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September 15, 2009 9:45 AM

Hey NTIA: Why Can't You Be More Transparent?

I'm officially fed up with how NTIA's handling the public relations of BTOP.

For starters, I don't see any compelling reasons for why this process can't be a whole lot more transparent.

Why can't we know who the reviewers are? I understand why we might not want to make public who's reviewing what application as that opens up lines to lobby and influence the review process, but why not make public the list of approved reviewers so the public can vet them for conflicts of interest and competency?

Why can't we know what's going on and where things are at in the process? Officially we have no idea how many reviewers have been vetted, nor if they've even started the initial vetting of applications. But I just learned some insight through the comments to this post by BTOP volunteer hopeful Mike O'Connor, namely that 600 reviewers have made it past the initial vetting and that 400 applications have been paneled so far. Why is it I have to learn this from a comment to a blog post?

The thing they seem to not be realizing from a PR perspective is that by not saying anything all of us out in the public that have concerns about how things are going will assume the worst. Without NTIA supplying a narrative about their progress, they leave open their actions to interpretation. And yet even the smallest amount of information can totally change that, like the stats I just shared above, which when I heard actually made me breath a little sigh of relief. Also, it's important for NTIA to realize that it's not like the world imploded because this information made it out into the public.

On a related note, why not announce whenever a project makes it through the initial panel review process? Assuming they're confident that their initial vetting process is working, I see no reason not to let the world know with a big public list which projects are ready to move onto the next stage. This then would give the public a chance to know that progress is being made, and to have a chance to comment on the projects that made it through the first round. The only reasons not to do this is if you're not confident in your review process, or if you're waiting to announce the finalists in one big chunk, but by waiting you lose the opportunity establish this narrative that progress is being made.

One other thing on this topic of transparency that's really irking me is the lack of communication going on between NTIA and their volunteer applicants. These people who have applied to be volunteers are doing their country a great service by offering up their time and expertise to help make BTOP a success. Yet many of them are receiving zero communication from NTIA about what's happening and what timelines look like moving forward. Quite frankly I find NTIA's treatment of these volunteers to be incredibly rude. Why can't they at least send out a mass email to all the volunteers with an update every week or two, if not in detail on the process at least with some news on what's these volunteers should expect will happen next?

Not only is this rude, but it also doesn't lend itself to an effective review process as it wouldn't surprise me if many volunteers decide to drop out because of this treatment, and even those that stay in will become increasingly less likely to be able help out and accommodate NTIA's schedule if they can't know how they should be scheduling their availability to help review applications. Are we expecting these volunteers to put their lives on hold while they wait for word from NTIA?

This new administration has touted that it's committed to bringing about a new era of transparency in how government works for the people. Yet I can't help but feel like NTIA's handling of the PR around BTOP so far has been following the old playbook. Making this even more frustrating is that they have the opportunity to totally upend the old way of doing things by making as much of the review process as public as possible. Just take a look at my post from yesterday for a few ideas on how that could be accomplished.

My guess is the reason they're keeping quiet is that they don't want to invite criticism when they make mistakes, and yet the thing they don't seem to realize is that I think the public is willing to forgive mistakes so long as we all think that NTIA's making an honest effort to do right by the country. And even more frustrating is that the impression I get from everyone I talk to who knows the people over at NTIA is that they are all good, honest, hard-working individuals who are trying to make the best of a bad situation. And yet because of the narrative void about what's happening behind closed doors at NTIA, the public's left to imagine the worst.

Because of all this, I'd like to suggest that NTIA consider changing course in how it's revealing information to the public. Stop trying to keep things hidden and quiet, and start trying to engage the public with the truth about what's going on. If there are bumps in the road, we'd rather know about them now than learn about them later as that's going to make us much more amenable to forgiveness. And maybe by being more public NTIA can garner more ideas and support from the public on how to make this process better, which is vitally important if the NTIA intends as it has stated to revisit its rules and review process for the next round of funding.

The time for silence in government was supposed to be coming to an end. NTIA, it's time for you to step up and show what a more transparent government can accomplish, and in so doing improve the odds that BTOP will be a success, both in reality and perception.

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Comments (3)

I would love to hear your opinions on AT&T;'s recent comments to the FCC to about broadband definition. Specifically how they are trying to define it based on application usage. Where as Google is aiming for a technologically neutral, high speed communications transmission platform.

Posted by Brian on September 15, 2009 10:34 AM

If everyone knew who the reviewers were, what would keep applicants from lobbying reviewers?

Posted by Kevin Taglang on September 15, 2009 7:51 PM

Kevin - Two thoughts.

One, don't say who's reviewing what applications, which would make it hard for an applicant to lobby any reviewer that's working on their specific project.

Two, set in place penalties against lobbying, as in if you're caught trying to lobby reviewers or contact them in any unsolicited way you're automatically disqualified from receiving funding.

I'd think this last one would prevent that lobbying from happening!

Posted by Geoff Daily on September 15, 2009 8:50 PM

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