Thursday, August 29, 2013 1 comments

Fast Food Protests

Today in Kansas City, and I imagine throughout the United States, there will be protests by fast-food employees related to minimum wage.

I'm personally not a proponent of minimum wages because they are arbitrary figures, much like the $15 an hour wage those protesting today will be advocating.  I do, however, want everyone to make as much money as they can, wish everyone could have complete happiness, and would love a world without tears.

If they can get raises to $15/hour, more power to them.

Recently, though "Business Week" produced a graphic of the impact of $15 an hour wages in different industries.
I've written on this blog before about election workers, who, if minimum wage was raised to $9, would be making less than minimum wage.

And, again, I have no quarrel with the crusade for $15 an hour.

But it's worth pointing out what jobs don't pay that much and then stressing that we actually have staff members who don't make $15 an hour.  Those are full-time staff members, not  temporaries, who do most of the heavy lifting at the election office and are our unsung heroes.  They are paid comparable to baristas at Starbucks.

One of the great things in election geekdom over the past few years is the emphasis of election administration among college degrees.  Auburn University and the University of Minnesota, I believe, now have election administration tracks in their Master's of Public Administration programs.

But elections administrations nationwide consistently make considerably less than their government peers.  There are a few factors that are the causes, including the fact that elections historically have been led by women and women, further, historically have been paid less than men for comparable jobs.

Our election workers make $110 for about a 14-hour day ($7.85 an hour) and another $15 for three hours of training.  We split that for administrative reasons, though, so, really, they make $125 for 17 hours ($7.35 an hour, 10 cents more per hour than today's minimum wage).

The real point of this brief post is just to put in context how society values elections compared to other industries.  I'm actually not sure society "values" elections in that most people haven't consciously put a number to it; most of us probably haven't thought about what hotel desk clerks make, either.

But still, elections, which are the foundation of our free society, are put on at nearly minimum wage.  There may have even been a day when being an election worker was easier than working fast-food, but I'm not so sure anymore.  I definitely think it's more stressful to be an election worker than a fast-food employee.

Lest I am insulting a fast-food worker reading this, I worked in fast-food at Captain D's in high school and college for basically the same amount of time as I've been in elections.  I have a pretty good basis of comparison, and I still hope to find time to write the eventual best-seller, "Everything I Learned in Life I Learned at Captain D's."  

I will give fast-food workers the fact that my clothes don't smell greasy when coming home from a polling place, so there's that.

Still, it's interesting the jobs we conjure when thinking of minimum wage and very few would think of election workers.  I often say they are paid just enough to feel guilty for not showing up, which might be the point of the fast-food protests today.

Thursday, August 22, 2013 0 comments

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.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013 0 comments

Meet Project Ted

 Back in my Sprint days, before election geekdom, I worked in strategic planning.

At some point--I'm not sure why, it was just a "thing" pushed by our division president--all of our projects had to have code names.  I've forgotten most of them, but I remember Project Mighty Mouse, which, in retrospect wasn't mighty.

I oversaw a project addressing all ways that we could lower access costs to the local networks and expand our reach to large businesses.  I named the project Big Red--our logo was red and the goal wasn't about efficiency, but, rather, growth.

Our chief operations officer didn't like the name Big Red.  I'm not sure why.  I think he thought it conjured up thoughts of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."  I do know that as a company we were making plenty of nutty decisions at the time (drum/cymbal crash).

We always seemed comfortable with a trailing position in the market, so maybe growth was scary. In fact, it seemed logical to me that after I left Sprint, the logo color changed to yellow (second drum/cymbal crash).

The worst name was Project William, associated with the potential acquisition of Williams Communications.

Someone must have thought it was pure genius to name the code name soooooo close to the actual project.  No one would ever guess!

The project names, though, gave identity and personality to what we were doing.  I don't know if the intent was such, but the project names helped make something feel real that wasn't yet.

Fast forward to present election geek times, and as we brought in a college intern to help map our process for our next generation voting system, I thought we should give the project some personality, naming the initiative Project Ted.

Ted is the intern--the friendliest, most soft-spoken, nicest 6'5", 275-pound kid you'll ever meet.

Ted is heading back to school, but in his short time became immersed in the voting system storylines underway, specifically in Los Angeles and Travis (Texas) Counties, where some of the smartest election administrators reside.

Both communities are blazing the trail for next generation voting systems.  We've been attentive, emulating their thinking as we map out our own journey.

The issue starts a bit with the Help America Vote Act, 2002 legislation that provided funding for modern voting systems in the wake of the 2000 presidential election.  Much of that funding has been spent.

Our office, for instance received nearly 600 voting machines as part of that funding.  Problem is, that's only about one-fourth of our current fleet.  Those machines, purchased in 2006 joined others purchased in 2003.

So, communities with equipment purchased in the 2006 time frame will, soon enough, have some replacement issues with no federal funding and even fewer options than those in existence in 2003.  Most of the new systems are paper-based, almost necessary in order to be federally certified.

But, those communities that had systems sooner will be at the replacement phase, well, sooner.

No one knows how long touchscreen voting machines last.  Diebold used to suggest 12 years.  ATM's, also made by Diebold, have a suggested 7-year life and are subject to more use and weather conditions.

If 12 is the right number, our number is up.  Through a complicated process, our initial voting machines were traded for the newer, better model (Accuvote TSX) in 2003.  We purchased some new machines but also once-used machines from California, first in place in 2002.

We've augmented our fleet since then and have machines with as little as three years of service, but they were all built at the same time, in the early 2000s.

Ted helped us articulate where we're going, and we still have some refinement to do. However, his document has plenty of diagrams that capture things I've been saying for the last few months (and years). The process looks real just because it's in a document.

I leafed through the draft document recently in a meeting with county officials and the mere presence of the document make them ask why I'm not implementing and pushing this faster.


That is, I think, a sign we're on the right track. You know you're nailing the process when you anguish over the explanation, finally articulating what hasn't been articulated, and the response is, "Right. We knew that. Now, get to work!"

The document is much more simplistic than the effort put forth in LA County and Travis County. That's mostly because it can be simple. Their existence lets us refer to their processes as benchmarks and learnings.

We have some internal meetings to go before the document is ready to be shared externally, but I'll post it here when it is ready, likely within 30 days.

A snippet, literally, from Project Ted