Tag Archives: Craig Farrill

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.

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Filed under broadband, FirstNet, government operations

Is FirstNet Open and Transparent?

Is FirstNet Transparent?The answer is “no” … and “yes”.

FirstNet is the First Responder Network Authority. FirstNet was created by Congress in February, 2012, and authorized to spend up to $7 billion to build a nationwide public safety wireless network. A Board of 15 members was appointed in August, 2012, to begin the work.

In April, 2013, one board member, Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald raised concerns about lack of transparency in the work of the Board. The FirstNet Board convened a special review committee to look at Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald’s concerns that FirstNet was not being open in the way it conducted its meetings, hired its staff and operated in general.

I have no special expertise or thoughts regarding Sheriff Fitzgerald’s concerns as expressed in his April, 2013, resolution, or the report of the special review committee announced on September 23rd.

But I do have specific concerns of my own and suggestions for the FirstNet Board and staff.

Starting in the “Hole”

FirstNet starts with a deficit – it is a federal agency, and there is a love-hate relationship between the Federal governments and local/state governments.  As my colleague Chuck Robinson from the City of Charlotte has observed, local and State governments are very accustomed to working under open meetings or sunshine laws, which provides a level of transparency that the federal government and its agencies, and private business firms find extremely uncomfortable.    Many in FirstNet don’t fully appreciate this trust gap between local and state governments and the federal government.  Because of this gap, FirstNet is put in a position of needing to earn trust, which requires FirstNet (the organization and its members) to be trustworthy.  Trustworthiness is not just being honest, telling the truth, keeping promises, and being loyal so people can trust you, it is also being open and transparent in all they do so that their motives and actions can be clearly understood.

Suggestion: Be more open about your meetings.

Some board meetings are open and announced, although agendas are not usually available very far in advance. But other meetings of the full board clearly happen and are NOT announced in advance, and I’ve never seen announcement of committee meetings or weekly board teleconference calls.

One example: FirstNet had an open meeting on Tuesday, June 4th in Colorado. Many people were there for a PSCR meeting at the same time. But, unbeknownst to most of us, the Board actually had an all-day meeting the day before, June 3rd, when they reviewed and essentially approved a fiscal year 2014 budget! During the open meeting they constantly referred back to the Monday meeting which was both closed and unannounced. It was hard to follow the open meeting due to phrases like “as we discussed yesterday”. Oh yeah? What did you discuss yesterday?

I suggest FirstNet should announce EVERY board meeting and EVERY board committee meeting, and, at least in general, what the subject matter is. We all understand some meetings will have to be closed for budgetary and personnel matters. But EVERY meeting, even the closed ones, should be announced and the subject, at least, should be public.

And when the open meetings actually happen, make them like city council or state legislative meetings – in a large open room where there is plenty of space for an audience. Allow some “public comment” before or after. And not just for press, but for many of the rest of us who are interested in FirstNet work.

Oh, and, by the way, does FirstNet know that a meeting held at 10AM Eastern Time is 7AM Pacific Time, 6AM Alaska time and 5AM Hawaii time?

Finally, it is commendable that FirstNet webcasts video of its meetings and accepts questions via the phone, then quickly publishes a verbatim transcript. But I suggest getting a professional service with good microphones and cameras to improve the quality of those broadcasts.

Suggestion: Publish a directory of staff names, responsibilities and contact information.

FirstNet has been decently good about announcing its hires. When FirstNet staff come to meetings in person, they are quite open and approachable.

T. J. KennedyFor example, I chaired a meeting of city, county and State CIOs at the APCO annual conference in Anaheim in August, 2013. Deputy General Manager T. J. Kennedy came into the meeting and gave his business card to each of us, spoke at length, answered questions and interacted quite well with the group.

I applaud this openness.

But there’s no website which shows the FirstNet organization and the names and contact information. (The org chart itself is buried in a PowerPoint someplace online.)

Much worse is transparency on contractors. Again, I’ve interacted with a few of FirstNet’s contracted staff. They are knowledgeable and professional on the phone and at meetings. They listen, interact and are genuinely committed to FirstNet’s mission. In person and on the phone they arequite willing to give out their contact information.

But many of us involved at the state and private level have been approached by people who say they are FirstNet contractors – and they are, I guess, but how would we know? Where’s the “index” or website listing all the contractor names and their responsibilities?
Perhaps there’s some fear that if all that contact information is on a public website, the staff will be inundated with phone calls and email messages, but I think most of us on the outside will be more respectful about that.

And a small suggestion: anyone involved with FirstNet should have a signature block which includes their name, title and contact info attached to the email messages they send.

Suggestion: Be more open when contractors are hired.

Just like when full-time staff are hired, couldn’t FirstNet make some announcements or tweet or something to tell the community that a new contractor is on board? Tell us a little about their background and qualifications. Tell us how they fit into FirstNet’s overall planning and work.

We all understand that contractors are hired for various reasons and from various sources. Often a board member or another contractor or a full-time FirstNet staff person knows someone they’ve worked with in the past who has certain skills, and they are hired on that basis. That’s fine. When I’ve hired people I always looked for people who were known to be competent or referred by my existing staff and employees. A secondary benefit is the existing staff became invested in the success of the new hire.

Especially at the beginning, but even now, FirstNet contractor hires appeared to be all people almost exclusively with private company cellular technology expertise. Some of the first hires had little or no experience with LTE. It was (and still is) a mystery as to how they were hired, by what mechanism, and what their connection or expertise/background is. The lack of transparency here certainly contributes to the feeling that the effort is being managed or railroaded in a certain direction.

Be open about all this. It will only add credibility to these key individuals and the role they are each playing.

I’ll give a specific example. Brian Kassa was a senior LTE engineer with Nokia Siemens. He joined FirstNet’s technical team as a contractor a few months ago. One of his duties is interacting with State government teams. I’ve known Brian for a few years and he actually is a responder working on a search-and-rescue team near Seattle. He’s an outstanding engineer, very committed to the effort. But you’d never know he’s working on this effort from looking at websites or other public documents/announcements from FirstNet. If FirstNet trumpets hires like Brian, they will build their own credibility as an organization which hires good people and is moving quickly to design the network.

Suggestion: Appoint some more advisory committees

The Spectrum Act requires just one advisory committee – a public safety advisory committee or PSAC. That committee has been appointed. But it is somewhat of a mystery as to what charge that committee has, when it meets and what’s on the agenda for the meetings. Notes and minutes of the meetings are not publicly available.

Now, most of that information is available if you know someone on the PSAC. And the PSAC Chair, Harlin McEwen, is one of the very best at quick responses to email and being open to talking on the phone.

But I’d suggest FirstNet allow the PSAC to be much more open and public with what it is doing, including staffing it to allow it to do more work and have meetings which are more open. Create a special section on http://www.firsnet.gov for the PSAC.

I’d suggest FirstNet consider appointing some additional advisory committees – which are allowed under the law – to increase the amount of input it gets and its openness. Specifically there could be a commercial advisory committee of potential vendors and manufacturers. There also could be a committee which directly includes the state governments upon which FirstNet will depend upon to build its network and its user base. Another committee might include secondary responders such as public and private utilities, transportation and transit departments. Again, the idea here is to improve FirstNet’s outreach to this potential user base.

A secondary effect of the additional committees is getting more people involved – and therefore committed – to the overall effort.

Yes, all of this will take staffing and money. But small investments today will pay big dividends (I think) when FirstNet is marketing its new network and services.

FirstNet Website

FirstNet Website

Suggestion: Get a decent website with calendar of events

I think that’s self-explanatory, if you look at the present website. I understand this new website is in the works, promised “within a month” as of this writing. But gee folks, the Board was announced in August, 2012, and there are hundreds of great web design firms out there. Does it take 13 months to get a decent website? Having a comprehensive, easy-to-use website demonstrates FirstNet’s commitment to transparency.

The website also needs to include a decent calendar of events. Presently there is a calendar of speaking events on the existing website, but NOT a calendar of FirstNet meetings or events. Here’s a specific example. Kevin McGinnis is the Board member responsible for tribal outreach and has done a good job trying to contact as many tribal officials as possible. FirstNet originally set a meeting of tribal officials for August 26th for Washington DC, which then was pushed back to October and is now November 4th. Nowhere on any website or other document (as far as I know) has this meeting been announced. It is all word of mouth or, presumably, email messages to a group of tribal officials (I’ve never seen such emails, however).

Suggestion: Get your own lawyers.

After the Spectrum Act passed, a lot of attorneys made a lot of money interpreting it. The FCC, NTIA and DHS all had their staff attorneys go over it with a fine tooth comb, and I suspect there was a little bit of infighting as roles and responsibilities were sorted out.

It seems that, in some cases, the FirstNet Board and staff let the lawyers tell them what they can and cannot do. I suspect that’s what going on in the spectrum leases with the 8 jurisdictions who have money and had FCC waivers to build their own networks. Here it is, 18 months after those jurisdictions were told by NTIA they couldn’t spend grant funds on LTE equipment, and only two of them have a spectrum lease allowing them to proceed on their networks.  In the meantime, a lot of support from Mayors, Governors, state legislators, city councils, police and fire chiefs to build these networks has been squandered, creating a wariness about FirstNet.   I believe some of the delay in negotiating leases has to do with the lawyers who are advising FirstNet that it cannot spend money on these pilots or otherwise has to restrict them. Such lawyers are (in my opinion) taking the most conservative possible interpretation of the law and what it allows or doesn’t allow with these early builders.

What I’ve written in the previous couple of paragraphs is speculative, of course, because FirstNet has NOT been transparent about what the real issues are in the spectrum lease negotiations.

The 8 early builders represent a tremendous opportunity for FirstNet to be entrepreneurial and test out a number of different models in the real world of public safety. The user stories from these 8 sites can help cement and improve public safety’s (and general government’s) support for FirstNet.

When I ran the information technology department of Seattle’s City government, I had city attorney ADVISE me on contracts, risks and other matters. But in the end it was the attorney’s ADVICE and it was up to me to make the decisions and take some risks to move government forward with technology.

It seems like the commercial members of the FirstNet Board should be quite familiar with this entrepreneurial model. Perhaps they should say to the lawyers “thank you for the advice” but take some risks to get these 8 early builders going and make them successful.

Suggestions: Outreach

Jeff Johnson and Craig Farrill have been outstanding “on the road” speaking and obtaining input about the project. They’ve been open. They’ve demonstrated the ability to listen. They know there are huge challenges ahead and they’ve been transparent about them. See, for example, page 22 of Jeff’s report to the board here.

But FirstNet also understands (or needs to understand) that only a tiny fraction of their potential stakeholders know anything at all about the project, and most of the public – especially the technology-knowledgeable public – knows even less. If you don’t think so, just read the comments in this Ars Technica article about FirstNet.

I just hope the outreach teams hired full time have the same sort of ability to listen and honesty which Jeff and Craig have displayed.

Closing: FirstNet has a great natural wellspring of support. More openness will capitalize on it.

Over the last four or five years, there was a huge campaign which generated public safety support for assigning the D block to public safety and to pass the Spectrum Act which created FirstNet. Indeed, I’ll often go to 911 centers or first responder departments here in Washington State to talk about the upcoming nationwide public safety wireless broadband network, and people will say – “that’s the D block, right”?

This support is a major untapped resource for FirstNet. First responders, especially, want to see this work succeed. But, in addition, most of the associations and organizations comprising the old PSST (Public Safety Spectrum Trust) plus many telecommunications carriers, manufacturers, consultants and others have a long-term vested interest in the success of FirstNet’s mission.

FirstNet, be open about what you’re doing. Embrace all these stakeholders, especially courageous, concerned folks like Sheriff Fitzgerald. Ask them for advice and support. Reach out to the larger potential user base – transportation, public works, utilities, railroads, small telephone companies and others.

Being open, transparent and welcoming today will not only help you build the network tomorrow, but will also stand you in good stead as the inevitable bumps occur on your road to success.


Caution:
This statement represents the personal views of Bill Schrier, and does not reflect the views or opinions of any governmental or non-governmental association with which I’m affiliated. There may be inadvertent inaccuracies in the material presented above, and, if there are, contact me and I’ll fix them.

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Filed under FirstNet, PSST, wireless