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5 Reasons Why the White House Response to the Death Star Petition Was Genius

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Back in November 2012, someone posted on the White House’s “We The People” site petitioning the federal government to secure funding and resources to build a Death Star by 2016. We The People is an online petition website that allows any citizen to make a suggestion, and if it receives 25,000 votes, the White House will issue an official response. The Death Star petition reached 25,000 votes in December and one month later, the White House issued their response.

Picture of the Death Star from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

The Death Star would cost how much? Yikes

Here are 5 reasons why I thought the response was brilliant:

1. They Played Along

Kudos to the White House for embracing and adding more Star Wars references. There were mentions of

  • Blowing up planets
  • Having a flaw that can be exposed by a one-man starship
  • Luke’s robotic arm
  • The power of the Force

How many government agencies would have responded with “we are not familiar with the term ‘Death Star’ and therefore are unable to properly respond to this petition.” Probably a lot.

2. It was Informal

One lesson from social media is that it’s okay to be informal sometimes. People like interacting with other human beings more than a dry, soulless organization. It’s refreshing to see government be clever, witty, and funny.

The second paragraph begins with “…look carefully and you’ll notice something floating in the sky – that’s no Moon, it’s a Space Station!” Reading this sentence makes you feel like the author is actually talking to you.

Not only was it written with a playful voice, they even linked to a photo of President Obama wielding a toy light saber.

3. It was Informative

Not only was the response witty and playful, it was also very informative. The author saw this as an opportunity to educate the reader with relevant articles and programs. There were several links to government and non-government projects to get the reader excited about what is currently happening in space. I bet most readers learned something new.

4. They Promoted Others

Another important lesson from social media is that it’s not always about you. The White House was happy to promote other programs that they thought the reader would find useful, giving readers a more complete picture of what is happening in the industry. In addition to the many NASA programs, they also link to a private sector project with a mission to put more humans on the moon and DARPA projects to build floating droids.

There’s even a reference to a study that estimated the cost of a Death Star to be more than $850,000,000,000,000,000.

5. They Ended On a Positive Note

It’s difficult to draw something positive out of such an outrageous petition that was obviously a joke, but the White House pulled it off. Instead of just listing evidence to why this is a terrible idea, they ended with an encouraging message.

The second to last paragraph says “We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field.”

____

Despite the brilliance of the response, there is something that doesn’t sit well with me: I couldn’t find the article on We The People. Of course, if you use a search engine, the article shows up at the top and there are plenty of technology and government blogs that link to it, but if you start from the We The People homepage, it’s very difficult to navigate to the response (I couldn’t do it but someone else probably could). It’s as if the White House is purposely trying to hide it from accidental visits.

Even the title of the response is extremely vague. It’s called “This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For.”

Despite the fact that it’s hidden, I still have to applaud the author for a brilliant and refreshing response. This is a great example of what government can be: clever, in-touch, educational, and inspiring all at the same time.

Netflix/Qwikster is Pure Genius

September 21, 2011 Leave a comment

What do you do if you run a highly successful company with two business lines; one extremely profitable but the other, not so much? Your customers still enjoy both products, but it’s increasingly difficult to advance the first if you have to keep pumping cash to sustain the second.

The obvious answer is, you get rid of the one that’s floundering and reinvest in the one that’s flourishing. Yes, there will be backlash from people who like the second, but you know that in the long term, it’s the right thing to do.

This is the exact situation confronting Netflix, a company that provides media through on-demand streaming services (boom) and DVDs through the mail (bust). Until recently. In a highly controversial decision, Netflix announced it is spinning off the DVD mail-in service to a completely different company called Qwikster. Netflix was qwikly reprimanded for the move, with critics disapproving of

  • A name that resembles other startups that died off, such as Friendster and Napster
  • A Twitter handle @qwikster that was already taken by someone who posts about taking a shower and getting stung by a bee
  • A name that can easily be misspelled, which hurts brand recognition
  • The second fee hike this year (only to the mail service, not to the streaming)

Could a savvy business man who brought the Blockbuster juggurnaut to its knees suddenly be so dim-witted to rebrand a business with a silly, childish name? Perhaps. Unless he was trying to kick Qwikster to the curb so he can focus on the other business line that he actually cares about.

Here’s my prediction: Qwikster will fail. Netflix will improve. To the point that people who love DVD by mail won’t care for it anymore because streaming will be sufficient.

Netflix’s biggest threat isn’t disgruntled users who huff and puff about fee hikes and inconvenient billing setups. Their biggest threat is competitors in the content streaming market. Big competitors with deep pockets and clear advantages.

  • Hulu Plus offers TV shows a day after they air
  • Amazon Instant is bundled with Amazon Prime
  • Apple iTunes has its own software platform and hardware devices
  • TimeWarner gets movies the same day as DVD releases
  • Android Market is backed by internet giant Google
  • Vudu, a streaming media company is backed by retail giant Walmart

Netflix’s advantage is in brand recognition and an already large customer base. But if it doesn’t improve its deficiencies soon, one of these other giants will overtake them with relative ease. They knew that if they had to keep sinking cash into a destructively expensive operation like mailing physical DVDs, where

  • the cost of postage keeps increasing,
  • the number of DVDs keep expanding, and
  • the overhead costs never diminish

they’ll be sunk faster than you can say Alta Vista. But now that they put all their eggs into one content streaming basket, the likelihood of success greatly increases, despite the short term criticism from upset customers.

So was it the right move to ditch the DVD mail-in service? Definitely.

 

Can government learn something from this move? Obviously, government can’t get rid of important services just because it’s antiquated and incredibly costly to maintain. Government could save a lot of money if they closed down brick and mortar field offices and mandate citizens to conduct business online, but they can’t.

However, has government done a careful analysis of the cost-effectiveness of their programs? Yes, we have many performance measures and benchmarks, but do they translate to useful metrics that help us better manage our programs? In many cases, yes, but in many cases, probably not. Government still sinks way too much money into outdated, costly behemoths and not enough into newer, more cost-effective technologies. It’s certainly easier to talk about efficiency and effectiveness than to actually do it, but there are steps government can do to better manage how it allocates resources. We might be scornfully criticized in the short term, but in the long term, it might be the right thing to do.