TOPIC: Part of the Solution

Electing transparency in California

Election officials across the nation will soon receive letters from a former California GOP operative turned election watchdog beseeching them to creatively close loopholes created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, reports Josh Richman of the Oakland Tribune.

Dan Schnur, the former Communications Director for John McCain’s 2000 campaign and now director of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, sent letters to 150 state elections and campaign finance officials around the U.S. yesterday asking them to critically examine the court’s ruling and find wiggle room to enact regulations requiring more disclosure of the origins of campaign money. (more…)

PSA: Inside the Agency, Outside the Box at FDIC

Another in Understanding Government’s series “Public Service Announcement” profiling the careers and challenges of notable government employees

By Norman Kelley

At the epicenter of last year’s economic meltdown, along with the disappearance of major financial firms, was the collapse of IndyMac Federal Bank, a California-based institution that found itself overwhelmed with distressed mortgages. A result of the nation’s toxic housing bubble (and an at-sleep-at-the-wheel regulatory infrastructure), IndyMac was emblematic of the country’s national mortgage foreclosure crisis.  FDIC economist Clare Rowley was in the eye of Indy Mac’s particular hurricane, trying to rectify that bank’s troubled assets and find ways to save homeowners with IndyMac mortgages from foreclosure.

Clare Rowley with thanks to Washington Post-Newsweek

Clare Rowley

In July 2008, along with other FDIC colleagues, Rowley was dispatched to Pasadena, California, site of IndyMac’s home office. There she helped implement a mortgage modification program that allowed qualified but struggling mortgage holders to stay in their homes. The FDIC’s modification program, which some called a “Model in a Box,” consisted of three basic parts: lowering interest rates, extending  loan terms, and principal forbearance.  The model worked:  by the spring of 2009, 88 % of modified loans were still in force.

When the new Obama administration began tackling the mortgage crisis in mid-2009, (more…)


With all respect to Dr. Dennis Leary, who I think gets quite a few things right, every now and then we have to admit to ourselves that America’s a pretty great place.  Here’s an example (it’s Friday, right? let’s just be happy for once):  a seven-year-old girl in Arlington County, Virginia, is recovering from leukemia, but she ends up in the hospital again because she breaks her arm, and there is the danger of a flareup of her leukemia.  But she can keep going to school from the hospital because a charitable organization in the Washington, D.C. area has donated computers with webcams and installed a similar laptop the girl’s classroom at her elementary school.  As Sindya Bhanoo tells the story in the Washington Post, "she has been able to join her first-grade class almost every morning in solving math problems, listening to poetry and working on group projects" and "the webcam fills a social void by allowing her to interact with her classmates."  There are lots of voices in this story, and you can hear them by reading it.  I’m not talking about good news vs. bad news:  I just thought you should know that while the economy is crumbling, thousands more people are unemployed, and it’s raining outside, there are good things happening every single day. -NH


Early this morning as I was taking my 36-minute run (see, Orszag only runs for 35), I thought about what it takes to make a good public servant.  Well, not the whole time — part of it I was thinking about when I could stop running.  But I’ve been mulling over Jodi Kantor’s New York Times profile of Peter Orszag.  The shot of the dashing young OMB chief in his spotless living room, a blur of efficiency passing the lovely family photos on the side table . . . (more photos here!).  The mention of his new girlfriend . . . . Orszag’s comment, tossed in casually at the end, about the short tenure of most directors at OMB  — as if he’s worried about his future in Washington!  It was all so beautifully calibrated and made me wonder . . . where the hell is my publicist? 

A profile of another ambitious Washington type, this one in the Washington Post, filled me with slightly more hope.  This was Ashley Halsey’s look at Chuck Fox, a guy who really matters for government in your backyard if you live anywhere near the Chesapeake Bay (about 17 million people do).  Fox, now senior adviser at EPA, has devoted most of his life to the environment and many years to saving the Chesapeake, which is a beautiful place, but a rapidly deteriorating one for all kinds of fish, shellfish, birds, plants, and people. 

Two important public servants.  Two generously-drawn portraits in Washington’s favorite newspapers.  But one difference in these men’s ambitions:  Fox’s have (to date at least) focused on a specific set of issues, people, and places.  As for Mr. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget?  May God bless him and his work.  But let’s hope that all he does is about more than Peter Orszag.

GIMBY is Understanding Government’s effort to capture what government is doing where people live.  All kinds of public servants will end up under our microscope, and we’re going to ask our readers to tell us about government employees who have made a difference or made things worse.  If you have someone you think our growing readership should know about, please contact us.  That’ll help keep us running. -NH


A state run by a Republican governor takes on health care reform that leaves only 2.6% of the population unemployed; the next governor, a Democrat, moves to cut costs to make the system affordable for the state.  Who knew that Massachusetts could make this work?  There’s a lot of heavy lifting left, but as Kevin Sack writes in the New York Times, "the very stakeholders who were coaxed into the tent — doctors, hospitals, insurers and consumer groups . . . have a huge investment to protect" and they’re working together to find compromises.  Cost-control efforts include steps most people see as essential for national health care reform, such as encouraging primary and preventive care, paying physicians not per service but per patient, and rewarding for better results.   Massachusetts as a model for controlled government spending and a new health care model?  Shocking thoughts for a Monday morning. -NH


There are many ways to tell a story, and Jane Johnston, editor of the Newburgh Advocate — and a part-time reporter for GIMBY — brings people’s concerns about new shale deposit gas drilling in the Hudson Valley to life with this remarkable series of on-site sketches and quotes.  Faces emerge from the crowd.  Phrases like "water is the real staff of life" and "an aquifer cannot be restored" and "we need to get this right in New York State" join sober assessments such as "the DEC (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) doesn’t have enough staff."  View Jane’s insightful reporting here. -NH


Pennsylvanians (2006 pop. 12.5 million) may be getting a bit tired of being tagged red, blue, or purple after the endless presidential campaign.  Whoever is elected, some residents of the Keystone State are looking beyond politics and working to renew their second-largest city, Pittsburgh, Sean Hamill of the New York Times reports.  A group of twenty or so city residents decided to transform a combination overgrown forest/informal dump into a two-acre city park.  One participant even said "[w]e were just strangers before, and this made us neighbors."  A little too cute?  Yes.  But true?  Probably.  This kind of pulling together is what Americans are good at and if this spreads, it will help Rust Belt cities (and others) turn around.  Pittsburgh city government came to the aid of these citizens and will declare the park a greenway, closed to commercial development.  -NH


At a time when of great financial instability that government agencies did not do enough to stop, it’s hard to be positive about government.  But just as you can’t judge a country only by the decisions of its leaders, we shouldn’t judge our government without looking at the people who actually do the hard work day to day.  Every year the Partnership for Public Service gives us reasons to hope — the nominees and winners of their Service to America Medals.  If you think the phrase "effective government" is an oxymoron, take a look at what these public servants have done to work to eliminate malaria, or to stop the abuse of government contracts in Iraq, or to spark the growth of renewable energy sources in the United States.  That’s only three of this year’s eight winners, who were selected from more than 29 finalists, who were selected from scores of nominees.  These government employees’ work points up what we’re all fighting for — an America that can solve its problems and is ready to help other countries and their people live better lives.


Steven Barr has left the helm of the Washington Post‘s "Federal Diary," a key daily tool in print and on the Web for federal employees and many who care about improving government service.  His successor is Joe Davidson, who today brings Post readers a look at his own plans and reports what priorities leaders around Washington see for the world’s largest corporation.  Making sure the workforce stays competitive — at entry as well as executive levels — and preparing the bureaucracy for the next presidential administration are at the top of the list.  Read Joe Davidson’s introductory column here.


Mother Nature, that is.  Given the EPA’s challenges, we can’t rely on it to do everything…and whatever you think about what Washington should be doing better, it’s a great thing when citizens step up to help their community.  Tina Kelley reports in the New York Times about Riverkeeper, an environmental non-profit that tests the water around New York City to see when — if ever — it will be safe for recreational use.  Riverkeeper’s project, called "Swimmable River," is building an online record of the Hudson’s toxin levels and safety for recreation.  Accessible information about real environmental problems?  Maybe the EPA could take a lesson from these folks.  Read Tina Kelley here. -NH