill at 10 AM. Had the Washington State Legislature just moved on the bill it gave the public no time to read? Yes.

The Washington State Legislature failed to post House Bill 3225 to the public legislative information feed and website before a 10 AM House Ways and Means committee meeting. The House and Senate voted to exempt themselves from the 24 wait periods (1st reading, 2nd reading, etc.) for a bill, the house and senate minority parties could have voted against expediting the bill (allowing the public and legislators to read it), but they didn’t. A 188 page bill was introduced to the public after it was already being considered in committee.

So, I went down to Olympia to try to build a timeline for where and when the bill had been in the last 48 hours. Here’s what I could find out:

The Chief Clerk of the House confirmed that the bill was still being written as of “early evening” on Friday. The House Ways and Means Committee staff confirmed that they posted the draft bill on their website and sent notification about the draft through their listserve at 6:30 PM Friday night. When asked why the bill wasn’t pre-filed before session, they said, “there wasn’t time.” However, several bills had been pre-filed for the 2011 session already. I asked why there wasn’t a system for sending the bill over to the web service or posting on the legislative home page in these situations. The answer? “It’d be expensive.” I’m not sure what publishing technology the Ways and Means staff use, but posting a link or sending a plain text file via email shouldn’t be expensive. The vast majority of the public wouldn’t know to subscribe to and check the listserve—they’d be searching for the bill on a site like Knowledge As Power or on the legislature’s website.

What’s clear is that the draft of HB 3225 was circulating at least 16 and a half hours before it was posted for public consumption. Other drafts of the legislation were likely circulating amongst legislators much earlier, however, there’s no way to tell who had copies when because the state legislature exempts itself from public disclosure laws.

The Governor’s office isn’t except from disclosure laws, so I’m making a public disclosure request to the governor’s office for emails and records showing or discussing drafts of bill 3225 and its variants. I’m expecting to be deluged by documents, so I’m asking that those of you with research or journalism experience contact me to join a research team to look through the documents I get back and help piece together a timeline. What I want to know is this: Why was the bill held up for public reading? —Even if it was a few hours extra, it would have given important time for transparency and public comment.

Which brings me to another side of Special Session 2010—the fact that the state “hotline” (a 1-800 number citizens can call into, to make comment to their legislators) was not functioning during session. Nor was the Governor’s phone line “live,” since the phone went automatically to voicemail as an after-hours message played on Saturday morning. Citizens could have called legislative offices directly, but weren’t likely to get a legislator or staffer on the line after the bill posted because many were already in committee or on the House and Senate floor.

Saturday’s Special Session is very concerning from a transparency and citizen engagement perspective. Nevermind that the 188 page bill was written less than 24 hours before it was passed (what legislator will be able to consider the finer details with that timeframe?), the bill was a massive restructuring of tax dollar funding, cutting $101 million from higher ed and public schools, slicing $48 million from corrections, $28 million from health insurance programs for the needy, and moving $200 million in federal dollars away from education to the State’s general fund.

It’s shocking that Washington State leaders could make such significant cuts and restructuring without public oversight and transparency. It’s shameful that such significant budget items will affect millions of Washingtonians who had no opportunity to weigh in on the policy. Worse, the press hasn’t covered this issue. Despite more than a dozen calls to local media on Saturday, and even tromping up the a news truck in the pouring rain in Olympia, briefing them on the transparency issue, I couldn’t get the press to cover the issue.

Am I the only one who cares that sweeping budget revisions were made without transparency and public input? From my conversations with Washingtonians over the last few days, I don’t think I’m alone. But amongst the press and political elite, I am. For them, this is business as usual.

What gives, Apple?

December 5, 2010 5 Comments


 

I’ve been interested to see that Beth Kanter and Amy Sample Ward have taken up a petition to encourage Apple to make charitable-giving apps easier to develop and launch on the iPhone.  Frankly, the social and civic-minded world is way overdue in pressing Apple to be a good corporate citizen.

You’d think that a company with sales of $65 Billion and profits of $14 Billion would have some wiggle-room in the budget for charitable giving, or donating products to nonprofits.  Yet Apple is notoriously miserly, as I mentioned in a Seattle PI article where I was featured as the “Geek of the Week.” In 2006, Wired picked up on the story, noting that Steve Jobs failed to show up on any listing of philanthropic giving.  As I noted in the Seattle PI, Microsoft is the largest corporate giver in the world, which makes is all the more unfortunate that Apple has just surpassed Microsoft in corporate value.

“…Wall Street valued Apple at $222.12 billion and Microsoft at $219.18 billion. The only American company valued higher is Exxon Mobil, with a market capitalization of $278.64 billion.” -The New York Times, May 26th, 2010.

Think about that. The only American company with a higher market capitalization than Apple is Exxon Mobil. Exxon.  And you know what Exxon’s charitable giving for 2009 was?  “$235 Million in combined corporate giving in the form of cash, goods, and services worldwide.”

Which makes me wonder… Microsoft, often seen as the villain of the software world, and Exxon, seen as a villain of the environment, give real money to make a real impact in communities here at home and globally.  While Exxon has an image (and environment) to clean up, what’s Microsoft’s win? Most technology consumers don’t realize Microsoft is the largest corporate giver—it surely isn’t a factor in why people buy Microsoft.  Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates, talks all the time about the responsibility to give back.  Yet Apple’s corporate persona makes us think that because Apple is likeable and it seems like a good company, that it must be doing good works in the community, too, right?

Apple’s commercials are fun, exciting, and sleek.  Genius Bar staffers are nice, helpful, and save us from a painful hardware problem.  My last memory of owning a Microsoft product (other than Office), is of my senior thesis being eaten by computer virus and my Toshiba laptop self-destructing. No wonder I camped out overnight for the iPhone 3g.

But there comes a point when great marketing doesn’t make up for poor corporate citizenship.  I think we’re point, where more and more Apple consumers are waking up and realizing that the Apple-produced gifts they’re giving this holiday season are not giving back–at all–to the struggling communities across America.

While I don’t think Americans will toss their iPads out in defiance, I do hope that the nonprofit and philanthropic communities, and Apple’s cult of followers, will put the squeeze on Apple (in a campaign I’m hoping someone figures out a clever acronym spelling”CIDER”) to become a good corporate citizen on par with Microsoft.

In early 2009, I attended the Google Inaugural Ball, a guy asked me to dance. The guy happened to be the government relations and charitable affairs director for Apple.  I took the opportunity, over several dances, to ask him why Apple didn’t give charitably.  He remarked that it wasn’t in the organization’s culture and that Steve Jobs had been burned by charitable giving in the past.  Apple had donated iPods to fire victims in a 2008 Southern California fire, and gives donations and discounts to schools (which help spread the brand), but they don’t really give to charities.  Your charity can apply, and you may get a response. But they don’t respond often.  It’s just not in their culture.

Well, Apple is in our culture. And it’s about time that we show them what our culture values. It’s time that Apple gives back in a meaningful way in this challenging time in our nation’s history.

It’s time for Apple to think different—and think beyond itself.

 

 

 

 

 

The View from Here: Open Government After a Decade

November 8, 2010

In late July of 2010, I sat down to an interview with Jackie Wong, a freelance reporter from the Georgia Straight.  Over the next hour, I poured out my thoughts on open government and “open data” work, comparing initiatives in the US and Canada, and reflecting on the work I’ve done over the last 10 years.  I asked Jackie if I could get  a copy of the interview and she kindly provided it.

I’m posting it, in its entirety, here on the blog. I think that the interview shows how pragmatic I tend to be about open government work; I’m not the “gov 2.0” cheerleader most people think I am. Most people in “gov 2.0” have been doing this work for less than two years, with the length and depth of experience I have, I realize that opening governments is hard, frustrating, but doable work.

I made a few small edits (for grammar) to the interview and it’s clear that a few pieces of text were omitted by Ms. Wong.  Overall, though, it’s a great (but a long!) capture of my work and the state of open government initiatives.

Enjoy!

I grew up in Whidbey Island, in Oak Harbour. So I grew up watching CTV on broadcast or whatever. I grew up on the island and I’ve been in Seattle, in addition to other jobs in politics in DC and New Hampshire and Vermont, Iowa, working on campaigns.

The beginning:
I’ve been researching and working and planning Knowledge as Power since 2000, really. But in the last several years, with my work at Knowledge as Power and increasingly, I was interacting with people from B.C, Oregon, Washington State, California, and I was noticing that I was the only mutual friend on Facebook. And around this time, I went to Web of Change up on Cortez Island in B.C. It’s at Hollyhock, this really amazing retreat centre in B.C.

Web of Change is a spectacular event that, over a course of a few days, brings together all these different minds around social change and use online technology to essentially do good. And there’s all these different practitioners that come from all these different areas, and really people form relationships. That ends up spurring these incredible projects. 350.org, tcktcktck, a lot of the environmental movement’s online presence is really spurred by people directly involved with Web of Change.

So I saw David Hume at Web of Change this year, and I just thought, gosh, I’ve got to get all of these people I know together. I think of 15 to 20 people that I know needed to talk, that were working in parallel. Didn’t know each other existed, didn’t know they could possibly partner together, and here we were, all facing similar challenges. And I was trying to get legislative information out of municipalities, cities, states, provinces, and others were trying to make that information available, others were trying to face data challenges.

I know David Eaves from VanChangeCamp and mutual friends, and so I thought, you know, I’ll just get these people together at my grandparents’ beach house on Whidbey Island. That’s kind of a central point. I could house like 14, 15 people at the beach house. I’d just say to my mom and my brother, you know, you go somewhere for the weekend, and I’m going to have a mini Web of Change, a mini retreat for open government folks. But quickly, I couldn’t fit everyone in the beach house anymore. It grew and grew and grew. And there was an offer from the City of Seattle to host it there.

Open Gov West
We ended up having 280 people from around the region, and DC, and New York, and Alberta, and Edmonton. The Province of British Columbia sponsored. Corporations like Microsoft and Comcast and Ideascale sponsored. And it grew. I was really focused on making sure that no one monopolized the conversation, and that it was really diverse in each audience.
-Two keynotes: David Hume, Andrew Hoppen from New York State CIO
-Everything else: panels on major challenges in open government. How can government collaborate with non-traditional partners? By that, I mean partners that are not necessarily corporations. Because most of the time, if a government wants a new technology, they issue an RFP: a request for proposals, and that goes out to companies, and you know, I think it’s something in part that the open motion is trying to address in terms of open source technology on an even playing field.

Most governments can’t absorb, say, a group of highly talented, technically skilled citizens who are offering up their services or their code for free, just because they want to see that solution out there with their government. Governments don’t really have the rule making to absorb that kind of talent.

So we talked about that, open government standards, all these other things.

What can we do go open up a more diverse collaboration?

That philosophy really fits in with my work, with the Knowledge As Power services. The structure I have here is Knowledge As Power is a 501C3 based in the States, and Open Gov West was a project of Knowledge As Power. And the subsequent meetups, like the meetups we have here in Vancouver and Victoria, are projects of Knowledge As Power. And we have local organizers who are running it.

But with the KAP, getting more voices in, I’d done a lot of research between 2000 and 2005 on what makes social movements where policy, advocacy work? I was lucky to take some of the first classes on internet and society at the University of Washington. UW had the first school of internet studies in the world. It’s been absorbed into the Information School of UW. I had the benefit of getting to research all of this, and I took an unpaid internship in congress, just to research how the congress, from the inside, manages citizen communications. And the answer is: poorly.

***

It’s not their fault and it’s not citizens’ fault, really. If citizens feel like their government isn’t listening to them, I would bargain that 80 per cent of the reason is that their communication is trapped in an antiquated document management system, or an antiquated email system. There are certain tools and techniques that citizens and advocacy organizations can be using to make their communications effective.

Most of it doesn’t actually cost too much money. I’m trying to promote, through Knowledge As Power, some of those standards that I’ve been researching and creating to make those communications more effective.
***

I went to work on the Dean campaign in 2003. Howard Dean, he ran for president in 2003/2004. Came back, did some more school in the summer of 2005, and ended up working for Congressman Jay Inslee.

I spent my free time in DC asking legislative staffers in the house and senate out to coffee or drinks so I could pick their brains about how they’re managing communications, what they saw as successful or not. It was essentially snowball sampling of congressional staffers. They preferred drinks, so I ended up going to a lot of happy hours with staff and just doing more and more research.

I wish I had collated all of it, but it became just kind of my personal degree program.

Major barriers:
They break down into a few different categories with patterns that I see in terms of challenges. I want to stress that many of these are sort of legacy challenges, but I have a feeling that the public or the press sometimes feel like government is just blockading this open government-type stuff, when really they’re faced with several challenges that are not unique to them. So few governments talk about these challenges. They really feel like this is their problem, like, “oh, this is my city’s problem, and really because it’s my city’s problem, and I’m the IT staffer, this is my problem, this is my failure.” And it’s not, because it’s so common.

First off is that when we talk about data and open data, I think it’s kind of a misnomer. I think we should really be talking about open information. Because data is, in the scheme of things, relatively easy for governments to open up. And I’m not going to say it’s a cakewalk. But essentially, they’ve got data sitting on a server or database somewhere, and they’ve just got figure out how to make sure that information is securely put on an outside database or web service. But when you’re talking about documents — the lifeblood of government — documents usually begin in a Word format, and pretty much every government has spent a lot of money and time finding, building, or buying technology to help them take Word documents and put them somewhere, in some other format.

So when you see a scanned PDF of a printout, that’s trying to get over the Word document problem. So they can’t right now, in one easy step, jump from Word document to XML, a computer-readable format of the information, which makes the information more accessible.

A good example of government documents made available in XML, in a computer-readable format, is the Washington State Legislature. The legislative service centre has created a web service that they’ve had since 2007. They’ve said they’re willing to share that with other governments, so I’m currently working on coordinating cities across the region. And we’re at a really early stage  conversations, so I don’t know where this is going to be when your article comes out, so you may want to check back with me.

I talked to David about it today, but basically, there just seems to be interest in Vancouver, Seattle, King County, surrounding the county, reps in Oregon, in building a shared open-source solution for automating the transfer of Word format to a computer-readable format.

You’ve got clerks who are doing a good job. Typical clerks have been at their job 15-20 years, and will still likely be in that job for another five to 15 years. Clerks are really well-respected, they’re well-liked. They have a lot of autonomy on how their work is executed. And they’ve typically had to relearn how to create for two, threee, four different documentation management and publication systems in their career, and they’ve finally found one that’s working, and I can’t blame them for wanting to keep their work simple and clear cut. At the same time, I recognize that the current system they have, the one that was probably implemented sometime around 2001, 2000, just isn’t meeting the modern needs of citizens in terms of having more flexible access to government documentation.

****
So I really think the solution is in creating a simple, shared software amongst governments that’s open source and allows clerical staff to easily and quickly have the documents automatically tagged in XML. I don’t think any solution in opening up government can be really created unless it is simple, elegant, and cost-effective for the governments to implement.

And that means not a lot of retraining. Not a lot of disruption to their processes. I think the other challenge that’s there, so I guess the first challenge is the Word document process, how it doesn’t lead to computer-readable information that well.

The second is it’s difficult to overcome the internal processes, and how important they are to the work culture.

Third is that with past governments, I’ve noticed this trend, and it’s not always, but I’ve noticed a trend of IT staff tend to be held within departments, and not a general IT staff that serves across departments. And when cuts, as they often do, come down the pike to offices and departments— you know, they’re told, you have to make a 10 per cent cut, you have to make an eight per cent cut — an agency will look around at where they can cut, and they’ll say, I don’t really understand what the IT staff do. Or they may say, you know what, we can postpone these IT improvements that IT managers are clamoring for. We can postpone funding of training, these sort of things. So I think we see, often, the IT staff within our governments, aren’t supported with the type of budgets we would expect.

And so their skills, their hardware, their software, fall behind. Or, alternately, governments and their agencies or departments become highly dependent on having that technology or skill set elsewhere. And so then they become dependent on the vendor. And the vendor may not have as much incentive to introduce new modernization or making that information computer-readable.

So one of the things I’m working on right now, and hopefully I’ll have a paper out by the time the story comes out, is this proposal for governments, once we get over this economic crisis, to look at placing one per cent funds for IT. So every department has to allocate a one per cent for IT that is not cut into.

***
In Seattle, we have funds that come from specific taxes. It’s a one per cent for arts, so whatever agency you go to, whatever office you go to, there is beautiful, rich public art, and I think that IT is such a vital infrastructure piece. And people just forget about it. Except that we’re all becoming so tied in to technology. I mean, how many times a week do you hear people say, oh, I wish I could this and get this information from my government. I wish I could pay my parking ticket here on my iPhone. And the truth is, there’s just not the funding for it.
***

***
I really think that this sounds really clumsy, but I really think IT staff in government are sort of going to become the belles of the government ball in the next five, 10 years, because citizens, I think, will be clamouring for more information, more tools, more access, and ultimately, I think citizens need to realize that funding gets routed to the places citizens support. And citizens say hey, I use that service, it’s important to me in my community. You know, nobody shows up when the general IT staff are facing a budget cut and are pleading their case in front of council. But they come to human services, they come to the adoption groups. All of these human services, you have a pool of people who show up at your budget meeting and say how much it means to them. Nobody shows up for the IT folks! And they should if they value those services.

***
And then I think the final challenge is that most of the policies in place for government expenditures and for IT don’t allow collaboration across governments, across non-traditional partners, like I described before, or allow them to use even free things. Sometimes because of staffing policy, sometimes because of security-type policies, sometimes because they simply haven’t written a policy for that kind of collaboration. So they don’t know what they should do, and now they’re talking to lawyers, and lawyers are like, ah, this is dangerous! And lawyers are there to find risk, which is understandable, but it just complicates things even more because the policies aren’t there to leverage the expertise, resources, and just plain good will out there.
***

I think we’re still in the early days of citizen interest in data and application. So we kind of see it at these entry-level applications like EveryBlock and Fix My Street, and SecretFix. Fix the Pothole, Darn It! applications. And those have met with some success, but they don’t tend to be well tied-in to the actual processes of government. So we’ve seen a lot of these early applications. I wouldn’t quite say adversarial, but they’re not tuned in with the perhaps older-style processing, with information and concerns.

So you see things like a lot of advocacy pushes. Advocacy organizations are really engaged in kind of a technology arms-race amongst other advocacy organizations and government. So they’re buying really expensive pieces of advocacy technology just to send form letters through to legislators or parliamentarians. And those form letters and petitions, which are the most common communications in the US, are actually the least effective forms of communication. So you’ve got citizens, who are doing things like tweeting to congress. Not every congress member is on twitter, and one of the services that will send your tweets on to your congressperson, you know how they send it? They print out your tweets, hard copy them, and mail them to congress. Sending a letter or package to congress takes six weeks to be eradicated. So you’re taking a short form, context-driven quick communication, and delaying it for six to eight weeks. Which is about the time it takes to pass something.

So you have tools that are not matching up with the reality of internal systems, or form letters where you send 50,000 form letters. A congressional staffer in charge of that topic area is just going to read one. Because if they’re 50,000 form letters all saying the same thing, what is the point of reading 50,000 letters that all say the same thing?

KAP
We’ve created tools to help individuals easily track legislation and communicate with their lawmakers, and when their communication goes through Knowledge As Power, it essentially tags that communication in such a way that your email goes to the correct legislator for your bill, it’s formatted in a way that you can quickly and easily search for communications on that bill topic and your perspective on the bill, and so it allows them much easier, organizing their workflow and communicating back or understanding what you’re saying. We also have tips on the website that are just like, here’s actually how to write a letter. Make it two paragraphs or less, put your address on it, use your real name, use your real email address that you’ll respond to, don’t advocate on everything. Find a few issues that are really core to you or your community that you care about, and if you care about it that much, you’re probably going to be an expert on it. We have all of these tips on the website, on Knowledgeaspower.org.

I think in terms of open data, the real power is in making data and government documents relevant to certain need cases that citizens have. So if you want to watch legislation in your city council, the documents within a council environment, say there’s a bill on parks, and you’re concerned about your neighbourhood park, you could look up the name of your local park, link to Knowledge As Power, others, and within the bill, it would have links on certain terms. So you would see your park, and it would link to parks and pertinent information. Or you could go back to that bill and see laws that were passed that were suggested for amendments. Right now, you’d have to go to like two or three different databases just to find the kind of legislation, past laws, budget information. You could link all of that with one document.

***
I think that there’s a lot of opportunities for governments to engage better with citizens in that it’s not about “roman crowd technology”, where you comment and you’re up or down on something. But government being able to do like kind of a direct call to a neighbourhood or an affected group, and say, we would like your input on this, we’re going to do a town hall, we’re going to upload the video, we’re going to add documentation. If you could, place some notes on things. I had so many legislators tell me that the most effective communications they had with citizens were not necessarily advocacy-type communications or complaints, but where a citizen brought a suggestion and they were like, we didn’t even know of that problem, and we didn’t even know that solution existed.

A council member from King County mentioned to me that they were creating a new law regarding boating on Lake Washington. And apparently, they had some horrendous boat crashes and stuff. Describing the states that a boat could be in during an accident. A citizen wrote in and said, you should really add not only in the water or on land, but mid air.

I think the other big opportunity is that I think there will be more people who are sort of like open data tinkerers. It used to be the guy in his shed, working on his HAM radio equipment. And now I think that there will be guys and women in communities who tinker with data that’s relevant to their neighbourhood, or the area of their city, and create some custom apps that really help people in their immediate community. I think that is incredibly powerful.

You know, there’s been a lot of concentration on data or what does this mean on a federal level, we’ve got to get the feds opening this up. But I think that while that’s all important, there’s certainly a lot of power in people who are really tied to place, creating solutions based on this data that government just wouldn’t have the time or even the know to create that resource.

I think it would be great if I could be walking around my neighbourhood and have alerts pop up from an app and just say, oh, by the way, this will be remodeled these days, or parking will be closed, or all of these things that would make my life so much smoother. But we’re just early days.

Conclusion
I think Canada and Vancouver and BC are incredibly promising places in terms of open government and open information. And that’s because I think you have such talented, thoughtful, people here, both inside and outside of government. And some of these people are relatively young. They’re in their mid-twenties to early forties. And it’s not typical for a lot of those folks to be elected in Canada to office. But I think a lot of the progress that comes in terms of open government efforts, really comes through people being elected who support this type of work.

And every time I come up to Vancouver or BC, Canada, I meet these people who are tremendously capable, but would never consider running for office. And I find that so sad, that Canada has this wealth of leadership and talent, and doesn’t seem to appreciate that this new generation of leaders really make a huge difference now. So I hate it when I hear these brilliant people I know say, I should really wait til I’m 52. I’m just like, the problems you’re concerned about aren’t going to be any better when you’re 52! And in the States and here, I totally stay out of politics. I mean, I don’t do any advocacy anymore, I run a 51C3, but I’m just looking around and I’m like, it’s so sad. So hopeful and so sad at the same time to see all of these amazing people, and they’re doing great work, but at the same time, in order to really realize that vision which I think so many people have, you need leadership.

Making change, making improvements, it takes risks, and it takes some courage. And I think those are the only two missing elements. But I would still say that leadership here in B.C., the ones that currently are in, it’s clear to me that they’re getting it. But I just want more of those type of people working across the region.

-Standards conference, October 26, Portland, Oregon, with representatives from governments, and open government organizations

-Open Gov BC focused on municipalities and the province and open government, led by Donna Horne, will be November 10th.

-Open Gov West: In Vancouver, Victoria

There’s global organizers who do Open Gov West stuff.

Jeanie Wong is the local organizer (Vancouver), open gov west.

Online Activism: You’re Doing it Wrong

August 12, 2010

I’m reposting an email I sent out to the Web of Change email list that was in response to a piercing op ed in the Guardian today.

Hi Friends,

Apologies, I haven’t sent an email this long since 1996.

I agree with the author, not entirely, but on most of the points regarding online activism.

And I feel like saying that means I’m expected to give up my “Online Activism Supporter Card”, which I’m not about to do.  But, I live and work on the flip-side of the work most of the Web of Change community does, and I get to hear what people in government won’t tell you.  And I end up running civic skills trainings that your membership comes to.  And let me tell you, both sides are overwhelmed, confused, and disheartened.

I’m not saying that online activism isn’t coming from a well-meaning place, or that it is totally ineffective, but it has lost sight of what wins.  Worse, it has devalued the importance of “average” people who have been the real powerhouses of change movements throughout history.

The online activism arms race of sending more petitions, more form letters, more comments, more local media events, has led lawmakers to cease believing your numbers–your people– are real.  Some studies of legislative staff find that they only believe 30% of form letters are from “real people.”  And in candid conversations, legislative staff and lawmakers resent the workload online petitions and form letters place on their offices—-that’s why their technology offices keep making it more difficult (and expensive) for your organization to send emails or petitions.  Worse, their suspicion of the validity of communications is deepened when they respond back to your members, and your members, having invested so little time and effort in signing that petition, don’t remember sending the communication and deny they sent it.  I’ve had this happen when I was working for a house member’s office, and I still hear about it from legislators.  So, in the end, it’s much easier for lawmakers to take a meeting with a lobbyist than process the communications from your membership.

How to fix it:

  • Stop using your advocacy campaigns as list-building.
  • Respect the intelligence of your members, don’t lie to them and tell them this online petition will make change. It won’t.
  • Build up the civic skill set of your membership.  Help them communicate effectively, persuasively, with their own voice.
  • Legislative staff are highly attuned to the sound of a real constituent’s real communication in their own voice. —Personal, unforced voices are persuasive voices.
  • Care less about your numbers or clicks, and more on your impact. Who (besides your funders) cares if you sent 1,000,000 emails?  Did you members email their own legislators? Did your members make a follow up call? Did they talk up the governor at a community event she was at?  Did you pass the bill?
  • Build up your member’s skills, to the point where they could do their piece of the work without you guiding them all of the time.
  • Consider using basic advocacy headlines in your email communications, so they’re easier for legislative offices to process.  See: http://bit.ly/42PvKK
  • Help your members focus. I meet people who deeply care about the state of our world, and they’re on dozens of activism groups and lists.  And they’ve been led to believe that they have to sign every petition, every form letter, join every Facebook group.  So, they do many low-value forms of activism, and feel like they don’t accomplish anything.  What  if they focused their energy on progressively more meaningful and impactful activism on one or two topics?  You could build members who achieve success without being herded like activism cattle.
  • Build up your membership so that they are in the movement because they love the people they work with, and they love to see the difference they’re making. Nothing less will make them effective, and nothing less will keep them coming back to do the hard work of social change.

Not every advocacy campaign targets corporations, but I see activist groups treating government and corporations like they’re the same.  And while, yes, there are some striking similarities lately, they do not process or consider public opinion in the same way.  The mass-media shame tools you use on corporations through media do not work the same on the lawmaking process.  Corporations, who see everyone as a potential shareholder or customer, are concerned about reputation and their perceived value in the marketplace.  Legislators, on the other hand, only care about what their constituents (and a few funders) think of them.  I’ve seen laws and legislator’s minds changed by handfuls of well-spoken constituents—-marketing and mass media coverage wouldn’t accomplish that level of change.

How to fix it:

  • Use different tactics on corporations and the legislative process.
  • With legislators, develop relationships and work them.
  • Train your members to speak like real people, not Bill O’Reilly, when talking with legislators and their staff (I hear the complaint often that citizens end up approaching a conversation like they’re on Hardball or The Factor.)
  • With government, be very, very targeted and early, in your communications.  50,000 petition signatures, CC’d to all members of the House and Senate, does not make an effective grassroots movement.  However, it might be very persuasive to the CEO of a mid-size company.

Politics and change are tough enough as it is, but when citizens know they’re not making a difference, feel powerless , disconnected, and insignificant, the process just gets uglier.  That’s why it’s so important that organizations like yours and mine help citizens appreciate the enormous power behind their voice, not their click.

Thanks, Jason, for getting this conversation started.

Best,

Sarah Schacht

My Legislative XML Ninja Training

August 4, 2010

By simonella_virus

Opening up government information, esp. legislation, in XML is crucial to creating open governments. It’s tough work, getting XML implemented, and it requires a certain level of kicking ass.  That is why I want to become a legislative XML ninja.

I received a scholarship for a 6+ day class on XML in legislatures, which happens to be in Italy. (I would go anywhere for this class, it just happens it’s in Italy. Given my not-so-fun run ins with Italian men on my last trip to Europe, I’m not actually looking forward to the “being in Italy” part.) See the program here: http://bit.ly/dbuwuJ It’s an international class and a great opportunity to learn best practices. I need to pay my way there (airfare, lodging, etc.)

The topic of the class is one that’s helpful to a lot of governments, and they can’t afford to send anyone there for the class.

I want to become an legislative XML ninja and share the skills I learn from a week of classes, teaching  “open gov” groups and governments best practices. It’s an opportunity to help governments modernize and open up their information.

I’m fundraising as an individual, and am looking forward to sharing what I learn. To thank you for your gift, I’ll share what I’ve learned in the class with you. (6+ days of 8 hour classes distilled for you in plain English!)
I’m really thankful for your gift, and want to share with you, so, for every donation that is:

$1-$49— I’ll send you a 20 page report on the key components from the class, based on their curriculum shown here: http://bit.ly/dbuwuJ

$50— I’ll do a 1 hour personal Q&A session with you via video chat based on the report and what your organization/government is looking to do to produce your legislative information or government information in XML, plus a copy of the report.

$100— I’ll do a live video training and presentation to your group or organization, with Q&A, plus copies of the report for everyone present, for up to 2 hours. Or, will do it in person if you’re within 100 miles of Seattle, WA.

$250— I’ll do an in-person training (3 hours) and presentation to your group of up to 50 people at your location between October 2010 and December 31st, 2011, when I am in your town for work. Cities I know I’m going to: New York, Washington DC, Portland OR, Vancouver BC, Olympia WA, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas TX, Austin TX, Salem OR, anywhere in Washington, or along the I-5 freeway.  If you’re somewhere else, we can work out a video chat or see if I can get to your location. I’m flexible.

My budget:

$1300 for airfare (flight+lovely airfare fees+luggage fees)
$660 for housing at an inexpensive hostel or B&B over 8 nights, plus tax.
$250 for train fare from Rome and to Blognia.
$100 for other transportation expenses, metro, etc.
$400 for food for 8 days.
$100 for any classroom expenses.
$80 for internet connection in Europe (wifi is rarely free over there)
$140 to cover fundraising feeds (Social wish charges 5% on donations.)

Thanks for considering donating, and I’m looking forward to sending you my report, doing a presentation, or hosting a session at your organization or office!