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September 21, 2009 9:01 AM

It's Official: NTIA Throwing States Under The BTOP Bus

Last Monday I wrote about how I'd heard that NTIA had dumped all the unreviewed BTOP applications on the states.

I backed off from those comments somewhat in my post last Tuesday as I'd tried getting this bit of news confirmed and was having some trouble doing so, plus I got some other intel suggesting that progress was being made.

But today I got that confirmation from this San Francisco Business Times article:

"California technology officials are scrambling to rank 178 applications for broadband stimulus money that have been submitted to the federal government by businesses, nonprofits and government agencies statewide.

Originally, the federal departments of agriculture and commerce were going to determine which applications were viable and then forward them to the state for ranking, but last week federal officials said the state would have to do an initial review on its own, said Joe Camicia, chief of staff in the Office of the State Chief Information Officer.

"We're scrambling," Camicia said."

So it's official, NTIA has thrown states under the BTOP bus.

To some degree I can understand why they've done this. They've set deadlines for getting feedback from the states and they want to give the states as much time as possible to review the applications and make recommendations.

But let's think through this a bit further.

First off, if NTIA truly didn't conduct any initial filtering before passing the applications through then they've created a lot more work for the states by forcing them to review everything, which means they'll be wasting time considering those applications that have no chance of making it to the next round of consideration.

Secondly, if NTIA wanted states to be able to make the best possible recommendations, then why not wait until they're able to see the scores from the initial round of reviews? For the most part, states don't know how the NOFA works therefore their recommendations will be totally divorced from how NTIA will be scoring them.

With these two thoughts in mind, what happens if a state recommends a low scoring application? Will their opinion be immediately disregarded? If so, then what's the point of having them review all the applications?

I actually feel really bad for the states. Take California, for example. They've got 178 applications they now have to review, vet, and weight the relative merits of. In fact, what they really need to do is determine which one project deserves the money most as that's all they're guaranteed to get. But where are they supposed to find the time and unbiased expertise to do this?

It's going to take at least hundreds of hours to do this right, and states only have a few weeks to finalize their recommendations. So not only is their decision-making going to be ill-informed and more work than it needs to be, it's also going to have to be a rush job.

On top of this, from what I hear states have the ability to request whatever information they want from applicants. This is potentially going to create a lot of work for applicants, not to mention the time it'll take states to process and review whatever information comes in. And yet there's no guarantees that the information requested will be relevant to the decisions ultimately being made or to improving applicants' chances of getting picked.

Of course, none of this will be a problem if you're in a state that's submitted their own application. In fact, if I were one of those, I wouldn't waste time conducting any review at all. I'd just recommend NTIA fund my project and be done with it. But that wouldn't be so easy to do if all the applications in my state had already been scored and mine wasn't at the top.

And that leads us to the next part of this analysis, which is to show how states are being setup for failure.

Let's take the example of a state with their own application. What happens if they recommend their own project without the cover of an initial review verifying that it's a viable, worthwhile project? Even if the state does conduct a true review process of its own, if they pick their own project it's going to look like favoritism. This could lower the public's perception of the project's legitimacy even if it's a great project, which isn't exactly the best way to get what should be a community effort underway.

What if a state's recommendations are ignored because they didn't pick a high scoring application? It'll simultaneously make the state look silly in the public eye while demoralizing them at the exact moment we need all levels of government to feel energized and appreciated, especially since the stimulus isn't a one-time initiative, it's (hopefully) the beginning of an ongoing mandate to better coordinate public projects.

While it's likely most projects in a state won't get funded leaving lots of disappointed constituents, NTIA has left the states out to dry by again not giving them any cover for their recommendations. When they say who they think should get the money, they'll automatically become a hated target for a lot of people. This will likely then lead to a lot of inference and speculation if the state decisionmakers have any perceived conflicts of interest, which could lead some worthwhile projects getting marginalized due to these decisionmakers not wanting to deal with the scrutiny.

My point is that NTIA could've done the states a huge favor by holding true to their original plans to have the initial review completed before getting states' recommendations as that would've mitigated much of the negative outcomes listed above, both by helping states make more informed decisions, by saving them from wasting time on projects that aren't worthwhile, and by giving the public greater confidence that this review and selection process is ultimately picking the best projects to fund. Instead NTIA has chosen to prioritize deadlines over effectiveness, to worry more about the clock than the outcomes.

But what's arguably even more troubling is the lack of transparency about what NTIA's doing. They have not said one word about the fact that they've changed course and won't be providing the states with any initial guidance on which applications will make the first cut. They didn't even mention it when Larry Strickling was testifying in front of Congress on Sept 10, despite the fact that they had either just sent the application dump out or were right in the midst of preparing to do so as he spoke.

In fact, when reading Strickling's comments, I realized that he specifically avoided mentioning that they were doing this. Check this out:

"...The expert reviewers' scores for each application will be averaged and those applications considered the most highly qualified in the initial review phase will advance for further consideration.

Each State and territory will be given the opportunity to prioritize and comment on the applications relevant to its jurisdiction. The Act recognizes that State and territorial officials have a unique perspective on broadband needs within their jurisdictions and we look forward to their input.

During the second review phase, NTIA also will engage in additional "due diligence..."

Notice how the state's role is ambiguously positioned in between the initial expert reviews and the second review phase, but no mention is made for how their recommendations fit within this process.

Perhaps I've been misreading things and what this actually means is that states' opinions won't count for much and therefore it doesn't matter how informed they are. But even then this is a rude way to handle things, and not the best first impression this new NTIA could be leaving on the states.

In the end, I see nothing but negatives from dumping unreviewed applications on the states. They're going to have more work, make worse recommendations, take more heat from their constituents, and potentially either influence the final decisions too much by recommending the wrong projects get funded or not enough because they picked projects that have no hope of getting picked.

Yet it doesn't have to be this way. We don't have to keep moving forward under a flawed system. I hate to say we should slow things down, but at the same time I definitely do feel that it's better we get this done right rather than get this done quickly.

So I implore NTIA to reconsider their course of action. Give the states more time to review and provide them with your initial reviews and scores as soon as they're conducted. Because if you don't empower states in this way then I can't help but feel like you're throwing them under the bus.

Hopefully the states don't just turn into another bump on BTOP's fast trip into the ditch.

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Comments (1)


I think states are misreading what NTIA wants out of the State review. NTIA does not need another objective grant application review process that replicates the process it already has. What NTIA wants is for each state to review the applications that fit the STATE’s priorities. The letter NTIA sent to the governors said it wants to fund “projects that meet the greatest broadband needs and provides the greatest possible benefits in your states.” NTIA bureaucrats and NTIA grant reviewers will likely not know what the State’s priorities are. So this is the opportunity for the State to let NTIA know this. State government IT staff should know with a 2-4 minute review of an application’s Executive Summary if it addresses the state’s priorities. Those that do can then be given greater scrutiny. And if a State has no broadband priorities, where has it been the past few years?

Bob Bocher, Technology Consultant
Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction

Posted by Bob Bocher on September 22, 2009 11:01 AM

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