Breaking procurement rules to fix, the Red Cross and Sandy, and Westerners choking in China

October 29, 2013

1. Breaking procurement rules to fix

In the weeks immediately following the failure of the federal government’s Obamacare exchange website, policy wonks who were inclined to attach larger meaning to the fiasco than the simple incompetence of those in charge pointed to how difficult and time-consuming government procurement is.

That’s why, according to this rationale, the same folks who were so inventive and effective in building campaign websites and mounting digital donation and get-out-the-vote campaigns couldn’t do the same when it came to launching their president’s highest-priority governing initiative.

Well, if the government’s rules are so constricting that nothing can be done leanly or quickly, how is it that the president was able to hire a new czar, Jeffrey Zients, last Tuesday, and have him on the job that afternoon — whereupon within 48 hours he had in turn hired Quality Software Services, Inc. to be the general contractor overseeing all the fixes?

How could all of that have happened so fast? Did the president use some kind of special emergency authority? If so, why couldn’t he have used it to bolster the effort to build the website in June or July when, by what is now almost everyone’s account, it became obvious that hitting the October 1 start date with the current talent and resources in place was going to be a problem?

How did Quality Software’s contract get negotiated in what must have been 24 or 48 hours? Is it a new contract, or an urgent extension of its existing contract to build some of the website’s features? How much is the firm getting paid, and on what basis, using what funds? Or is the contract not negotiated yet? And what about all the other (as yet un-named) members of what the administration calls a “tech surge” team, who are reportedly taking leaves from private sector jobs to help fix the website? Do they have contracts? What about Zients?

Again, knowing what the president and his team did to get past all of those stifling rules once they realized they had a disaster on their hands might tell us what they could have done before the disaster hit.

2. Counting the Red Cross’s Hurricane Sandy money:

As we mark the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, it’s time for a report on whether the Red Cross did better spending all the donations it received for that disaster than it did with the hundreds of millions it collected following the September 11 terrorist attacks. As I wrote in this column the week after the hurricane, “In the months after 9/11, the Red Cross demonstrated that it was great at providing immediate relief such as blankets, food and short-term shelter, but it really wasn’t in the business of providing costlier long-term aid, such as help for people to rebuild homes and businesses. Thus, after $850 million in 9/11 contributions had poured into the organization, far surpassing what it could spend handing out blankets and sandwiches and setting up shelters, a mini-scandal unfolded when it was revealed that much of the money people thought they were donating to victims of the terror attacks was in fact being socked away” for other Red Cross projects or was just sitting in the charity’s bank accounts.

What happened this time?

3. Recruiting Westerners to choke in China:

This idea comes from my daughter Emily, who is studying in Beijing, and wrote a story for the website ChinaFile about the Chinese air pollution crisis while home this summer. She compared Beijing’s air, unfavorably, to the air at Ground Zero right after 9/11.

So with pollution levels once again rising to crisis levels across China and making headlines around the world, how is the toxic air in the world’s most burgeoning economy affecting the ability of major Western employers, such as investment banks and conglomerates, to send executives to work there?

How much do these employers disclose about the air and its dangers? Are they concerned that too much said about the air will offend their Chinese hosts? Are they offering any new perks or other inducements to get employees, especially those with families, to take the risk?

And what about the Chinese study-abroad programs run by Western universities? How carefully do they warn students of the danger? Has enrollment been affected?

PHOTO: A woman wears a mask as she does her morning exercise outdoors in Fuyang, Anhui province, January 14, 2013. REUTERS/China Daily 


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The story I’d like to see is this guy getting a real job.
You do have editors right Reuters? SO why give this guy space a real journalist or even professional blogger might fill?

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

As someone heavily experienced in managing information technology projects, I am appalled at the gross incompentence of management of this program. A number of very basic precepts of development and testing were skipped or ignored with the very predictable result of a botched implementation. Who cares if Plan D was botched by the Bush Administration? If they learned from it, it wouldn’t have happened again. Just because Billy Boy has gotten away with releasing untested crap to the public for years (costing this country hundreds of billions in lost productivity), does not provide an excuse for others to follow.

Hint: Don’t follow the bad example of lame project management portrayed by The Rump on “Celebrity Apprentice”. There are thousands of successful, professional project managers and information technology developers who can lend a hand (and most of them are NOT in Silicon Valley.)

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Some people have long confused the roles of the Red Cross versus FEMA. So, what if most of the funds donated for 9/11 went to other Red Cross projects? This was no secret. What’s the issue? Are victims of 9/11 more important than the millions of other people who have suffered from a variety of disasters?

When Walmart* showed up with convoys of trucks the first week after Hurricane Katrina – long before FEMA – does anyone question whether this was appropriate?

One has to understand the motivation behind this criticism. Are we now to question the mission of the Red Cross?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

This is a strange and ineffective format for transmitting information with three disparate subjects. Is this a simple demonstration of the ability to multi-task? As an exercise in journalism it is a clear demonstration of ineffectiveness for a variety of reasons that should be obvious.

Stop it!

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive


Have you read Bitter Pill, or Class Warfare? I think they’re first rate. What’s your real issue, Brill has a legitimate outlet for his work, and you can only go trolling in the comments field?!?

Posted by Andvari | Report as abusive

I don’t like the format at all. He is a very good writer and I’m sure his books are excellent. I don’t like people that “ask the right questions” and never commit to anything themselves though. I see them all the time in mid-level executive management. I would much rather see Mr. Brill write a complete op-ed and actually do the research instead of lightly touching on it and asking others to do the real work.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive


I think every PMP in the country is saying the same thing. Every new disaster from these bozos has me scanning the relevant pages from Mythical Man Month and emailing them to my kids. From what little I can get on actual structure tells me this will not be solved by throwing more Sun boxes running Oracle at it. This is not a technology failure, this is policy management failure directly at the top.

CBSnews does seem to be pursuing this a good bit more aggressively than Reuters: 0719/wh-docs-paper-applications-for-obam acare-were-problematic-too/ 7610620/obamacare-memo-reveals-health-ca re-adviser-warned-w.h-was-losing-control -3-years-ago/

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

ptiffany; “One has to understand the motivation behind this criticism. Are we now to question the mission of the Red Cross?” After 911, if the Red Cross would have come out and stated “Donate to the Red Cross in remembrance of the victims, but we will use the money for other needs,” I do not believe they would have gotten that amount of donations. People donated that money at that time to specifically help those families. So, this was a slightly disingenuous way to solicit donations. But, I am sure it is going to good use in the Philippines for blankets, food and water.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive