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Breaking procurement rules to fix Healthcare.gov, the Red Cross and Sandy, and Westerners choking in China

A woman wears a mask as she does her morning exercise outdoors in Fuyang, Anhui province, January 14, 2013. REUTERS/China Daily
A woman wears a mask as she does her morning exercise outdoors in Fuyang, Anhui province, January 14, 2013. REUTERS/China Daily

By Steven Brill

1. Breaking procurement rules to fix Healthcare.gov?

In the weeks immediately following the failure of the federal government's Obamacare exchange website, policy wonks who were inclined to attach larger meaning to the fiasco than the simple incompetence of those in charge pointed to how difficult and time-consuming government procurement is.

That's why, according to this rationale, the same folks who were so inventive and effective in building campaign websites and mounting digital donation and get-out-the-vote campaigns couldn't do the same when it came to launching their president's highest-priority governing initiative.

Well, if the government's rules are so constricting that nothing can be done leanly or quickly, how is it that the president was able to hire a new Healthcare.gov czar, Jeffrey Zients, last Tuesday, and have him on the job that afternoon — whereupon within 48 hours he had in turn hired Quality Software Services, Inc. to be the general contractor overseeing all the fixes?

How could all of that have happened so fast? Did the president use some kind of special emergency authority? If so, why couldn't he have used it to bolster the effort to build the website in June or July when, by what is now almost everyone's account, it became obvious that hitting the October 1 start date with the current talent and resources in place was going to be a problem?

How did Quality Software's contract get negotiated in what must have been 24 or 48 hours? Is it a new contract, or an urgent extension of its existing contract to build some of the website's features? How much is the firm getting paid, and on what basis, using what funds? Or is the contract not negotiated yet? And what about all the other (as yet un-named) members of what the administration calls a "tech surge" team, who are reportedly taking leaves from private sector jobs to help fix the website? Do they have contracts? What about Zients?

Again, knowing what the president and his team did to get past all of those stifling rules once they realized they had a disaster on their hands might tell us what they could have done before the disaster hit.

2. Counting the Red Cross's Hurricane Sandy money:

As we mark the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, it's time for a report on whether the Red Cross did better spending all the donations it received for that disaster than it did with the hundreds of millions it collected following the September 11 terrorist attacks. As I wrote in this column the week after the hurricane, "In the months after 9/11, the Red Cross demonstrated that it was great at providing immediate relief such as blankets, food and short-term shelter, but it really wasn't in the business of providing costlier long-term aid, such as help for people to rebuild homes and businesses. Thus, after $850 million in 9/11 contributions had poured into the organization, far surpassing what it could spend handing out blankets and sandwiches and setting up shelters, a mini-scandal unfolded when it was revealed that much of the money people thought they were donating to victims of the terror attacks was in fact being socked away" for other Red Cross projects or was just sitting in the charity's bank accounts.

What happened this time?

3. Recruiting Westerners to choke in China:

This idea comes from my daughter Emily, who is studying in Beijing, and wrote a story for the website ChinaFile about the Chinese air pollution crisis while home this summer. She compared Beijing's air, unfavorably, to the air at Ground Zero right after 9/11.

So with pollution levels once again rising to crisis levels across China and making headlines around the world, how is the toxic air in the world's most burgeoning economy affecting the ability of major Western employers, such as investment banks and conglomerates, to send executives to work there?

How much do these employers disclose about the air and its dangers? Are they concerned that too much said about the air will offend their Chinese hosts? Are they offering any new perks or other inducements to get employees, especially those with families, to take the risk?

And what about the Chinese study-abroad programs run by Western universities? How carefully do they warn students of the danger? Has enrollment been affected?

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