Vice President Al Gore's Address to
The Armed Forces Communications and
Electronics Association Conference
February 13, 1996

VICE PRESIDENT GORE: Thank you very much. Thank you very much, Roger. I can't thank you enough for those kind words. Really, too kind. They set off my hubris alarm if there was such a thing based on smoke detector technology. Politicians ought to carry them on their belts, but I do appreciate your kind words and, more than that, I appreciate the chance I've had to work with you and I'd like to say here to this group, Roger, that Roger Johnson has really been my key ally in the internal debates in the White House during the critical stages in which reinventing government was either going to get off the ground or crash ignominiously. And as a former CEO who understands the bottom line, he was absolutely essential in coming in at the right moment to make the decisive arguments, and I really appreciate your help and your friendship, Roger, and we all wish you well as you go back to the private sector, and thank you very much for a job well done.

I want to acknowledge the other distinguished guests who are here. David Barram, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Commerce, another good friend and ally. John Koskinen, the Deputy Director at OMB, and my key ally in the Executive Office of the President who handles reinvention work out of OMB. Frank Gicca, Chairman of the Board of AFCEA; Jim Busey, President of AFCEA, and thanks to this organization for its outstanding work and for your hospitality this morning, as well. And Jim Flyzick, Director of the Office of Telecommunications Management at the Department of the Treasury, and someone who's worked very closely with Elaine Kamarck and Greg Woods and myself, Bob Stone, others that are reinventing government team, and we appreciate your help, Jim.

I didn't quite understand those remarks about stiffness and seriousness, Roger. It's been so cold lately, people who don't know me well have thought I was frozen stiff. But I'm used to those comments, actually. Every time I hear a new "stiff" joke I always have the same reaction, "Very funny, Tipper."

I do greatly enjoy being vice president, and I'm reminded of the great seal of the vice president here, of one of the reasons why I enjoy it so much. If you close your left eye and turn your head just right it says, "President of the United States of America."

It's really a thrill for me every time.

The digital presentation that you just saw shows not only two different ways of working, but two fundamentally different ways of thinking. Two organizing metaphors, if you will. Fundamentally important, because as we shift metaphors we shift our understanding of the world around us. Since the early 1900s, at least, the dominant metaphor in America has been the metaphor of the factory, a clockwork machine with human hands among its moving parts. We've talked about all of the things important to us in machine and factory terms. We've talked about the economy in industrial terms, "pumping it up," watching it "wind down." Organizations have been hierarchical, with top management, middle management, and workers seen as cogs in the machine, programmed by those who make the decisions at the apex of the management pyramid to perform the same task repetitively, over and over again. Schools drew parallels with assembly lines, almost literally, with desks in parallel rows where products and children moved through a series of steps with value added at each step along the way.

But that metaphor has outlived its usefulness. That doesn't keep us from continuing to use it, however, as we lean on a crutch of older metaphors that are splintering with age. So this week, in a series of three speeches on science and technology, I am, among other things, suggesting an alternative metaphor, an updated metaphor. One more appropriate to the times and, hopefully, with a greater ability to explain the new circumstances in which we find ourselves. It is the metaphor of distributed intelligence. It is based on a computer metaphor. And, hopefully, it can help update our notions of self-government and bring them more into harmony with the new realities of the information age.

At the beginning of the computer age, in the mainframe era, we relied almost entirely on machines with huge central processing units, surrounded by fields of data arrayed in memory cells. The design was not unlike that of a mass production factory. The central processing unit, or CPU, sent out to the field of memory to get raw data, brought it back to the center, processed it, then distributed the results back into the memory. This technique performed certain tasks quite well, especially those that were amenable to a rigid hierarchy of data. Then advances began.

IBM got its first big push with a new technique called vector processing, which relied on the same basic technique but it speeded it up. As one of these tasks was underway the next would begin, before the first was completed. But all of the data retrieved from the field of memory still had to be stacked up at the CPU to be processed sequentially. And that took time, and still caused three trips from the processor to the memory field. That generated energy and made it more difficult to reach faster speeds.

Then along came the new architecture of massive parallelism. We broke processing power into -- I say "we," the cleverest computer scientists in our country -- broke processing power into lots of units and distributed the processing power out into the field of memory so that in each location where memory was stored there was co-located a small part of the cumulative processing power. Presented with a problem, all of the processors in this machine began to work on them simultane -- on the parts of the problem simultaneously, and all of the different parts of the solution were brought to the center simultaneously and assembled. It turned out that for most problems that approach just works better, provided there is adequate software to coordinate the signals for beginning work and ending work and integrating the parts of the solution in the proper way.

Well, this basic idea has been applied elsewhere in our lives, but the metaphor has not traveled to many parts of our lives and didn't come anywhere near the government. And that's a shame, for in the realm of governance or economics or public policy the model of distributed intelligence has enormous explanatory power. Think for a moment about what the American Revolution was all about. We got tired of having decisions made for us in another place across the ocean. And our forbears wrote a revolutionary document for self-governance that was based on the exciting and revolutionary principle that the ordinary person is best able to make decisions that affect his or her life and is capable of making those decisions in combination with all of the other citizens of this new nation of ours. That's distributed intelligence. People are better able to understand the circumstances of their own lives and make political decisions based on that understanding than anyone can make for them. And when their cumulative judgments are made, the resulting guidance for our nation is far superior to the decisions made by a monarch or a tzar or a dictator in whatever guise.

Take a second example. You can explain the economic collapse of communism by pointing out that capitalism takes advantage of distributed intelligence. The so-called "invisible hand" of the marketplace results from millions, indeed billions, of small decisions made by buyers and sellers in the marketplace which, together, process an enormous amount of information that determines which supplies of what products should be at what location at what price. As the pace of our lives speeded up in this century, the ability of a central command authority in the Soviet Union or any other communist land, to keep up with the economic needs of the various parts they attempted to govern, essentially broke down.

To take a third example. In the private sector this same phenomenon and the same metaphor which encompasses it illuminates why business is shedding middle layers of management and pushing decision-making authority out to employees on the front lines, where organizations encounter change first, at the edge, not at the center.

Business Week, some years ago, had a cover story entitled "The Virtual Corporation." Yet, the phrase "virtual organization" still comes across to many as a kind of a buzz phrase, years after the business community has incorporated most of its essential truths. Your conference title, "Virtual Government on the NII," tells me that you understand quite well the power of the distributed intelligence model embodied in the information superhighway and that you are here exploring the changes it makes possible. This is your game, and your tools of the game are powerful and growing more powerful. Tomorrow, I will be going to the University of Pennsylvania to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of ENIAC, the world's first electric, programmable computer, a computer which filled a very large room, yet had less capability than today is in my wristwatch and in many of the watches worn in this room.

The explosive growth of the World Wide Web began just three years ago, with the alpha release of Mosaic. Browsers like Net Scape, Mosaic and Microsoft Explorer are already into their second generation, with fabulous speed and the facility to search the entire planet for information and then deliver it to right under your nose. Your IT tools are comparatively cheap and getting cheaper rapidly. ENIAC cost $486,000.00 to build. This watch cost $35.00. ENIAC used enough kilowatts in an hour to power a typical house for almost two weeks. Today's pocket calculators, vastly more powerful than ENIAC, go for as little as $20.00 and run for years on a $3.00 battery or even on God's free gift of sunlight. The cost of storing data has fallen from $5.00 a megabyte to less than 25 cents, in just the last three years. And that is measuring it in mid-plunge.

I recently used statistics comparable to these with a group of young people, and relied on an old and, to some ears, hackneyed example by saying if automobiles had improved in performance and price as rapidly as computers in the last fifty years, then a Rolls Royce today would get a million miles a gallon and would cost only 15 cents. A student in the front row raised his hand and said, "Yes, Mr. Vice President, but it would only be about this long."

Metaphors are limiting as well as illuminating.

American business, though, has been applying these new information tools and the new metaphor that explains modern organizations, and has been reinventing itself to compete and win. We know that we can do the same thing in government. Our reinvention program, begun with the National Performance Review, is showing amazing results. My new book, "Common Sense Government" -- I don't get any proceeds, I'm not hawking this book here -- the proceeds go to charity and to establish cash awards for excellence among federal employees. This tells the stories of the people, some of them in this room, who are making these changes happen.

There is a great deal left to do. We have barely begun. But we're now moving in the right direction and we're gaining speed and momentum. But belief in the power of the new metaphor and the success of reinvention so far contribute in no small way already to the president's commitment to a balanced budget. We know we can make government work better and cost less. And the great enabler in reinvention success has been information technology. Not just because of the new capacity to handle information it gives us, but because of the way it stimulates new thinking by men and women in organizations that have grown stale and find it difficult to do the job well. By encountering a new capacity to handle information and do work in new, more efficient ways, information technology has inspired many people to literally reinvent the organizations they are part of. We're seeing this live up to its potential as a tool for revolutionary change.
In Miami, individual inspectors tap into worldwide collections of data to target high-risk shipments and speed inspections. What has resulted? Cocaine seizures are up by a factor of three, compared to this same period last year. And, simultaneously, we're moving passengers through the airport much more quickly. And as we look ahead to a balanced budget world, we can see technology solutions that will let us do more with less. Baby boomers can expect world-class service from the Social Security Administration because of programs to re-engineer internal processes and put Social Security Administration's services on-line and on kiosks in malls.

All of this makes the men and women in this room, you who are leaders of the government's information technology brain trust, more important today than ever before in this nation's history, because you hold the key to the puzzle our nation faces. How can we deploy these new technologies to reduce the cost of government and, at the same time, improve delivery of the government's services that our citizens demand. As you work to answer that question, you will see us changing the way we acquire technology for the virtual government. The new way fits our distributed intelligence model and follows the best practices of businesses. As you well know, what we've been doing in the past benefits the old factory model.

This past Saturday, in the defense appropriations bill, the president signed into law the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996. It is the result of substantial bipartisan effort. We have been working on this very closely with Senators Cohen and Glenn, and will shortly -- and the president will shortly issue an executive order with the details necessary to carry it out. In a nutshell, we will distribute procurement authority to agencies but hold them accountable for results. Information technology is a capital investment, and we expect returns in the same terms that business does, like savings and productivity. Next, we will share technical resources across agency lines, working as a virtual government on the biggest issues and on common needs.

Third, we will encourage more rapid, modular procurements of major systems, rather than massive mega-contracts that outlast technology changes and outlast management turnover. We have had enough of that approach. We will shift protests from the General Services Board to GAO's less burdensome process, and we will create a chief information officer as a focal point in each cabinet department and major agency. So we have a best in business management approach, a powerful new organizing metaphor, and we have breakthrough technologies.

Is anything missing from this vision? Well, yes. Something so important that, without it, we would just waste our money. Our efforts to build tomorrow's government must be unfailingly customer-driven. Let me give you a quick example of the point that I'm trying to make here. In fact, it's about drivers licenses. A few years ago, the State of Oregon decided to improve service at their DMV offices. They figured everyone hated waiting in line to get licenses. They assumed that was the main problem they had to solve. So they designed a new, faster, more powerful computer system to speed up the process, and they prepared to install more workstations.

Luckily, before they actually bought and installed the whole thing, they stopped long enough to conduct some focus groups with customers, and they actually asked their customers what they wanted in order to fine-tune the system. They got a big surprise. The number one customer complaint was not the long lines at all. They weren't even close. Anybody guess what the biggest problem was? The pictures. The unflattering photographs on the license. People only had to wait in line for a license once every five years, but they had to look at that awful picture every time they took it out of their wallet or purse; there was the mug shot. Well, once Oregon accurately identified the problem their customers most wanted solved, they designed a slightly different high-tech solution, a video system that let people see and select from several shots before the license was printed. Vanity prevailed. The customers were happy.

But the organization worked as it should have worked. We have learned this lesson over and over again, reinventing government. For example, the IRS assumed that taxpayers put top priority on getting their tax booklets right after Christmas --

-- so they could look at them on the desk for months as their anger built up slowly. In conducting interviews and taking other steps to ascertain what the customer really wanted, they found that the top priority was as little contact as possible with the IRS. So, now you see the IRS rolling out a host of electronic filing options, like Tele-file, in all fifty states. Tele-file takes about eight minutes and is almost error-proof. And for those who use it, why would we go back to a postcard? The telephone is much easier.

Some of our reinventors have also used customer input to totally shape a product called the U.S. Business Adviser. The U.S. Business Adviser is a web site that gives business one-stop access to all the government agencies that regulate or assist businesses. We put it together because one of the complaints we heard most from business was that they had to go door-to-door and more, dealing with forty-plus different agencies. Clearly, a high-tech solution was possible, and a lot faster and cheaper than trying to physically move agencies in with each other.

So the customers started us down this track. We unveiled and demo'ed an early version at last summer's White House Conference on Small Business. The conferees there loved the concept. We showed it to the president. He asked for a search about cutting Christmas trees on federal lands. We had the answer in seconds, and he was impressed. He remembered the principle, "Ask your customers," and created a task force to work on the product with business users. And, by the way, I want to again thank Dave Barum, Deputy Secretary of Commerce, and also Phil Later (phonetic), Administrator of SBA, for what the two of them have done in leading a terrific inter-agency task force that produced a wonderful new version of the Business Adviser. I'll show you that version in just a minute.

We put the Adviser up on the web with a comments button, so everybody could make suggestions. We ran sessions with user groups from businesses, large and small, all over the country, in order to get in-depth feedback on the design. In other words, we treated it like a product being taken to market. Here's what we heard. Our customers absolutely love the Business Adviser idea of one-stop access to our information and services. And they wanted to change practically everything about the version that we showed them. Well, we have done that now, and the new version goes up on the World Wide Web as soon as I snap my fingers. [Snap]

For my next trick ... Well, ladies and gentlemen, the new customer-improved U.S. Business Adviser.

Now, as I show you what it can do, I will tell you about some of the surprises our customers had for us. Page 1 of our first version looked like this. We thought that looked pretty neat, and the president loved it. Page 2 was even better. It had a big, high-resolution color picture of moi. But our customers, a good many of whom apparently are Republican business owners, didn't want to wait with the meter running while our big, beautiful pictures downloaded. So the new version looks like this. And, in fact, you see the customer can even select text only and get the plain, pipe-rack version. That's for those in a hurry, or those running text browsers like Links (phonetic). The system will also automatically sense and respond if the user is coming through a version 2.0 browser, like America Online, or it will automatically switch to give the full treatment to users on Net Scape or other HTML 3.0 browsers.

The customer user groups said they wanted the Adviser to do five things. Those things are embodied in the five function buttons shown here and on all pages. They want to go straight to commonly-asked questions. They want to find out how to do things. They were emphatic. They didn't just want more information -- they're up to their ears in information. They wanted to be able to quickly find out how to do things, and then -- imagine the temerity -- they wanted to go ahead and actually do the things. Like, file their taxes. Report wage and withholding data. Apply for permits and licenses. So this new version sets up a structure to do that and makes a start along that line. And there will be plenty more to come.

Our customers want to search in plain English for specific things they seek. Sometimes they want to browse to see what we have got. And they want news, the latest news. Under "Common Questions" we put answers to common business tax questions, Postal Service questions, and other questions. This is a basic structure that can easily accept the common questions from other agencies. We set up this flexible structure to accept additions in all parts of the Adviser.

In the "How-To" section, businesses told us they wanted how-to information, compliance assistance tools, and other step-by-step guides. Here, you will find advice from the Small Business Administration on how to start a business. You can also get forms and publications from the IRS to assist you during tax time. OSHA has a neat tool called the Asbestos Adviser, which helps you determine if your building is asbestos safe. If it's not, it prints a customized guide to assist you in making your building match the asbestos rules.

For searches, we are giving business several options. For example, they can search a host of databases from the Government Printing Office, like economic indicators or the Federal Register, or -- and this is my favorite -- customers can use a simple English query to search through 106,000 federal government web pages in seconds. Imagine, you are looking for information on exporting auto parts to Asia. Well, you don't have to imagine. You can do it simply by typing it in. Here's what the Business Adviser gives you after you type it in. The title of the document, the source of the information, and the best passage from within the document so you know whether this is what you are looking for.

Some people wanted to browse. So we have arranged the Browse Section of the Business Adviser like a library. Simply click on the section you're interested in, say, "Doing Business with the Government," and you can look through the content relevant to that subject area, just like examining books on a shelf.

The last section of the Business Adviser is news. Here, the business community will have access to late-breaking information and press releases from the agencies that work with them.

Now, the implications for this product that I've just shown you are far-reaching. AOL recognizes this, American Online, and has it as a featured item. But the problem and the need we are addressing is not peculiar to business. All kinds of government customers are still now shuffling door-to-door. We've got to stop that, stop making them do that. We see the Adviser as the first of a whole family of products that serve all customer groups -- beneficiaries, veterans, travelers, the research community, state and local governments, and more. IT is helping reinvent the way we meet customer needs all over government.

Electronic benefits transfer cards -- and I had an example here somewhere, but you've seen them, in any case -- EBT cards deliver Social Security payments, veterans benefits, welfare, the whole range of government payments and assistance. All of this with the convenience and security of a modern debit card, even to recipients who don't have bank accounts. And the government saves $120 million per year compared with mailing out checks or messing around with food stamps. Works better from the customer's point of view, costs less for the government and the taxpayers.

Now, when we say "customers," we mean customers inside the government as well as the public. In our reinventing government work we commonly talk about inside customers and outside customers. For example, the VA Medical Center in Baltimore was the first hospital in the country to go to all-digital imagery, everything from MRIs to X-rays to color photos. Images are all available any time, anywhere in the hospital, for as many specialists as want them. Better support for doctors, better medicine for patients -- big administrative savings.

"Wings," which was referred to in the presentation just before I came out, "Wings" is not just a popular sit-com. It is the beginning -- beginnings of a one-stop service where the general public will be able to get their Social Security benefits statement, file their state and local taxes, or change their address with the agencies across government if they move.

If you are looking for opportunities to help, don't be discouraged by this list. I assure you the customers still have quite a few problems with the government that technology hasn't solved, and we need your help. I hope that all of you will take to heart the challenge of creating this new self-government that Americans deserve. Try this. Veterans get a wide range of benefits -- medical care, mortgage guarantees, college tuition, disability payments. Getting all their records of past benefits and current eligibility to the right place at the right time is an expensive job for the government. And the frequent delays are frustrating for veterans.

(End of Side A.)
Can we put 64K of memory on the card for the veteran to keep, and update it along with the VA database every time the veteran calls on the government? You tell me. And tell me if we applied Smart Cards throughout government, wouldn't our critical mass set the standard for everyone? Or how about this problem -- current law guarantees that communities have the right to know what toxic chemicals local companies are releasing into the environment. Each year, companies report their releases to EPA, which compiles by locality and state and publishes them for all to see. But since most of the process is manual, the lag time is about two years. So communities aren't really in the know; they're in the "knew." Can you solve that one? I'll bet you can. I'll bet you can, because the new information technologies make it possible to solve it and inspire you to figure out how to solve it.

Well, there's no shortage of crucial work for each of you in a government that is determined to serve its customers better for less. All of your skill is needed, all of your energy is required. Just remember the vision statement of the Government Information Technology Services Working Group of the Information Infrastructure Task Force of the Committee on Applications and Technology --

Now you know why we call them "GITs."

Anyway, I'm not asking you to remember their name, but I am asking you to remember their vision. And here's their vision. "To help create a government that uses information technology to interact with and serve its customers on their terms." Let that be your creed, and we will all be singing your praises. Thank you very much.

NPR Home Page Search the NPR Site NPR Initiatives Site Index Calendar Comments Awards Links Tools Frequently Asked Questions Speeches News Releases Library Navigation Bar For NPR site