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Managing Risk, Innovation, and the Washington Post Test

This Washington Post article on Vivek Kundra, DC’s CTO, $23,000 off-site reminds me of the importance of the Washington Post test. A commonly used phrase in D.C. when working on the project – “How would it look on the front page on the Washington Post?”

Unfortunately, that can lead to a risk-adverse approach. Because honestly the media can make anything look bad if they want. Personally, the fact that Vivek Kundra (DC CTO) spent $23k for an off-site for 46 people is not that bad. $500 per person. For a couple days of space, food, materials, and hotel for that many people is truly going rate.

C’mon. Any training class is at least $500 (and more like $1-2k). Hiring one contractor for 3 months in D.C. cost about that much once you include all the costs.

But appearances are important and part of the game of public service.

I remember when I lived in PA the state senators had to approve their own raises. They hadn’t gotten one in like 10 years because it looked bad to give themselves raises.

One year, they raised their salary from 80k to 85k a year. And it was an outrage – front page on the papers. Maybe it’s a sign of the growing gap between the middle class and elite but I think they are still underpaid at 85k/yr. Do you know how much their peers make - top gov’t contractors, lobbyists, and just plain lawyers make in Pennsylvania?

It’s kind of sad when public servants quit b/c they need to make more money to pay college tuitions (that’s what Tom Ridge, Tom Davis, and others have said).

It's a delicate balance public servants face. We want to encourage innovation, take risks, and hire the best and the brightest. But at the same time the media (and citizens) don't necessarily want to pay better salaries and for innovation (like off-sites and risky new programs).

I'm all for government transparency and we are clearly moving in that direction. But I sure hope the media (and bloggers/etc) don't make a big do about nothing. I can just see a story saying "Government Spends $500 on Toilet Paper" making it sound like they spend $500 on one roll when that is their annual budget for toilet paper for a humongous building. My hope is that reporters and bloggers are responsible, fact check and undercover the complete story.

What are your thoughts?

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Tags: career, innovation, leadership, post, risk

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Comment by Allan Eustis on January 5, 2009 at 10:21am
A further article on DC's CTO is in today's Washington Post. The story notes that he may become part of the Obama Administration.
Comment by Greg Licamele on January 4, 2009 at 10:48pm
I think that specific part of the article is much ado about nothing. The mayor has his back and literally stated in defense how much this CTO saves taxpayers through his unique approach to government+technology.
Comment by Adriel Hampton on January 4, 2009 at 9:39pm
Good thoughts, Steve. That article actually was one of the first times I had seen social media really push back against the hubris and entitlement of the heritage media, and something I hope we'll see more of in the future. I hope that as citizen participation grows, we'll see a lot less of such manufactured outrage and more accountability from the press.

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