Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

The Oracle Oregon fiasco, crying wolf on an Obamacare tax, and anointing the ‘Politico 50′

Steven Brill
Dec 31, 2013 16:01 UTC

1. The Oracle Oregon fiasco:

We all know by now that the dominant story line of the Obamacare website’s failed launch is that the federal government is terrible at doing high-tech projects — let alone one that involves the e-commerce wizardry that has made Silicon Valley the envy of the world.

But it turns out that one state exchange to sell Obamacare insurance plans has had an even more disastrous launch than the 36-state HealthCare.gov. It’s CoverOregon.com — the website for the Oregon exchange.

In fact, as this Associated Press story notes, last week state officials cancelled an advertising campaign to get people to sign up at CoverOregon.com because the website still isn’t up and running.

But Oregon didn’t rely on a bunch of bureaucrats to supervise its launch. Far from it. The state farmed the entire project out to … drumroll … Oracle, one of the crown jewels of hi-tech America. The company’s chief executive officer, Larry Ellison, perpetually appears near the top of the Forbes 400 list (he’s number three this year) and was eagerly available to the press when he financed his successful America’s Cup entry last fall, at the same time that the website was supposedly being finished.

Nick Budnick of the Oregonian has been all over this story, but the Oregon/Oracle fiasco has escaped the national attention it deserves. And Budnick has been unable to get Oracle to provide any comment.

MSNBC’s book promotion machine, helping Dasani, and profiling Eric Schneiderman

Steven Brill
Dec 24, 2013 11:53 UTC

1. MSNBC’s book promotion machine:

Lately it seems as if it must be written into MSNBC anchors’ contracts that if he or she writes a book, no matter how related to current news, the anchor will get endless opportunities to promote it on the cable channel’s air.

The most blatant example is “Hardball”’s Chris Matthews, who recently came out with Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked — about how the friendship between then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan supposedly produced productive, bipartisan governing during the Reagan years.

Since Matthews’ book was published in October (in fact, even in the weeks leading up to its publication) whenever there has been a story about Washington gridlock — which is just about always — MSNBC has used it as a pretext to feature Matthews on its various shows talking about how things were different in the good old O’Neill-Reagan days, when Matthews was O’Neill’s chief of staff

Profiling John Miller, the Snowden dilemma, and options for national security whistleblowers

Steven Brill
Dec 17, 2013 12:26 UTC

1. Profiling John Miller:

This story  in the Huffington Post last week speculated that CBS News senior correspondent John Miller might be appointed to run the New York City Police Department’s counterterrorism unit, now that Bill Bratton has been named police commissioner by Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio.

The story makes sense. Miller and Bratton are close friends and Bratton had Miller running counterterrorism in Los Angeles when he was police chief there. Miller — who began his career in the 1970s as a reporter for local New York City TV outlets before being promoted to the networks — had served as the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public affairs during Bratton’s first tour running the NYPD in 1994. And just before coming to CBS in 2011 he had held senior positions at the FBI and in the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

But here’s why CBS should do everything possible to make sure Miller doesn’t leave — and why a newspaper or magazine editor would be smart to assign a profile of him: If major league television news organizations named a Most Valuable Player the way baseball does, Miller would get the honor this year, hands down.

Behind a legislative triumph, Mandela memorial security, and a question for Politico

Steven Brill
Dec 10, 2013 11:28 UTC

1. Behind a legislative triumph:

According to this article in the Capitol Hill newspaper the Hill, the House is poised this week to pass legislation that relates to three controversial issues: the federal budget, airport security, and funds for the military. Yet the bill is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 43 House members.

Does this bipartisan breakthrough signal an end to Washington gridlock? Hardly. In fact, the bill seems more like it was drafted by Saturday Night Live scriptwriters looking for a new way to make fun of Congress.

The law, spearheaded by Republican Congressman Jeff Miller of Florida, doesn’t amount to much more than loose change. Literally.

A video game called ‘School Shooting,’ backing the video gaming industry, and a qualified lawyer on hold

Steven Brill
Dec 3, 2013 12:30 UTC

1. Is there really a game called “School Shooting”?

Last week, the Connecticut State’s Attorney issued his official report  about the shooting a year ago at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. On page 26 the State’s Attorney noted that among other video games found in the home of murderer Adam Lanza was: “The computer game titled ‘School Shooting’ where the player controls a character who enters a school and shoots at students.”

Is there really such a game? The CBS-owned website Gamespot, which covers news related to video-gaming, reported two days later that, “The ‘School Shooting’ game is somewhat of a mystery. In the 44-page Sandy Hook report released this week, no details are provided regarding who made the game or where it can be purchased or downloaded.”

I hope someone is working on that mystery.

2. “Advocating” for video games?

While trying to learn more about the School Shooting game I came across the website of a trade group called the Entertainment Consumers Association, which represents the video gaming industry. Its “Advocacy” page led last week with the good news that the State’s Attorney’s report did not directly link video games to the Sandy Hook massacre (though the report did spend a lot of space listing all the violent games found in Lanza’s home).

Picking government contractors, high-flying Dubai, and a dubious drug on the market

Steven Brill
Nov 26, 2013 10:34 UTC

1. Who picks the contractors?

In the wake of the failed launch of Healthcare.gov there has been some spectacular insider coverage, particularly by the Washington Post and New York Times, of the failure of the private contractors to deliver what they promised when they won the assignments to build the federal insurance exchange. But while there has been some mention of problems with the contract procurement process itself (focusing on the notion that in Washington the IT providers who win the contracts are better at winning IT contracts than at doing cutting-edge IT), one piece of the story has so far been missing: Who actually decided to award the Healthcare.gov contract to CGI and the others who shared the work? And on exactly what basis?

We know the winners had invested heavily over the years to get on a list of pre-qualified companies who could bid on contracts like this one, a tortuous process that the best and brightest technology companies outside the Beltway typically don’t bother with because they have too much more rewarding work to do in the private sector, where the bidding process is more straightforward. But we still haven’t gotten a good picture of who in the government runs these processes.

I know from some reporting I’ve done recently that in Kentucky, to take one example, the contractor that won the job to build that state’s Obamacare website was chosen by a committee that did not include the person who was actually in charge of building the Kentucky exchange. In other words, the person who would supervise the outside vendor, and whose career depended on whether the contractor did a good job, had nothing to do with picking the contractor. In fact, I’m told that the official in charge of the website didn’t meet the leader of the contracting team until after the choice was made.

Timing the capitol bloviators, the French as the tough guys, and Wal-Mart’s reputation

Steven Brill
Nov 19, 2013 12:21 UTC

1. Timing the capitol bloviators:

Watching the spate of committee hearings on Capitol Hill related to the Obamacare launch debacle reminds me of a story — or, rather, an ongoing type of coverage — that I wish the Washington Post, Politico or even C-Span would do: Keep count of the percentage of time each senator or congressman talks versus the amount of time the witnesses, whose appearances are ostensibly the purpose of the hearings, get to talk.

A sub-tally might also be done of how much of the committee member’s time is spent even asking a question, as opposed to giving a speech.

At most hearings each committee member is usually allotted five minutes to question the witness. My informal count of what I’ve watched over the past few weeks had the members hogging three to four minutes each, sometimes more.

Finding Obamacare’s authors; assessing J&J’s CEO culpability; and grading Chris Christie

Steven Brill
Nov 12, 2013 11:48 UTC

1. Finding the folks who wrote Obamacare:

As I report a story I am writing about Obamacare, it’s become clear to me that — as we are already seeing with the controversy over people getting their insurance plans dropped — there are all kinds of issues related to provisions in the massive law that are bound to get lots more attention once the website is working. A few weeks ago in this column, for example, I mentioned the as-yet-little-noticed high penalties that smokers will have to pay.

As with the smoking penalty, many of these issues are related to narrow provisions that are hard to spot in a 906-page law. But as someone who has now read those 906 pages I can also report that, in addition to the substantive issues likely to become bigger deals as the law is implemented, there are also potholes soon to come because the law is filled with inconsistencies, gaps, and just plain wording errors. More generally, even for legal writing, it’s badly constructed and seems written to torment even someone who is used to reading legislation.

With that in mind, I recently asked a senior Senate staff person who was heavily involved in designing the law who the person or persons who actually wrote it are, and how I might track them down for an interview. His answer: “Senate Legislative Counsel. They don’t talk to anyone.”

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

Steven Brill
Oct 29, 2013 13:27 UTC

1. Breaking procurement rules to fix Healthcare.gov?

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 Healthcare.gov 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?

A refund for Healthcare.gov, European lobbyists, and A-Rod’s curious supporters

Steven Brill
Oct 22, 2013 13:47 UTC

1. Can we get our money back for the failure of Healthcare.gov?

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal scored a scoop of sorts, getting the first interview with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius since her ill-fated appearance on “The Daily Show.” She addressed the failure of her Healthcare.gov website to function as the enrollment marketplace for the 36 states that are having the federal government operate their Obamacare insurance exchanges, instead of doing exchanges on their own.

The Journal quoted Sebelius as saying “she would see if the government was entitled to any refunds, once the work is done.” With $400 million having been spent on outside contractors for the collapsed website, reporters ought to follow up on that aggressively.

Government contractors usually escape responsibility for cost overruns, lapsed schedules or downright failure to produce a product that works by claiming, rightly or wrongly, that the instructions they were given destined the project for failure, were not explicit enough, or were changed midway through the work. In the case of Healthcare.gov, the Statement of Work instructing the lead contractor, CGI Federal, was 60 pages, single-spaced. So lack of detail may not be a great defense. But were the instructions poorly conceived — or changed in a way that caused the current fiasco? Or are other factors responsible for the failure, making it unlikely that we taxpayers can get some of our money back?

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