State Dept’s Winning Hearts and Minds One Kindle at a Time Collapses …. Presently Dead

Back in July, we mentioned in passing in this blog the State Department’s contract to purchase lots of Kindles from Seattle’s Amazon.

You should hear the back story about that multimillion, excuse me, $16.5 million multi-year Kindle acquisition.  Secretary Clinton and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos were supposed to hold hands on the 7th floor, but it never happened.  I bet you want to know how come that’s indefinitely postponed. No, it’s not because she was traveling, silly!

Well, the indefinite postponement became permanent now. On August 15, fbo.gov published the cancellation of that no-bid contract:

Aug 15, 2012 4:00 pm
U.S. Department of State solicitation (Request for Proposals) SAQMMA12R0272 for Amazon e-Readers, Content Management, and Logistics is cancelled and the Justification and Approval (J&A) to award contract SAQMMA12D0131 on a sole-source basis is withdrawn. The Department of State intends to conduct additional market research and re-examine its requirements for this program.

The cancelled contract was for 2,500 e-readers at a cost of $16.5 million. This works out to what — $6,600 per Kindle, including content and support services? Wait – this is a one year plus four year option contract, so if our math is correct, approximately 12,500 Kindles at $1,320 each for five years. The most expensive Kindle to-date is a Kindle DX with free 3G at $379.

This contract was done on behalf of the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R). Yep, that would be under the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine who was appointed to “R” on April 5, 2012. But note that this is for overseas use, so this falls directly under the shop of Dawn L. McCall, the Coordinator of the Bureau of International Information Programs since July 2010.

Here is what the State Department says in its justification for a base year and four (4) one-year options con tract on a sole-source basis to Amazon:

The DoS has an ongoing, repetitive requirement for e-Readers and content meeting certain key specifications, including an immediate need for approximately 2,500 e-Readers and 50 titles of content. The DoS has identified the Amazon Kindle as the only e-Reader on the market that meets the Government’s needs, and Amazon as the only company possessing the essential capabilities required by the Government[...]

An identification of the statutory authority permitting other than full and open competition: 41 U.S.C. 253(c) (1) and FAR 6.302-1: only one responsible source and no other supplies or services will satisfy agency requirements.

A description of the market survey conducted and the results or a statement of the reasons a market survey was not conducted: See attached comparison matrix [Note - not attached in published document]. Other e-Readers such as the Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony Reader Daily and Kobe e-Reader cannot provide the text to speech requirement, the long-lasting battery life and the free Wi-Fi with a global network (which is a firm requirement since all devices are to be used overseas). Additionally, the portability and durability of the Kindle is unique, and is required by the government due to overseas shipment requirements and use in public facilities by students.

Although the Apple iPad offers features that meet many of the requirements of this project it falls under the tablet/computer segment versus a single function e-reader device. The additional features are not only unnecessary, but also present unacceptable security and usability risks for the government’s needs in this particular project. Critically, the Apple iPad falls short on two requirements: the centrally managed platform for registration and content delivery, and battery life.

Any other facts supporting the use of other than full and open competition: The Kindle has been identified as the only product that will meet the DoS’ requirements as part of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs’ (R’s) efforts to globally scale e-Reader use as a tool for the DoS’ English Access Microscholarship Program (ACCESS), and also placement in DoS’ many American Spaces housed in libraries, cultural centers, reading rooms and other partnership institutions such as Bi-National Centers. Recognizing the success of previous small scale Kindle pilot programs over other e-Reader purchases by Public Affairs Sections around the world, R would like to expand this success through a centralized mechanism to make it more cost effective for the DoS. Currently, the R family of bureaus coordinates information outreach and English language activities each year to more than 6 million young people in over 800 publicly accessible American spaces and local community centers overseas. Moreover, R was approved by the Under Secretary for Management to expand e-reader content and technology applications with Amazon and other private sector companies through public-private partnerships.

R sought approval for a public-private partnership because a coordinated public-private partnership to deploy e-reader devices with access to appropriate content in programs around the world would serve to underscore America’s image as a technology leader. Also, it would deliver USG and third party content efficiently and potentially more economically to global users. Ultimately, e-readers can provide timely access to U.S. news, literature, and information not possible under traditional “hard copy” procurement and distribution methods.

The Under Secretary for Management says it’s okay, and of course, it’s okay. Note that the justification did not indicate which other companies have been approved for expansion in this public-private partnerships.

We heard from somebody familiar with the dysfunctional going ons at “R” that this program was “not supported by project planning, only seat of the pants “this sounds good” thingee.

A seat of the pants operation at $16.5 million? Folks, that’s like 6 times more shocking than Peter Van Buren’s Chicken Shit in Iraq.

And with the cancellation of the contract, State now has to “conduct additional market research and re-examine its requirements”? But … but if the appropriate market research was conducted and requirements examined in the first place, why would anyone be conducting additional market research or re-examining the old ones just two months after the original contract was announced.

Because see — new e-readers and tablets are coming out fast and furious now, so it makes sense to do additional market research, right?  Maybe do one every quarter, you never know what kind of technology enhancements are available until you look, okay? (And a comparison matrix that’s actually attached to the Justification and Approval document, would be nice, too, right?)  Yeah, additional market research would make an excellent spin.

The Digital Reader inquired about this cancellation from the State Department and here is the response:

“The Department of State continues to pursue technology that enhances our ability to provide international audiences with relevant, real-time content on U.S. society, culture, and English language learning.  In order to conduct additional market research and further explore technological options for our public diplomacy programs, the Department of State opted on August 15 to end the Request for Proposals for the Amazon Kindle in favor of proceeding with a Request for Information (RFI) process. This action will open to all vendors the opportunity to respond to the Department’s requirements for a mobile learning program.”

But see — even with the cancellation of this contract, questions remain in our head and they’re giving us real tiny headaches.

U.S. Embassy trains Pakistani Librarians how to use e-readers as part of the Embassy’s continuing support of Pakistan’s libraries. In partnership with the Director of the National Library and Resource Center Mr. Zeeshan Khan U.S. Embassy officials trained local librarians on e-readers to use in their Lincoln reading rooms, which are supported, in part, by U.S. government funds.
(Photo via US Embassy Pakistan/Flickr)

We suspect that with the continuous push for “winning hearts and minds” in the frontline states, a good number of these e-readers will end up in Pakistan, for instance.  So for starters, what achievable goals are there for this program in Pakistan or wherever this is deployed? What kind of ROI is “R” looking at in an expensive program like this? What kind of impact will 12,500 Kindles or e-readers have in an information outreach to “more than 6 million young people in over 800 publicly accessible American spaces”? How effective will Kindle or e-reader outreach have in people to people diplomacy amidst the reality of drone undiplomacy in Pakistan’s border areas? The Pakistani youths will read American classics on an e-reader while their compatriots are being bombed, is that right?

And by the way, don’t you remember that the reason the US Embassy in Vietnam got itself some rather expensive mousepads was because it got iPads for use in the American Center where security reasons precluded the use of wireless Internet access? So no wi-fi in a country with no 4G service = really expensive iMousepad.

$16.5 effing million, pardon my French, is not pocket change. So, of course, somebody with a top pay grade in Foggy Bottom has looked at the project plan for this program and has already asked the hard questions. Right? Or they’re working on it or something …

Okay — so the next time the Secretary  is scheduled to hold hands with an e-reader CEO at the Seventh Floor to celebrate this public-private partnership, there will be no postponement so folks can write up talking points or conduct additional market research.

Oh look, there’s a new RFI on this e-reader initiative.  Response date required by September 21.  The new announcement includes 162 deployment locations, all overseas except for two.  E-reader deployment locations includes Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Eritrea where Amazon says “Unfortunately, we are currently unable to ship Kindles or offer Kindle content in …..” Remember that Kindle was originally selected for its wi-fi global network.  And it does not do some of these countries in the deployment location list. So who else can do it?  It also includes the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as another deployment location, where Amazon says, “You can download books to your computer and transfer them to your Kindle via USB. Kindle wireless is not currently available in your country.” Is the USG going to make additional “support” purchases like computers so folks with no access to computer can download the materials to their e-readers?

Here’s what we don’t get.  Does it make sense to send e-Readers to all four corners of the world, including the war zones and areas under civil strife, even when the information and telecom infrastructures are barely functioning? It does?

Damn, I’m getting an e-Headache.

Domani Spero

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2 Comments

Filed under Digital Diplomacy, Follow the Money, FS Blogs, Functional Bureaus, Govt Reports/Documents, Huh? News, Pakistan, Public Diplomacy, State Department, Technology and Work

2 responses to “State Dept’s Winning Hearts and Minds One Kindle at a Time Collapses …. Presently Dead

  1. JC- thanks for the note. I’m not against the e-reader initiative. I am questioning the way this was rolled out, how prepared was “R/IIP” in doing so and the reported poor planning accompanying this program.

    Wi-fi was not allowed in the American Center in Vietnam for security reasons. But wifi was also specifically mentioned in the J&A. So somebody at State thought it was a non-negotiable requirement. We’ll see what happens.

  2. jc

    I can’t comment about the selection of a vendor or the details of the contract – but after being initially skeptical I am now a fan of putting e-readers into our libraries (IRCs) and American Corners.

    There are a number of details to work out (shipping, content in languages other than English) – and imho availablity of wifi is a red herring (all libraries and American Corners should already have computers attached to the internet.) But the kindles are proving quite popular with our users – so popular that I’m on R&R in the US and I’m bringing back three for LES colleagues who want them for themselves. Some of this is the novelty effect, but that’s fine – show the world that we have great technology in our libraries.

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