Thursday, August 22, 2013

In the News

I was a newshound even as a kid so I enjoyed the Kansas City Star's Mini Page and actually liked CBS's "In the News" segments on Saturdays.

This is a post in that spirit.

First, this past week, this very blog was awarded an industry Best Practice by the Election Center. My hometown paper even picked up the press release.

As gratifying as that was, my bigger observation was that of the six Best Practice awards given by the Association in 2013, two were related to tablet computers. And, not just any tablet computers: they utilized iPads.

Our office had already received a "Bright Ideas" award this year from Harvard University for our use of iPads at the polls.

These are devices that have been around only for about 40 months and now are a major piece of our culture. A minor piece of my spirit was bitten off last year by our county manager's office for equipping our employees with iPads during the presidential election cycle, but I knew it was the right decision and now most of our staff (and many knowledge workers in government and business) can't imagine working without them.

As evidenced by the innovative awards and uses--as well as the increase of electronic poll book use--iPads, and tablets in general, are obviously now a visible cog in the innovation cycle in elections and government.

When looking at the future uses of iPads, that consideration abruptly leads to Android tablets, which collectively outnumber iPads. In fact, (and I saw this again and again when I was at Sprint) companies have a way of gravitating to their natural market position, and it's very likely the iPad will become, over time, the niche player in tablets in much the same way the Mac is still a niche player in computers.

The Wall Street Journal recently postulated what that might mean for Apple. iPads could be the Blackberry devices of this decade, virtually gone by 2020. It's an important consideration, especially as tablet devices worm their way into more parts of the election process.

That's a whole 'nother post later, but a factor that will come into play with our next-generation voting system analysis.

Also in the Wall Street Journal was a recent update on the United States Postal Service's money woes. Since 2005, the article points out, first-class mail has declined by approximately 30 percent.

By comparison, in 2005, we sent out 85,000 first-class mail-ballots and this year will be sending approximately 300,000.  That's about a 250 percent increase.  Our communities are business-development engines for the Post Office in a time when the postal service is compressing.

If there is ever a living example of "Nero fiddled while Rome burned," it's the postal service. In fact, I think the postal service is in a fiddle jam session with the newspaper industry.

Maybe Amazon's Jeff Bezos will try to buy the postal service. There is a huge piece of synergy there.

Point is, everyone seems to see only one path for the postal service--reduced service and some sort of government bailout.  It's interesting that no one sees a path where the postal service succeeds.  Even the postal service doesn't see that path, although in meetings often I hear them say that they think they are succeeding today.  (Charlie Sheen's "Winning" comes to mind).

What if there is another path?  What if the postal service is privatized?  One way to improve the postal model is to make it market-driven.  The postal service already is the last mile often for Amazon, even though the packages go out through UPS.  It's possible that a shift in focus, and better management, could change things dramatically.

Short of that, I'm continually amazed at how a business can be in such a tailspin and either seem oblivious or unwilling to actually correct the course. You'd think the postal service would have sales managers regularly calling on communities that regularly have mail-ballot elections, or an aggressive vertical marketing campaign directed at elections.

The postal service does spend money on advertising, but those marketing efforts are very unfocused and likely do not provide a good, um, return.

Lastly in the news this week is an article related to the new health care exchanges and voter registration.

This article, to me, is less important than the secondary issue that comes to mind.

We live in an age where various government entities touch us in a largely uncoordinated fashion. Yet, many of these--as stated in the article--are supposed to work together on our behalf. That doesn't work out well.

In Kansas, we're dealing with registration issues because we aren't receiving paperwork from the driver's license bureau, and data supports that this is something nearly every state sees except for Michigan, where the driver's license bureau and voter registration line up under one state officer.

I get the concerns in light of the recent NSA privacy concerns, but I think voters would benefit, for instance, with the Michigan model or even something more far-reaching.   For instance, if an identity card will be needed for a health care exchange, I think there is great value in considering one state officer in charge of "identity management."

Again, I know how creepy that phrase seems. But, imagine having one place to take care of your interactions with government, at least at a state level.

Often I hear of government conspiracies and I have to point out to the person raising the issue that, based on my nine years in government, my observation is that government isn't smart enough to pull off a conspiracy.

However, a big reason they believe conspiracy theories is the notion that there is one government, not separate city, school, state, county, and federal governments.

Further, citizens don't understand why they have to provide the same information to several agencies.  It's akin to being asking for your credit card number when you finally get to a live customer service agent at Visa, even though you entered it already once on your phone.

This has come up, in different ways, at a couple of meetings I've been to recently, and I think there are some creative ways to address this, even without reorganizing.  But they all require the "give a darn meter" to be raised with officials who are as incentivized to do so as the postal service leadership is to improve the postal service's financial performance.

Harkening back gain to my Sprint days, when the market landscape changed, three things would happen:  AT&T would change its price, MCI would change its marketing message, and Sprint would reorganize.

This almost ensured we would remain number three in the market, but the inward focus also addressed customer service issues.  A customer once said, "You guys treat customer service like an art."  That's how we felt, too.

(By way, he was talking about large business support, not what we would see later--and what I believe is being fixed--on the consumer wireline side).

I think states that organize around the citizen, with a single person accountable for records, would feel the payoff.  I know our office would.