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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Moyers is back...

This past week Bill Moyers Journal came back on the air at PBS -- Moyers had been doing other things for a few years and so this was a return to format that had grown a bit stale by the time he dropped it in 1981 and went on to other projects (see here). He reentered the frey out of a sense of frustration with the political scene (he is an unapologetic big "L" Liberal from the 1960s) and has been inspired by the work of Democracy Now!, which in turn has been inspired by Moyers' own approach to journalism (also see here).

The first broadcast on the 25th was a special 90 minute critique of how the media bought into the Iraq war scenario, and among journalists it has already received a good deal of attention (e.g., here and here). It is a must see for anyone who seeks some signs of sanity in an otherwise deadened media environment.

In his first regularly scheduled broadcast two nights later, Moyers conducted a terrific interview with Jon Stewart -- which was even better than the original sit-down between the two that took place in 2003 on Now with Bill Moyers. Another segment on Josh Marshall and the blog that has become an active player in internet journalism.

Here's hoping Moyers will sustain this....

Tags:, Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, Bill Moyers, NOW (PBS), PBS, Democracy Now!, Bill Moyers Journal, accountabilitybloke, Mel Dubnick

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Monday, April 23, 2007


One of the more interesting analyses of the media coverage of the VT shootings was presented by On The Media. The idea that the shooter had put together his own "press kit" and that we are increasingly engaging in staged drama goes well beyond the McLuhanistic universe.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Campus life the day after Virginia Tech....

If you want to get a sense of what things are like "the day after" the Virginia Tech murders, consider the following series of emails I received as an affiliate of another major state university....


9:53 AM
TO: Students, Faculty, and Staff

Students, faculty and staff should stay in their buildings or dorms until further notice.

10:23 AM
TO: All Students, Faculty, and Staff

The XX Police Department has made a saturated search of the area where a person carrying a suspicious object was spotted. No person with a weapon has been found. It is now believed that the person was possibly carrying a yoga mat which was mistaken for a weapon.. We should therefore proceed with the normal schedule. The individual carrying the items was described as a caucasian male of student age partially balding or with short hair and wearing a yellow shirt. If such a person is seen carrying a suspicious object it should be reported to the XX Police Department at 1911 or xxx-1717 or blue phones should be used. If anyone feels that he may have been the person who was seen and was thought to be carrying a weapon that person should also call the XX Policy Department to reassure the community.

Thank you for your cooperation
12:09 PM
TO: All Student, Faculty, and Staff

The person apparently seen by the student making the earlier report has self-identified himself. He was carrying an umbrella and not a weapon. We appreciate his action in identifying himself. We now consider the matter closed. I appreciate the cooperation from the university community in this matter. We always want to err on the side of caution in a situation like this.


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Mere semantics or subtle pragmatics....

Commenting on a speech at NYU by aspiring UK foreign minister Hilary Benn, British MP Kahlid Mahmood said Benn (who currently holds the International Development portfolio in the Cabinet) was merely "playing with semantics" when he suggested that the US and UK abandon the phrase "war on terror" and instead pursue an approach based on "soft power" politics for dealing with extremists (see here for NYT report on NYU speech).

I think Benn is on the right track, although the proposal is nothing new and comes a bit late in the game to make a significant difference in how we talk about -- and think about -- the "war". In that regard, semantics do make a difference when it comes to politics and how states initially deal with the problems of terrorism. President Bush's impromptu decision to engage us in a war was unique in US history (see here) -- the first time such an action was undertaken in a political and intellectual vacuum; a truly "thoughtless" action in the Arendtian sense (see here).

In that sense, Benn is on target.

But we are also firmly implanted in a quagmire of our own making no less tragic than Vietnam or Korea -- two cases where the term "war" was never quite formalized until the decision to memorialize those who served and died. Mahmood is correct in noting that it is now a matter of mere semantics, especially in Iraq but increasingly worldwide.

What Benn is proposing is relevant to how we reflect back on what transpired since 9/11, but by itself the proposal does not have more than symbolic value in terms of how we move forward. Suggesting we shift to soft power tactics does little or nothing to alter the commitment to the so-called "war".

More relevant might be the approach articulated by Thomas Friedman in last Sunday's NYT Magazine. Friedman's credibility as observer and
Lippmann-like advice giver is somewhat tarnished in light of his "liberal hawk" record supporting the invasion of Iraq, but his idea that the US can reestablish itself on the international scene by pursuing a "green" agenda is attractive -- and it is a path already being used by the UK PM-in-waiting, Gordon Brown, who has embraced and even led international efforts in both environmental and anti-poverty areas.

That is perhaps the key to understanding what is behind Benn's speech, for the meaningful audience for his talk in New York are the folks in 11 Downing Street who are preparing for a transition away from Blairish policies now in place at No. 10. What MP Mahmood does not appreciate is that while engaging in semantics may not seem useful in and for itself itself, it does make sense when put in the context of a broader "pragmatics"....

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Tragedy and blame at Virginia Tech...

Before I comment on the events at Virginia Tech today, let me tell you a little bit about my day before I became aware of those horrendous events.

For several days now, those of us in the New England area have been subject to a barrage of warnings about the nor'easter heading our way on Monday (today). The storm did in fact start as predicted on Sunday, and by all indications we would wake up to significant rainfall and winds by early this morning. Because I commute to the University of New Hampshire campus, I got up a little bit before 5 a.m. and checked the storm warnings notice on the campus site. There was no indication of any closures or (as they put it) "curtailed operations". Bundling up, I headed out the door and had a very interesting drive to Durham, but made it there without incident until entering the town itself where I ran into a couple of detours. I parked my car, walked to my office and settled in by a little after 7 a.m.. Over the next two hours I prepared for my 9 a.m. class and, quite surprisingly, had a pretty good turnout despite the blustery conditions. I suspect most of the students who attended live on or very near campus, and there were several apologetic e-mail's when I got back to my office from students who could not circumvent the weather.

While all this was happening, street flooding continued around Durham and roads in and out of campus were blocked off as conditions worsened. By 9:45 a.m. (while I chattered away in class) the decision was made to cancel all classes for the rest of the day, and by 10:15 a.m. word had spread to every classroom and not a student was to be found who did not know the status. Those of us who had to leave for home did so. Luckily my route out was unencumbered, although I did watch one bridge flood over in my rear view mirror after I had passed its low point....

I bring this up because I find the story of what took place on the Virginia Tech campus this morning unfathomable. University campuses like UNH or Princeton or the University of Kansas or any of the other self-contained grounds that I've been associated with are very much like Virginia Tech's. There are access roads in and out of campus, and these roads can easily and very quickly be monitored and blocked within moments. This is done frequently during the course of a winter storm or other exceptional weather events. Campuses can be closed down on a moment's notice, and word spreads like wildfire even among those "in transit".

From what we now know about the sequence of events that took place at Virginia Tech, the campus police and administration knew by at least 8 a.m. (if not earlier) they had a double homicide on campus with no suspect in custody. That is what they "knew", but what they "assumed" was that a suspect had left campus and that (therefore) there was no danger to the rest of the campus community. Rather then doing what they would do in a snowstorm or other weather emergency (which, it should be said, are more common than double homicides!) -- that is, close off campus access and close down or curtail campus operations -- these folks made assumptions that increased the vulnerability of the student body on campus.

A sympathetic as I usually am to the tough dilemmas facing decision-makers in administrative positions, this was clearly a wrong call.

The argument that they operated on the basis of what they knew does not hold water, for what they say they "knew" is actually what they "assumed" to know.

The argument that they could not have taken effective action in a short time to both secure campus access and cancel classes is also without merit given the experience and capacity of similar campuses.

In short, the arguments they offer to not rise to a level sufficient to relieve them of culpability in this tragedy, and it is not unreasonable to speculate a different outcome -- fewer lives put at risk and lost -- would have resulted from different assumptions.

What makes things worse is the effort made by some university officials -- especially Virginia Tech's president and police chief -- to offer explanations and excuses in response to the pointed questions from reporters that implied irresponsible decisions on their part. A basic lesson I've drawn in my work on public sector management is that all modern administrators operate in cultures of blameworthiness, and they must learn to deal with the conditions that creates. The moment you assume a position of responsibility -- whether as university president or chief of police -- you accept the role of being blameworthy whether or not you are actually worthy of blame.

Perhaps the worse thing you can do in such a situation is to attempt to offer explanations or excuses, especially when conditions are in flux and you're facing a frenzied crowd. Matters are far far worse, of course, when it is clear that your actions (or inactions) have really contributed to the errors that led to tragedy....

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Savage reporting....

Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe is perhaps the most informed and informative reporter on the Washington DC beat. Unlike his colleagues who get hung up on the latest media frenzy, Savage is consistently reporting on the mundane stuff that ultimately morphs into constitutional issues and significant political crises. What is more, he does it in a way that makes these otherwise back page items into front page news.

So far his ultimate triumph has been the story of Bush's abuse of presidential signing statements -- a story that has raised eyebrows even among the most loyal of White House supporters in the legal community. Only the firing of the eight US Attorneys has done more to undermine that important support.

In today's Globe, however, the story is about the problems caused by the end of earmarks, for now agencies that have let their "discretionary policymaking" muscle atrophy from non-use over the past decade are finding the going tough. With congressional instructions no longer in place, we are back to the old days when authority to make implementation choices ("who gets what, when, where, and how" -- which is Harold Lasswell's definition of politics) is in the hands of agencies.

What is not in place, however, are the mechanisms of what Theodore J. Lowi had termed "interest group liberalism" (requires JSTOR access) which was characterized by the capture of agency decisions by powerful interests. Those interests had moved their business activity and influence to Congress after 1994 and had effectively preempted bureaucratic authority through earmarking and related tools. (For contrasting but related view, see Weisberg on "Interest Group Conservatism".) But with earmarking now earmarked as taboo, the agencies find themselves awash in real power and responsibility with only the faintest guidance from a White House that is rushing to fill the gap before too many of its priorities are trumped by those civil servants who have patiently suffered from the misfortunes of the theory of the unitary executive.

One indicator of what is taking place was mentioned in the Savage article: NOAA scientists, long suffering from the Administration's effective quashing of programs related to climate change, have been taking advantage of the vacuum to promote changes that some probably felt would not take place until a new Administration was in place....

But the implications of all this are broader and deeper than touched on by Savage's write up. It may be time to dust off our old copy of Lowi's End of Liberalism....

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Outsourcing waste, fraud and abuse....

The political stump speech is hardly news or worth noting, especially if (like me) you hang around New Hampshire these days where the presidential primary is well underway and stump speeches are frequent enough as to be "no news'.

But yesterday candidate Hilary Clinton gave a speech in Manchester worthy of special note in the NY Times -- and worthy of special note to those of us who study and teach public administration.

It was, for sure, one of those "let's get rid of the waste, fraud and abuse" talks which usually take the form of bureaucracy bashing one-liners and in the past have been so tiresome that her spouse (who was actually excited about the topic) was once warned never to hold forth on the topic before a crowd.

But this was different, for it was not merely about waste, fraud and abuse in government programs -- it was about all the waste fraud and abuse that comes about due to the behavior of contractors!!! The way to save money, she implies, is to have public goods and service supplied by public employees -- real bureaucrats, working for real bureaucracies!!!!!

Of course she made reference to the work done by Al Gore's reinventing government project which was tossed without hesitation by the Bush Administration and replaced slowly and quietly with their own outsourcing initiatives, including faith-based initiatives. The message, however, is that the Gore National Performance Review (as it was once known) did more by streamlining agency operations than outsourcing has done under Bush -- and with less "waste, fraud and abuse"....

Now this is no simple message to get across, but it interesting that the Clinton campaign is attempting it. Let's hope the other candidates catch this issue wave....

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Deja iPod

Driving between the doctors office and the pharmacy this afternoon (yes, it was that kind of day), I was put in a better humor by a 26-year old NPR segment that was played in celebration of the sale of the 100 millionth iPod....

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Back to Sennett....

After a brief break from the Sennett trilogy (see here and here and more), I am now reading the third in the unplanned series, The Culture of the New Capitalism. This is a short work and relatively quick read, especially since it explicitly tries to pull ideas from the previous works together. I am a quarter of the way through the work, in the midst of his commentary on bureaucracy. With the exception of his return to the "disc" (now MP3 player) metaphor (which still does not quite work), thus far this is a solid presentation.

What makes Sennett's view intriguing is his willingness to acknowledge the benefits (actually, the functionality) of the classic bureaucratic organization -- in a way similar to his highlighting the value (functions/uses) of disorder in his earlier work. As he notes, the traditional bureaucratic form -- warts and all -- remains a powerful and pervasive factor in our economic lives, but it is under attack where it is perhaps most useful: that is, in the delivery of public sector services. The striving for reforms that emulate the new market ideologies is wreaking havoc in the public sector -- or at least that is the judgment implied by Sennett so far. Of course, he could surprise me as I move forward in the work.

In keeping with my tendency to read more than one work at a time, I have also been working on Janice Gross Stein's The Cult of Efficiency. Usually I read books on entirely different topics, but this time they are overlapping. Stein's volume is the published version of the 2001 Massey Lectures sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and its focus is on the problems being caused by the emergence of market efficiency standards and a strong accountability regime in health care and education.

Probably they will meld together in my dreams. Certainly they will get simultaneous treatment in my posts....

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A negligent step...

Spouse and dancing partner Randi forwarded the this story to me. Normally I would think it funny, but I have a feeling it was a warning to keep me on my toes -- or at least off hers....

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Immersed in Nomadics

I am back to discussing the idea of a "nomadic culture" emerging as the first generation literally raised on the web matures and enters the economy and political realm. This time it was in response to William Heath's posting on "Blindside", a blog/wiki he "set up to answer the question 'What's going to go wrong in our e-enabled world'." William sent me an email asking how my idea of nomads (articulate in an earlier post on Ideal Government) related to the concept of "Generation C" which is attributed to a UK consultant, Matt Webb.

My response (posted as comment here) follows:

I am not quite sure the Generation C idea is quite the same as the nomadic, mainly due to the focus on control, which I think makes is closer to the “customer” model. The desire for control presumes the existence of certainty about preferences and priorities, and I don’t think that is quite what drives the emerging nomads. The immersion factor — being dropped into a setting of new and unfamiliar options (links) that can lead you into a completely different setting, etc. — provides the nomad with a sense of satisfaction that does not come from “consuming” but rather “experiencing”.

The folks I feel really captured this are Sherry Turkle of MIT and Janet Murray of Georgia Tech — and especially Murray’s “Hamlet on the Holodeck” and Turkle’s “Life on the Screen”, which are already more than a decade old. Turkle focuses on what happened when MIT students became immersed in the first MOOS and MUDS; Murray has taken immersion into literature and gaming. I think these folks really capture the nature of the shift to a nomadic culture, and the designers of e-government should be looking in those directions for hints of where the emerging generation might be — I guess we would call it Generation-I (for Immersed) or Generation-N (for nomadic)….

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Ruminating (pondering the cud)....

[Rumination, according to the on-line dictionary, involves pondering and meditation. It also means the "process of shewing cud."

I like the contrast and will attempt to live up to both meanings in what follows. The reader will no doubt have mixed feelings if deciding to read on -- the choice is between the boredom of "watching" me ponder or the disgust of watching "cud" being chewed....]

Although my scholarly focus and obsession is with accountability, my attention has shifted increasingly to governance, the idea being that the importance and relevance of accountability is found in the context provided by our current and historical efforts to establish and sustain governance. But what is governance?

Some folks treat the term as just another way of talking about government per se, while others approach it as institutionalized forms of control. It involves those things and more, however, and I am leaning toward a view that extends the ethical perspective expressed in Foucault ("taking care of the self") to the collective level in two ways by viewing governance as the (1) the adoption of technologies of the collective self (as an organic whole greater than the parts) and (2) the care we take of our individual selves in collective efforts (a more pluralistic notion).

In hindsight, I now see this coming out in some of my earlier work on accountability that stressed it as a means for managing the multiple, diverse and conflicting expectations we all face, but which are especially the burden of public administrators and (I would now argue) those engaged in governance. Governance in the form a various types of accountability emerges as those folks become subject to the pressures and pulls of moral communities -- political, legal, organizational, professional.

It is time for me to revisit that work and play with in in light of my slow re-education in critical theory....

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Monday, April 02, 2007

A day of foolishness....

It was interesting to track the number of hits this site got yesterday via searches related to the On the Media "Jihad to Go There" hoax. If this obscure site got a couple of dozen [and another 115+ today, April 2], I can imagine what the totals were on the various search engines. What was interesting is that the reference to Google TiSP hoax did not generate any hits at first and then got a few.

Another noteworthy April Fools "gag" was the shifting logo at Technorati -- click the banner to the left of the main page and you get Tonierchat, niceThroat, heartTonic, Tritenacho, etc. etc. (you needed to sign in for the function to start).

Nice job by all....

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

A day for connections....

There are some days when things just seem to connect....

Yesterday's blog on Judgment at Nuremberg failed to mention one other notable cast member: Werner Klemperer. In that movie he played a despicable Nazi prosecutor on trial for war crimes, but to most Americans he is recognizable as the infamously inept Colonel Klink on TV's Hogan's Heroes.

Coincidentally, that show was mentioned in a segment of this week's On the Media in a story about a new sitcom to be broadcast on the new Terror TV cable network. It happens that the initial reaction to Hogan's Heroes was somewhat negative given its comic rendition of Nazi POW camps, and Bob Garfield made that point when interviewing Terror TV's Rex Van Ommeran. Of special interest is a Terror Channel sitcom, Jihad to Go There, that features jihadist recruits in training to be terrorists who all go by the name of Abdul.

Not willing to drop the subject at that point, and making the connections even stronger, On the Media followed with a related story that was equally interesting....

And finally, talking about "connections," today Google announced the launch of its TiSP wifi service. Now this is something I can actually use!

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NI blogging....

According to the little sidebar listing on the site, my first posting was on November 13, 2004. At the time I was situated in Northern Ireland and decided it was time to see what this blogging thing was about. At one point I was posting regularly enough to generate a regular readership, but I let it slip and now only get a handful (according to Statcounter) -- and many of those by random selection process. If you are reading this, you are indeed in select company.....

I bring this up because BBC Radio Ulster broadcast a half-hour documentary on blogging in Northern Ireland yesterday (it was rebroadcast today, but not as an April Fool's hoax). It was especially good to hear the voice of Mick Fealty who oversees the Slugger O'Toole blog which has proven to be one of the truly useful sites on the Web if you're interested in what is happening in Belfast and Northern Ireland politics. Mick was beginning to play a major role in the political news mix by 2005 and it was great to have him around the Institute of Governance as they part time fellow.

Other blogs are highlighted as well, including one called "Letter to America" by Jett Loe (great Flickr spot) which started in September 2005 and operates under the theme (if I caught it right) "we live here so you don't have to...".

But it is Mick's comments that makes this worth a listen.....

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