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is cancelled and the Justification and Approval (J&A) to award contract SAQMMA12D0131 on a sole-source basis is withdrawn.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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State/OIG: US Mission Vietnam — One Mission, One Team, Well, Sort Of

Several weeks back, State/OIG released its inspection report of the US Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The US Ambassador to Vietnam is career diplomat, David Shear who arrived at post in August 2011. The Consul General at Ho Chi Minh City is An T. Le who arrived at post in August 2010. The Consular Chief in Hanoi is Deborah Fairman who arrived at Embassy Hanoi in August 2009 and became section chief in July 2011, according to the OIG report. The Consular Chief at CG Ho Chi Minh City is not named in the report.

The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between September 7 and 27, 2011; in Hanoi, Vietnam, between October 20 and November 2, 2011, and between November 19 and 21, 2011; and in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, between November 2 and 18, 2011. The names of the members of the inspection team have been redacted.

U.S. Ambassador David Shear opens safe medicine exhibition in Hanoi
(Photo from USAID Vietnam/Flickr)

Some of the key judgments, so very well couched you got to read between the lines:

  • The Ambassador in Hanoi, the consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, and their respective deputies, should be at the forefront of an effort to more effectively coordinate embassy and consulate general operations. Increasing and formalizing regular, planned working visits of American and local employees between the two posts are a necessary step.
  • Embassy Hanoi’s reporting is generally comprehensive and of high quality, although staffing gaps and the loss of a position have adversely affected Hanoi’s output. Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City has not reported frequently enough or in sufficient detail on the official activities, meetings and policy views of the consul general.
  • Overall management operations at Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City are effective, although stronger cooperation and teamwork between the two are necessary.
  • The need for heightened involvement by embassy management in the mission’s management controls program is evident. Management control procedures at both Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City need to be carefully reviewed to ensure that employees at every level are fully aware of their responsibility for ensuring that controls are in place to protect assets and to avoid any perception of conflict of interest.

    U.S. Consul General Le An at Long An Province during a visit to USAID flood relief beneficiaries
    (Photo from USAID Vietnam/Flickr)

Ambassador Shear arrived at post about couple months before this OIG inspection.  The previous Chief of Mission at US Embassy Hanoi was career FSO, Michael W. Michalak who left post on February 14, 2011. Some of the finer points from the report:

  • The Ambassador also has engaged decisively with the embassy’s sole constituent post: the large and influential Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). On his introductory visit to Ho Chi Minh City, the Ambassador stressed to the American and Vietnamese staff that, as Chief of Mission, he values the important role of the consulate general and expects the embassy and consulate general staffs to function as “one mission, one team.” His message was especially welcome in view of a number of legacy issues, including Ho Chi Minh City’s continuing role as the economic and commercial hub of the entire country, the persistent cultural and historical differences between Vietnam’s North and South, and the symbolic significance that today’s consulate general is located on the site of the former embassy.
  • Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City, until recently, have operated more like two, separate missions than one, cohesive entity. The embassy has not provided, nor has the consulate general sought, regular guidance as to how the two posts can best operate together. With the arrival of new staff in summer 2011, both the embassy and the consulate general have started thinking about ways to project a “one mission, one team” face to the government and people of Vietnam and to the respective mission staffs. A necessary step to improving the mission’s cohesiveness will be increasing and formalizing a process whereby American and local employees conduct working visits between the two posts, for consultations and training.

There is no “I” in team, and hey, what about those pol reports?

  • The consul general is fluent in Vietnamese and has a deep understanding of the host country’s culture and norms. However, he only infrequently writes cables regarding his meetings outside the consulate general. It is important that he include other officers in all meetings related to political and economic affairs, human rights, the environment, energy, adoption concerns, treatment of minorities, and other matters relevant to their respective portfolios. The expertise of these officers should be called upon, even if it means relying on interpreters in some situations. (The Vietnamese language is notoriously difficult; even language-qualified officers sometimes require assistance from native speakers in unscripted situations.) The officers could act as note takers, and write cables or provide other information coming out of these meetings. In a closely controlled political environment such as Vietnam, no post official, including the consul general himself, should meet with Vietnamese officials unaccompanied. As an added benefit, in a culture that venerates seniority and status, including officers in meetings would enhance their ability to develop contacts and follow up independently on important issues.
  • The consulate general has produced some valuable and insightful reporting, but generally there is far less reporting than would be expected of a post of its size. Material provided by a consulate general often ends up in cables from the embassy, and there is a vibrant, informal exchange between the respective political and economic sections. More telling, however, is the lack of emphasis upon reporting by the consul general, who does not routinely report on his own activities nor provide comprehensive readouts. For example, a single cable reported on his visits to 6 provinces over the course of 7 months. This disinclination both eliminated a major source of reporting, as compared to previous years, and undercut the ability of other officers to follow up on his meetings. The inspection team counseled the consul general and his deputy to follow standard reporting practices.

iPads with no wi-fi, because folks will, of course pay for 4G in Vietnam – wait, what?!

  • For security reasons, there is no wireless Internet access at the embassy’s American Center, which limits the usefulness of the its new iPads. The OIG team discussed this situation with the embassy’s information management (IM) section, but due to the technical complexity of the issues, no decisions had been made by the end of the inspection. It is important that the mission continue to research ways to resolve these issues and still comply with Department regulations in 5 FAM 790-792.

VietNamNet has a pretty straightforward explanation – the new iPad has the advantage of having a 4G connection. However, that advantage has no use in Vietnam, where no mobile network has provided 4G services. So if you can’t use the new iPads at the American Center because there is no wireless access and there is no 4G service in Vietnam, the embassy clearly bought itself some pretty expensive mousepads.

The OIG inspectors, blessed their hearts recommends “that Embassy Hanoi explore the feasibility of establishing wireless Internet access or otherwise maximizing the usability of the Hanoi American Center’s iPads.”

Visa Referral System for national interests and who else?

  • The consulate general executive office, including both American and local staff, frequently contact the consular section to pass on information about specific visa applicants. For instance, they might ask the section to review a case; tell why they believe an applicant is qualified; or ask the consular chief or another manager to conduct a second interview. These practices violate the Department’s worldwide referral policy, which mandates that no information on specific cases be passed to the section outside of formal referrals. It is appropriate for the executive office to forward relevant correspondence to the consular section, but it should not ask for special treatment of visa applicants or advocate on their behalf outside the referral system. Shortly before this inspection, the deputy principal officer told local staff to stop sending cases directly to the consular section.
  • There are several issues regarding the way the referral system is handled at the consulate general. Not all referrals indicate how that referral directly supports U.S. national interests; they also do not specify the nature and degree of contact the person making the referral has had with the applicant, as is required by 9 FAM Appendix K.
  • The inspectors counseled the consul general and the deputy principal officer on the Department’s referral policy. They suggested having cards printed, explaining that visa eligibility is determined by strict legal requirements and that the consulate general’s leaders cannot influence the decision. This card, which could be given to anyone inquiring about visas, also could refer applicants to the consulate general’s Web site for additional information. The consul general accepted this suggestion.
  • The mission’s referral policy is out-of-date. As stated above, the referral practices conflict with Department policy on what constitutes a legitimate referral. The consular officers at the consulate general have not been trained on the Department’s policy. Because compliance has been an issue, it will be important for the Ambassador to review a monthly report on all referral cases, including information on any email or other contacts that circumvent the policy.

Wait, wait, our memory may be foggy but at some point in 2009 or 2010, we understand that there was a notice that went out to all missions requiring that the chief of the consular section provide a copy of the Worldwide Visa Referral Policy to mission staff and conduct a referral briefing to each officer who is authorized to utilize the mission referral system, before that officer submits and/or approves any visa referrals.  Actually it is in  9 FAM APPENDIX K, 102 WORLDWIDE VISA REFERRAL POLICY.  Now, this is not optional; the regs even say that “If an officer has not attended a referral briefing and signed the Worldwide NIV Referral Policy Compliance Agreement, he or she may not authorize or approve a referral, regardless of his or her position.”

That includes everyone, including Chiefs of Missions and Consul Generals, no doubt.

If there’s one thing that the State Department is really good at, it is writing and sending cables.  So if these senior officers had to be counseled by the OIG on the Department’s worldwide referral policy what are we to think? That they don’t read their incoming cables? Or were folks aware of the referral policy but were too scared to rock the boat?

We don’t know this for sure but we imagine that Vietnam as a communist country is considered a critical threat post for human intelligence. So, if those visa referrals did not indicate how each directly supports U.S. national interest, how come no one is asked to review all of them?

Consular managers missing on the visa line

  • The mission has a policy called “self clearing” that permits experienced, entry-level officers to send, without a manager’s review, memoranda requesting revocation of a petition. Given the sensitivity of these memoranda and the need for consistency, a manager should review all of them before they are sent to the National Visa Center for transmission to the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Some officers indicated that managers spend little time on the visa line. The inspectors emphasized the importance of managers spending some time adjudicating on the line, both to understand any systemic problems and to regularly see the types of cases that officers encounter.

Ugh!  And where’s the lead by example and all that feel good stuff about holding self accountable and modeling the leadership tenets? This is the kind of thing that makes newbies get jaded rather quickly. “Lead by example” but what if they’re learning the bad example?

FSI language training fail or who the heck talks nuclear proliferation with visa applicants?

  • Consular officers also indicated the language training at the Foreign Service Institute did not help them conduct consular interviews; many were more comfortable talking about nuclear nonproliferation than about family relationships.
  • The criteria for designating language study for a particular position (per 13 FAM 221 b.(l)) is that “only those positions where language proficiency is essential, rather than merely helpful or convenient, should be designated…” Language training, although useful, is expensive and time consuming. As such, it should provide officers with the particular language skills needed to adequately perform their job.

Oh dear, like how difficult is this really – you ask, Bạn có bao nhiêu trẻ em? or Urani bao nhiêu bạn có trong căn nhà của bạn? You can just ask the visa applicant how many kids do you have or how much Uranium do you have in your house? Or what kind of heavy water do you use in your laundry? Or are you or anyone in your family ever employed by A.Q Khan? The possibilities are endless, so really there’s no need to have a consular-centric vocabulary to adequately perform a consular job.

Follow the leader, it works

  • The consul general in Ho Chi Minh City circumvented host government importation restrictions by bringing in a vehicle that was more than 5 years old. There have been no reported repercussions. The stated reason behind the importation was to encourage the host government to relax this importation requirement, but the matter has not gained any momentum. It has not been followed up with a diplomatic note, nor was the issue raised with the Office of Foreign Missions. No other exceptions to the rule have been attempted, though some officers were encouraged to also import vehicles older than 5 years.

And so there you have it …. and life goes on….

The names of the accountable, responsible principal officers are all in the OIG reports and a matter of public record.  We hope to save our reading folks time from having to dig them up.

Domani Spero

Related item:

Inspection of Embassy Hanoi and Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Report Number ISP-I-12-11A, February 2012