Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

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?

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?

How far can the Chinese firewall stretch?

Steven Brill
Dec 31, 2012 18:11 UTC

1.    Media tug of war in China:

Last week, my daughter sent me this amazing Bloomberg.com story, accompanied by graphics and  clickable family trees, that unraveled how the “princeling” ancestors of China’s “Eight Immortals” – the generals and party leaders who built the communist superpower – now control the country’s leading industrial and financial conglomerates. The New York Times has also been on the case, detailing in articles like this one and this one how those controlling China’s national and regional governments have showered favors on their entrepreneurial relatives.

Then, last Friday the Times added a report describing heightened Internet blocking measures that Chinese authorities are taking to keep these kinds of stories about Chinese crony capitalism and other scandals from being seen online in China. The new efforts to firewall information that would embarrass the ruling class even include trying to block offending content from reaching the virtual private networks (VPNs) used by corporations to ensure the privacy and security of the information their employees transmit around the world.

It’s all fascinating, important stuff. But it’s only the opening rumble of what could be one of the major business and political stories of 2013. After all, this is the kind of information that threatens to overturn the implicit deal with the citizenry that the Communist Party rulers have depended on for the last two decades: let us rule and we won’t act like Communists when it comes to giving you economic opportunity.

Spy vs. spy at NYU, troop suicides, NYSE-Nasdaq wars

Steven Brill
Jun 12, 2012 13:04 UTC

1. Chen spy-versus-spy game:

I’m guessing there must be a fun, streets-of-New-York story about Chinese spies (maybe people from the Chinese U.N. delegation) following New York University’s most famous student, Chen Guangcheng, as he makes his way around Manhattan – and about how American security personnel are not only guarding Chen but also keeping tabs on those spies. This could, after all, be a good way of flushing out Chinese operatives in the U.S. And I’m wondering what steps and countersteps have been taken having to do with the security of Chen’s computer, cell phone and any other digital devices he uses to communicate with friends and followers.

2. Troop suicide surge: What happens to the families?

AP’s disheartening report that suicides among U.S. troops this year came at the rate of nearly one a day and outpaced combat deaths in Afghanistan raises the question of what benefits the families of these fallen soldiers get. Standard life insurance usually doesn’t cover suicides. What about death benefits for members of the military? What exactly are the benefits given to military families whose loved one dies while on active duty, whether through suicide or in battle?

And while we’re on the subject, if suicides are typically the result of mental illness, what are the policy arguments around whether they should be covered, in or outside the military?

Press-dinner proceeds, cat-and-mouse China reporting, testing the testers

Steven Brill
May 15, 2012 12:24 UTC

1. The White House Correspondents Dinner: How much for charity?

Two Sundays ago, Tom Brokaw used an appearance on Meet the Press to attack the increasingly over-the-top annual gathering of press, politicians and Hollywood stars and hangers-on known as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Brokaw called it “an event that separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve. It is time to re-think it.” Incoming correspondents’ association president Ed Henry of Fox News quickly tweeted back that the dinner, which featured among other celebs Kim Kardashian, “raises TON of $ for needy kids who might not get into journalism w/out help.”

Really? The association’s website lists just $78,000 for 15 scholarships in 2012, plus one scholarship whose amount is not listed. Assuming it’s about $6,000 (a bit above the average for the other 15 scholarships), that would be $84,000 in scholarships. Plus, there’s a $30,000 grant listed for a high school mentoring program. Yet this year’s dinner, according to an association board member, sold “nearly” 2,700 seats at $250 each to various media companies. That would raise over $650,000 for the dinner, compared with what, again, looks like $84,000 for scholarships and $30,000 for mentoring. That’s a total of $114,000.

Moreover, on the page where the website lists the scholarships, the correspondents’ association names 18 donors who are thanked for their “generosity.” The donors include Bloomberg, Time Inc and Thomson Reuters, and they seem to have given to the scholarship fund apart from buying dinner tables, or at least the website makes it appear that way. If so, wouldn’t these deep pockets have already come up with some or all of that $114,000 “TON of $” before the dinner was even held? That’s only a donation of about $6,000 each. Which would mean that the revenue from the dinner had little or nothing to do with the scholarships.

Cable conflicts, BlackBerry’s demise and China’s millionaires

Steven Brill
Apr 3, 2012 12:49 UTC

1. Disclosure on cable news shows:

When talking heads come on the cable-TV news shows to support their causes and attack the opposition, are there any standards imposed by their host networks for disclosing conflicts of interest?

Here’s an excerpt from a statement put out by the conservative Koch Industries the week before last complaining about MSNBC:

On March 23, while guest hosting the Martin Bashir program, Karen Finney accused Koch of a connection with the tragic circumstances surrounding the Trayvon Martin matter. ”Who was the Typhoid Mary for this horrible outbreak,” Finney asked. She then stated, ”It’s the usual suspects the Koch brothers … the same people who stymied gun regulation at every point who funded and ghost write these laws.” Because we saw this dishonest story line developing and were concerned other extremists would pick it up, we put out a public statement the day before Ms. Finney’s rant explaining that this story line was totally false and irresponsible. First, Koch has had no involvement in this legislation … You should also be aware that on March 26, Ms. Finney signed and sent a letter on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee soliciting political contributions. Yet, she is presented to viewers as a “political analyst” and not as a paid fundraising operative for the Democratic party, as would be accurate.

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