Dissing Excellence in Government

Why do we have governments? I’m serious. It shouldn’t be necessary to even ask this question. It should be obvious. But apparently some members of Congress haven’t grasped the basics. People form governments because there are certain things that can’t or shouldn’t be done by the private sector. It’s right there in the preamble to the United States Constitution. Our federal government exists to:

“… establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

So outsourcing our judiciary is out. We have decided that corporations should not determine if we go to war or how it will be managed. Also our government is empowered through law to promote the general welfare. It’s okay and constitutional for the government to engage in activities that make the country more prosperous and free, as long as it does it generally, i.e. for the public.

So you would think that the National Weather Service (NWS), which meticulously monitors our nation’s weather and provides sound scientific forecasts to the public, would be engaged in an inherently governmental mission. Well, at least in the eyes of some people, you would be wrong. In particular Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (Republican, naturally) thinks the NWS needs to stop being so darn public with its information. Yes, although through your tax dollars we fund the NWS to the tune of about $617M a year, some like Sen. Santorum want you to pay again. He in particular has introduced S. 786, a bill “To clarify the duties and responsibilities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service, and for other purposes.”

Basically Santorum wants the NWS and its parent the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to stop releasing those pesky routine forecasts and oh so convenient meteorological information. Instead he wants you to be forced to get the information from private sources like AccuWeather and The Weather Channel. The NWS should restrict itself to issuing “severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property of the general public” and “hydrometeorological guidance and core forecast information.” Government civil servants would be prohibited from releasing any information “that might influence or affect the market value of any product, service, commodity, tradable, or business.” Whoa! That’s quite a way to stifle a civil servant!

In short, if someone else can make a dime off of it, NOAA and the NWS shouldn’t be doing it. But if some major tropical storm or tornado is headed our way it’s okay. And it’s still okay to put data out there for general use, but God forbid that it should be spun into actual useful information although it sounds like “guidance” is still okay. (“It will be hot in August in Texas.”) And don’t allow those government civil servants to actually use their professional education to turn information into knowledge, like make drought predictions. Save that for Santorum’s buddies at AccuWeather.

Why? Because Santorum claims this will stimulate the private sector innovation. He doesn’t want the government to provide this information in a timelier, cheaper or non-partisan manner. He wants you to cough up additional money to get this knowledge by subscribing to AccuWeather or watching all those annoying ads on Weather.com.

We so often hear that government is wasteful and bloated. But for less than $700M a year we have a National Weather Service that provides accurate and timely forecasts to all comers. (That’s less than $3 per year per person.) So what are the NWS and NOAA real crimes? What it amounts to is they are doing their job too well. All that valuable weather information is available in real time on their web sites. Oh Lord, the NWS has been too innovative. You can even get localized weather information available as an RSS news feed. And the NWS has done this despite flat or shrinking budgets.

So first civil servants get unfairly tarnished for being wasteful, bureaucratic, bloated and not thinking like the private sector. But when civil servants demonstrate extreme competence and entrepreneurial behavior, like apparently the many marvelous employees at the NWS, and do things faster, better and cheaper than the private sector, they are being bad. As a civil servant myself this really irks me. Man, we can’t win for losing! Apparently we aren’t living up to our stereotypes and that really irks some politicians.

Thankfully so far Santorum’s bill has no cosponsors. This means it is likely to die a quick death. But there are no guarantees in the weird Republican controlled times that we live in. You have to wonder what’s next: will the Secret Service be outsourced to Halliburton?

I am envious of my colleagues in NOAA and the NWS because they are doing exactly what I want to do at the U.S. Geological Survey. I manage NWISWeb, the system that puts out in real time water information collected by USGS’s National Water Information System (NWIS). Since I arrived about a year ago I’ve been building the case with management that we too need to make our peer reviewed water science data more broadly and easily available. NWISWeb is a great system but right now it is limited in that it serves our water data to be read by humans in a browser only. That hasn’t stopped lots of clever people in the private sector like the American Whitewater from figuring out ways to get our data and place it inside their products. And that’s fine with us. We make our data available equally to all comers. If the whitewater rafting people can figure out a way to show their members the local stream conditions on their web site more power to them.

I’d like to take the hassle out of getting the data though. I’d like us to offer our data using web services. This new technology would let computers grab and process our data on the fly without necessarily writing a lot of customized code, downloading files or scraping screens for content. I’d love for Weather.com to display our stream flow and groundwater information in their maps. (Of course I’d like them to show the USGS logo too, so the public understands who is really gathering the data.) Particularly during periods of heavy flooding and hurricanes this information served in many places can save lives and reduce property damage.

We already have hydrologists working with NOAA and other organizations like ocean.us. They are working on models that can turn the number of feet a stream is over flood stage into a map that will show the surface area that would be underwater. But wait! It sounds like if a lot of senators think like Senator Santorum then the USGS would be in the data collection business exclusively. No point having your hard earned tax money used to infer any meaning from the data. So what if you live in a trailer next to a rapidly rising creek and are too busy watching Survivor to check stream conditions. If you don’t have your contract with AccuWeather to warn you about approaching floods that’s your problem. As a risk mitigation strategy, consider buying a life vest for every member of your family.

Time will tell whether Santorum’s bill lives or dies. And time will tell whether my idea will fly at the USGS. Like the NWS we work paycheck to paycheck. Since the Bush Administration wants to keep our budget flat money likely won’t be forthcoming for such an endeavor unless it is pulled from somewhere else. But if my executives are to take a clue from Senator Santorum, they might fear to be too innovative. Could be risky.

Instead of whining that the government is doing its job too well, AccuWeather should find ways to add value. Perhaps it could put more of its own sensors out in the field, collect different kinds of data and integrate it with the NWS data they are already getting cost free. AccuWeather is not being innovative. It is being anticompetitive.

I say let’s applaud NOAA and the NWS for their excellence and foresight. There actually is quite a lot of this innovation in the federal government if you look for it. Perhaps instead of giving agencies like these flat budgets they should be rewarded for their innovation with more money so they can do an even better job. They are after all clearly promoting the general welfare. Our founding fathers would be pleased.

(Disclaimers. These opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the U.S. Geological Survey. I also have one brother who is a meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

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