Obama Should Finish What Nixon Failed to Do

Originally published in Directions Magazine

Little does the Obama Administration know it, but one of its most innovative policy, programming and budgeting initiatives is at risk of failure due to Richard Nixon’s hasty decision to resign the Presidency of the United States nearly four decades ago.

On August 11, the White House issued a memorandum to the entire Federal government entitled “Developing Place-Based Policies for the 2011 Budget” (pdf). While the issuance of this memorandum has escaped most everyone in official Washington during the intense August debates over healthcare and Afghanistan, the memo has spread like wildfire across the geospatial (technology, data, operations and policy) community which understands the profound and positive implications of this policy memo. Who’s in the geospatial community? They are the people who brought you MapQuest, Google Earth/Google Maps, Bing Maps, the Global Positioning System, your Garmin and your TomTom, satellite imagery, Zillow, and those city/county websites your spouse uses to monitor your neighbor’s declining home values, and so much more. This community has lived the Geospatial Revolution, understands that “the location of anything is becoming everything,” and that this especially holds true for a Federal government responsible for people, programs and assets strewn across our nation and the world.

“Where” programs are implemented and the places that they are intended to impact often represent the single most important dimension of a public program. Unfortunately, the current, sad state of the institutions and policies governing the Federal government’s geospatial data and capabilities put Obama’s “place-based” planning and programming initiative at risk of failure. The Federal government lacks a functioning governance or operational structure to coordinate, deploy or utilize spatial data in a manner that could make “place-based” decision making effective. This fact has been documented in numerous studies and reports by Congress, the Government Accountability Office, the National Research Council and the National Academy of Public Administration. And, Richard Nixon is to blame.

This White House memo offers a sweeping vision of how to use “place” or location to focus public investment to achieve the most effective conceivable outcomes:

“Place-based policies leverage investments by focusing resources in targeted places and drawing on the compounding effect of well-coordinated action. Effective place-based policies can influence how rural and metropolitan areas develop, how well they function as places to live, work, operate a business, preserve heritage, and more. Such policies can also streamline otherwise redundant and disconnected programs.”

But, how is this supposed to be achieved when the management and operation of our “National Spatial Data Infrastructure” (as established in Executive Order 12906 in 1994, and OMB Circular A-16 in 2000) is splintered into a thousand pieces, and coordinated only by the Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), a creature of OMB, which successive administrations have virtually ignored? So unnoticed is the FGDC in the grand scheme of official Washington that at no time was it even asked to comment on the new White House “place-based” programming and budgeting initiative. As it was formulated by the National Economic Council, Domestic Policy Council, Office of Urban Affairs and Office of Management and Budget, the FGDC was not consulted to see whether the Federal government had the requisite geospatial technology, data and programmatic capability in place to succeed in this new initiative. Obama’s OMB has just signed on to the geospatially enabled management of the Federal government – something new in the history of western civilization. This will be an undertaking which has the potential to fundamentally remake how the public sector does business.

Once Peter Orzag (OMB), Melody Barnes (DPC), Adolfo Carrion (OUA), and Larry Summers (NEC) realize that their new place-based initiative is at risk of failure if something is not done soon with regard to the Federal geospatial operations and management, they might be well served to reflect upon the Nixon Administration. In 1973, OMB empanelled the Federal Task Force on Mapping, Charting, Geodesy and Surveying. This study team was convened on the heels of a defense and intelligence reorganization that resulted in the consolidation of place-based activities into the establishment of the Defense Mapping Agency (now known as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, NGA). The OMB Task Force concluded with a recommendation that the US establish a central civilian mapping, charting and geodesy agency, which it proposed be called the Federal Survey Administration (FSA). The decision memorandum to implement this reorganization was on President Nixon’s desk the day he resigned on August 8, 1974. Nixon signed his resignation first, and left the FSA memo in his in-box.

Geospatial technology and data have become so much more central to western industrial democracies than they were in 1974, rendering the idea of the FSA almost quaint. But, with Nixon’s failure to sign the Task Force memo before resigning, to this day we don’t even have an FSA. The American Federal geospatial domain is in disarray. Whether they know it or not, this disarray will directly impact the Obama Administration’s ability to realize its bold vision of place-based planning and programming. President Obama should finish what President Nixon didn’t. It is time for a new national geospatial governance structure in the Federal government.