Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

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.

It turns out that the lead Kentucky contractor — Deloitte Consulting — did a great job, and its team worked perfectly in synch with the state officials supervising them. But that seems to be more a matter of good luck than a procurement process designed to produce teamwork and accountability. Imagine a private corporation picking a supplier to work on a key project without the executive supervising the project being allowed to meet the supplier’s team leader first.

I’m assuming that’s what happened in Washington at the Department of Health and Human Services. As with most states, federal procurement regulations require a walled-off selection process intended to prevent corruption by having mid-level civil servants rather than higher-ranking officials, who are often political appointees, make these big-money choices.

Congress’s friendly skies, and battle of the dumb lawyers

Steven Brill
Mar 12, 2013 12:42 UTC

1.   Air Congress:

As a snowstorm threatened Washington, D.C., last Wednesday night, there were TV news reports showing members of the House hustling down the Capitol steps so they could get to the airport to catch flights home. This reminded me of something I’ve been curious about for a while.

Several years ago, when I was doing reporting for a book on the aftermath of 9/11 about how the airlines lobbied Congress to block airport security initiatives that they thought would be too onerous, I was told that each airline has a travel agency-like staff in Washington that is an adjunct of its lobbying office. Its sole purpose, one airline lobbyist told me, is to assist members of the House and Senate with their weekly trips home and back. These staffers get the call if a legislator has to change flights because of a last-minute vote.

That sounds innocent enough, but does it mean that someone else gets bumped off a full flight? What kind of other special arrangements, if any, do these airline facilitators make for our legislators that help them avoid the hassles of modern air travel faced by their constituents? How “white glove” is this service?

Electoral legal minefields, baseball contracts, and airline woes

Steven Brill
Oct 16, 2012 10:26 UTC

1. The Election Day legal battlefield:

We need all kinds of coverage of the legal Armageddon that we may face on Election Day and the morning after.

Assuming the election stays close, there could be multiple swing states in play, with voter identification and provisional balloting rules so much in flux that the multi-court, multi-issue legal war we suffered through in Florida in 2000 will look simple by comparison.

For example, voting in Ohio in 2008 was marred by all kinds of confusion and fights over thousands of ballots, but the battle ended on election night because President Obama pulled ahead of Senator McCain in the state by such a wide margin that the contested ballots would not have been decisive. This time, Ohio is likely to be much closer, and even with a federal judge having thus far enjoined implementation of new, Republican-sponsored early voting restrictions, confusion persists and the state’s election machinery seems no less subject to breakdowns and disputes than it was in 2008.

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