Monthly Archives: September 2014

FirstNet’s Scandal and Resurrection

[This version of the post has two updates as noted.]

McClatchy Newspaper’s Greg Gordon just wrote a well-researched investigative article about procurement problems with the nation’s First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).  The details in the article correspond almost exactly with my mostly second-hand knowledge of the situation.   But I am hoping FirstNet and the nation can, with help, put this episode behind us and proceed to actually building a nationwide wireless broadband network for our brave responders who protect the safety of 320 million Americans.

ginn-sam

Sam Ginn

The details of this problem are well-known to insiders and, with Gordon’s article, now to the general public:

  1. In February, 2012, Congress creates FirstNet, funds it with $7 billion from sale of spectrum, and directs the appointment of a 15 member Board of Directors. The Board consists of five federal members including the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security, five members from “public safety” agencies, and five members with commercial or industry background.
  2. The Secretary of Commerce appoints the Board in August, 2012. The commercial members include wireless industry veterans Sam Ginn and Craig Farrill.   The Secretary appoints Ginn as the Chair of the Board.   Neither Ginn or Farrill have previously worked in government and are unfamiliar with many of the laws, regulations and practices of government agencies.
  3. FirstNet, although an “independent agency” under the law, finds itself subordinate to the National Technology and Information Agency (NTIA), and subject to all Federal personnel and procurement regulations. The personnel regulations severely restrict how fast FirstNet can hire full-time staff.
  4. Ginn and Farrill are anxious to get the network built as rapidly as possible, just like they’ve built private companies like AirTouch in the past. They use existing federal contracts to hire a set of 35 highly skilled technical staff at large salaries – up to $600,000 a year – to get the network designed.  One of those individuals, Bill D’Agostino, is named the General Manager of FirstNet.  NTIA and the National Institute of Standards (NIST), both agencies in the Department of Commerce, apparently acquiesce to this hiring.
  5. Almost all the contract staff are former acquaintances and co-workers of Ginn and Farrill.
  6. None of the hiring, the salaries or the details of the staffing contract are known to the public or the public safety community who will be served by FirstNet.
  7. The Sheriff calls “foul” on this practice in a public meeting of the FirstNet Board. The Sheriff is Board member Paul Fitzgerald, elected Sheriff of Story County, Iowa.
  8. After gnashing of teeth and probably a bit of weeping, the contracts are canceled, the high-paid contractors are terminated and the Inspector General launches an investigation (which still hasn’t been concluded).
  9. D’Agostino, Ginn and Farrill resign.
  10. In the meantime, FirstNet, under the direction of J. Kennedy, a former cop, firefighter and paramedic, builds a competent staff of over 60 federal employees and other contractors, and gets FirstNet back on track.

Greg Gordon’s article has all the details.   Again, based on all my knowledge and discussions with individuals involved, these details are correct except for two:  First, the Public Safety Advisory Committee  (PSAC) to FirstNet has at 40 members, not 5 as Gordon mentions.  Second, the initial contract for FirstNet staffing was let by a semi-competitive solicitation in late 2012.  this is the solicitation published under the authority of the U.S. Census bureau.   I say “semi-competitive” because competition was limited to an existing set of GSA-pre-qualified contractors, not open to all bidders.  (This paragraph updated from the original post.)

So what’s the truth in this?

I think both Sam Ginn and Craig Farrill are honorable people, recruited by Larry Strickling, Director of NTIA.  Ginn and Farrill took their mission seriously.   They knew they were, essentially, in charge of a start-up company.   They knew getting the network operational was the mission.   And they set out to do it using every bit of their business skill and acumen.  They hired people who they worked with before, and who they knew could do the job.   They did not pay much heed to salaries.  “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

What Ginn and Farrill did not know was government.   They did not know how to run public meetings or how to respond to public disclosure requests.  Meetings occurred behind closed doors, begrudgingly televised with 1990s-era video tech.  They probably did not keep all the members of the board (e.g. Sheriff Fitzgerald) in the loop about their activities.   They either did not know about federal competitive procurement regulations or – worse yet – perhaps didn’t care.

There’s also the possibility that Ginn and Farrill were misled – that they thought the law’s statement FirstNet would be an “independent authority” under NTIA truly meant “independent” in the fashion the Tennessee Valley Authority or Bonneville Power Authority are independent.  And that’s independent from Federal Personnel regulations, the Federal Acquisition regulation (FAR) and similar constraints.  And, after they arrived, and tried to be truly independent, the boom was lowered.  (This paragraph added to the original post.)

Worst of all, they did not spend much time consulting their constituents, their future users, the cops and firefighters and other responders who need FirstNet.   They basically ignored and did not use the Public Safety Advisory Committee.

As one example of this, at the first meeting of the Board, on September 25, 2012, Farrill presented a “conceptual architecture” for FirstNet.    Where this architecture originated was a mystery to the hundreds of public safety officials – including me – who had been working on FirstNet and its predecessors for years.   Clearly Farrill was clueless about consulting constituents.

As another example, Sam Ginn famously testified in front of Congress that FirstNet would cover “every square meter” of the United States.   Mr. Ginn, honorable as he is, didn’t know much about testifying to elected officials or making promises.   There are a lot of pretty damned remote, hard-to-reach, “square meters” in the United States, some of them less than 50 miles from my home in Seattle.

paul-fitzgerald--sh

Sheriff Fitzgerald

Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald finally became fed up with this lack of consultation with public safety, and came out with a damning indictment of it during the April 23, 2013, Board meeting.   Fitzgerald, like Ginn and Farrill, is an honorable man, elected multiple times to public office, and well-versed in government.   Fitzgerald’s failing was not involving his fellow public safety Board members – Fire Chief Jeff Johnson, Deputy Police Chief Chuck Dowd, and Kevin McGinnis, a paramedic and director of emergency medical services in Maine – in his concerns prior to the meeting.  They were just as startled about his accusations as other Board members.    Most elected officials of City and County Councils and State legislatures know they need at least one other person on their side to second their motions.

Where laws broken and is criminal prosecution in the works?

I doubt it.   Commerce Department Inspector General Todd Zinser is looking into the allegations of illegal or unethical contracting practices.   Perhaps he will find some NTIA or NIST officials bent the law in allowing the high-salary contractors to work on FirstNet.   It certainly is odd (and many of us puzzled over it at the time) that the first solicitation for contractors came from the United States Census!

With the IG’s upcoming report there’s another shoe to drop here, but I hope we don’t waste a lot of time waiting for it.

T. J. Kennedy

T. J. Kennedy

Ginn, Farrill and D’Agostino left of their own volition.   Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald and Deputy Chief Chuck Dowd were not reappointed to the board.  (To some extent, I think Sheriff Fitzgerald was punished for blowing the whistle).     These are all honorable people trying to do their very best to support the public safety of the nation.   Like all of us, sometimes they make mistakes.  These key players in this drama are gone, and it’s just the mop-up of the Inspector General’s report which remains to put this scandal to bed.

I see great promise in FirstNet, and a new awakening of purpose under new Board Chair Sue Swenson’s and Acting General Manager T. J. Kennedy’s leadership.

Let’s let them lead, unburdened by the past.

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under broadband, FirstNet, government operations

People Live Horizontally but Government Organizes in Silos

Silos

Silos

One of my biggest frustrations with government organizations is their “silos of excellence” approach.

Somehow each and every government department or organization thinks it is a business unto itself, with little relationship to other departments within the same government, much less other nearby such as cities, counties, states, and fire districts.  Many Police departments think and act like they are unique, with little relationship to other government functions.  So do electric utilities (Seattle City Light), water utilities, parks departments and so forth.

People don’t live that way.   We turn on the dishwasher which uses electricity from the power company and water from the water utility and then wastewater goes down the sewer to be managed by the wastewater utility.   Then we put our trash on the curb for the solid waste utility to remove.  We get in a car which has been licensed by the DMV to drive on streets maintained by the City  and also County Transportation Departments (DOT) and then onto freeways maintained by the State DOT.  We drive to parks which we expect to be clean and safe. If we crash into something we call 911 and expect the cops to show up and ticket the perpetrator who caused the crash and we want the fire department and paramedics there to extract us from our crushed vehicle.

More importantly, many significant societal problems cannot be addressed by just one government function.  Crime is the most obvious, which isn’t so much a police problem as it is a problem with poor schools, jobs economic inequality plus inadequate support for healthcare and food.  Environmental issues are another example, where keeping Puget Sound (or any other body of water) clean is a matter not just for the “Department of Ecology” or “Environmental Protection Agency”.  Electric utilities (which often burn coal or oil in their generators), water and wastewater utilities, parks and recreation and natural resource departments all need to cooperate.

Our lives are a seamless continuum.

Governments are organized by departments each with a specific function.   The Parks Department maintains the parks, the police department enforces the laws, the fire department has the paramedics to help with medical emergencies.  The DOT maintains the street with the water and sewer lines running underneath it and the electric power lines running overhead.

This makes sense because there are so many specialist jobs involved.  I don’t want firefighters wasting their time mowing the grass in parks or electrical lineworkers writing parking tickets.

Why can’t these departments work together to make the services more seamless and efficient?

logo_minneapolis_311

A City with 311

Example 1:   who do you call?  If you have an emergency, you call 911 almost everywhere in the United States.  Everyone knows that and we teach our kids to do it at an early age.  But for almost every other service there are a bewildering series of different numbers you depending on what service you want or what problem you have.   If you get chased by an angry dog do you call the police or the fire department or animal control?   If a streetlight is out do you call the streets/transportation department or the electric utility or someone else?

Many major cities have cut through this crap by implementing 311 as a non-emergency number.  But most counties, cities and states have not done so.  311 is far from ubiquitous.  Seattle, for all its high tech reputation, is woefully behind in this, forcing people to squint through pages and pages of telephone numbers in six point font to get a non-emergency service.

Example 2:  information technology (near and dear to my heart). Does each department need to be buying its own desktop computers and software, and hiring its own employees to maintain them?   Does every individual department need its own financial management system and personnel management software?  The answer is clearly no – there’s nothing unique about the computers used in the water utility as distinct from the parks department.   In fact, there’s no real reason government employees need to even perform these functions.  Some major cities such as Minneapolis and Chicago and Riverside have outsourced most of this work to private providers.

This department-by-department approach leads to many absurdities, such as employees in a city garage installing light bars on a police cruiser, then having the cruiser driven to a radio shop for installation of two-way radios and brackets to hold a computer and then having it driven to a police computer shop where the computer is installed and software loaded.

Certain information technology is unique to departments – a Building Department has a construction licensing and permitting software whereas Parks will have software to manage recreation classes and allow citizens to sign-up.    But there’s also a lot of “enterprise” software such as budgeting and financial management and document storage which should be purchased and maintained separately, not department-by department.

All of this lack of trusting another department to do information technology, accounting, finance, human resources or similar functions leads to inefficiency and waste of taxpayer money.

So why do cities and counties set themselves up to operate vertically as independent departments?

One culprit is a department’s own view of itself as an independent entity with its own customers and customer service.  A public works department may become so self-centered that it thinks it needs its own customer call center and walk-in service center for customers and its own website with its own unique logo and brand.

Turf Wars

Turf Wars

Such a situation arises when department directors and senior staff are long-term employees who have outlasted many elected officials and collected significant positional power.

Another way this comes about is long-term employees in an IT unit or call center who have convinced their managers of their own importance – the department can’t function without their personal presence and unique experience.  Then these employees fight over turf – “this is MY department’s responsibilities, not yours”.  Government managers count their importance by the number of employees they manage and the amount of budget they control.  And the jealously guard and defend that turf.

But citizens rarely care about such crap.   They typically know who the mayor is and may also know their council member, and they want good service from their government, irrespective of the department lines.     Smart Mayors and city/county managers realize this, and set up strong, well-managed central services which are cross-departmental. Strong mayors confront departmental fiefdoms and employee self-importance, understanding citizen service trumps all that.   In smaller jurisdictions the city or county will partner with neighboring cities or counties to jointly offer better services with more efficiency.   Multi-city or county cooperation requires gutsy elected officials who are willing to give up a measure of control in return for better services.

But all of this – implementing a 311 service or consolidating a technology function – requires strong elected officials with a vision of citizen-centric customer service.

4 Comments

Filed under 311, customer service, employees, government, government operations, management of technology