Ambassador Michael Punke’s ‘The Revenant’ — on NYT Best Sellers For 9th Week

Posted: 7:31 pm EDT
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Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s movie  The Revenant has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards in this year’s Oscars including Actor in a Leading Role for Leonardo DiCaprio, Actor in a Supporting Role Tom Hardy, and directing and best picture.  The New York Times writes that among the hopeful novelists who will be closely watching Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, only one has negotiated a $1.3 trillion global trade deal. The NYT is talking about Michael Punke, the deputy United States Trade Representative and the United States ambassador to the World Trade Organization. He is the author of the 2002 novel “The Revenant” which inspired the movie. The book  sold around 15,000 copies after it was first published according to NYT.  It had apparently been out of print before the movie started shooting but a new hardcover came out in 2015. “The Revenant” has reportedly sold more than half a million copies, and Picador has reprinted the book 21 times.

Ambassador Punke was originally nominated by President Obama as Deputy Trade Representative – Geneva, Office of the United States Trade Representative in 2009. He was recess appointed in 2010 and finally confirmed by the Senate in the fall of 2011 (also see Deputy USTR Ambassador Michael Punke’s The Revenant: Now a Movie With Leonardo DiCaprio).

Due to his government position, he reportedly can’t give any interviews about the book, or even sign copies. The NYT says that “Federal ethics rules prohibit him from any activities that would be “self-enriching” or could be seen as an abuse of his post.”  The Office of Government Ethics has a handout relating to book deals and government employees (PDF), and a pretty complex guidelines for particularly covered noncareer (CNC) employees and Presidential appointees to full-time noncareer positions (PA).

It took 14 years but on the week of January 17, 2016, the book hit #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers and has remained on the list for the last 9 weeks.  Enjoy the excerpt courtesy of Amazon/Kindle Instant Preview:

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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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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