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What Sunk the State Dept’s $16.5 Million Kindle Acquisition? A Complaint. Plus Missing Overall Goals

—By Domani Spero

Remember that $16.5 million multi-year Kindle acquisition that almost happened under the auspices of the IIP Bureau in August last year? (See State Dept’s Winning Hearts and Minds One Kindle at a Time Collapses …. Presently Dead). Well, it turned out that while the no-bid contract for 2,500 e-readers at a cost of $16.5 million had been cancelled, IIP had actually already deployed a first batch of 2,000 eReaders to overseas posts.  The OIG inspection report did not say how much that first batch of eReaders cost, or how much was the contract for the content. The report does include the reason why that sole source contract was cancelled, the real  reason not the spin. Below an excerpt from the OIG report on the IIP Bureau:

Mobile Learning Initiative

Senior PD leadership conceived an initiative to provide eReaders to embassies and American Spaces. IIP would purchase the devices and the content by contract, benefiting from an economy of scale, and deliver eReaders to embassies. However, the embassies had no input in planning the initiative. IIP delivered the first batch of 2,000 eReaders to embassies without advance notice or procedures in place to register the devices and download content, which took significant staff time, especially in regions with poor electronic infrastructure. IIP learned from these mistakes, and a second batch included preregistered devices. Despite these difficulties, some IROs found creative ways to use the devices in programming. Others, in countries with advanced technology, commented that their audiences were not interested in devices without the latest in touch-screen technology. The consensus among IROs was that if they had been consulted in advance, they could have contributed to more effective PD use of eReaders.

When asked about the cancellation of the Amazon sole-source contract, this is what the State Department told the Digital Reader last year:

“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.”

In fact, the real reason for its cancellation according to the OIG report is a protest from an unnamed organization citing non-compliance of the selected eReader with Section 508 requirements. It did not help that the eReader initiative also did not have an overall goal besides handing the Kindles out.

Last year, somebody familiar with the dysfunctional going ons at the “R” Bureau told us that this program was “not supported by project planning,” only seat of the pants “this sounds good” thingee. Below is an excerpt from the OIG report:

As the bureau was planning the second phase of the initiative, an organization protested the Department’s sole-source solicitation for the project, asserting that the selected eReader is not compliant with Section 508 requirements pertaining to information access for persons with disabilities. The Department retracted the solicitation, and the bureau spent several months reevaluating its approach. By March 2013, the bureau had changed the initiative’s goal to focus strictly on providing digital content to eReaders. This approach gives greater flexibility to embassies in determining the appropriate eReader technology for their region. However, the new plans are still vague on the initiative’s overall goals. The bureau does not have specific objectives to define success or a timeline to shift from an initiative requiring increasing resources each year to a program with predictable demands and a regular budget. These objectives are essential to measure the success of the initiative and to provide oversight.

Recommendation 32: The Bureau of International Information Programs should implement a plan for the eReader learning initiative that includes measurable goals. (Action: IIP)

IIP has supplied 2,000 eReader devices to embassies around the world. These devices must be tracked and managed to avoid loss or theft. The bureau’s Office of Research and Evaluation asked embassies to report on the eReaders in their possession, but not all embassies responded. The office is focusing on the question of replacement rate, not of responsibility for managing Department property. Furthermore, the existing property management system for IT does not easily include eReaders in embassy inventories. Some embassies have created their own tracking solutions, but these cannot address the question of central property management.

Recommendation 33: The Bureau of International Information Programs should create a property management plan for bureau-supplied eReader devices currently in embassies. (Action: IIP)

The Clinton-Bezos global launch of the Kindle Mobile Learning Initiative was supposed to happen on June 20, 2012. It was postponed for later rescheduling.  The event was never rescheduled and was very quietly forgotten.

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