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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Report on Broadband Stimulus by Inspector General at Commerce Hands Ammunition to Program's Critics

StimulatingBroadband.com 04/13/2010 San Francisco – The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Commerce yesterday made public its final report of the first major departmental oversight of Commerce’s portion of the broadband stimulus program.

Todd J. Zinser, Inspector General, U.S. Dept.
of Commerce
The report is entitled NTIA Must Continue to Improve its Program Management and Pre-Award Process for its Broadband Grants Program. The 23 page document, issued over the signature of Commerce's IG, Todd J. Zinser, shows a history of OIG recommendations to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for improvement in the agency’s management of the program, and NTIA’s lagging efforts to implement those recommendations.

While its statements are frequently couched, in the best tradition of federal intra-departmental practice, the details and overall message of the 23 page report are scathing and stark: Management of Commerce’s $4.7 billion component of the overall $7.2 billion broadband stimulus program has been poor, and remains inadequate to either disperse Round 2 program appropriations by the September 30, 2010 statutory deadline or to correctly monitor Round 1 compliance and spending by awardees. 

Four programmatic categories of funding – Broadband Infrastructure, Broadband Mapping, Public Computing Centers, and Sustainable broadband Adoption - are managed together by NTIA under its Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). 

Ammunition for Hill Staff Pushing for Better Oversight, Dollar Shift to RUS
Publication of the report signals that current internal departmental inspection and oversight at the U.S. Department of Commerce is filling the void created by the lack of adequate congressional oversight of the program.  Until now, NTIA’s public relations resources, and the continued defiance of the Obama Administration's open government requirements by NTIA Administrator Larry Strickling have shielded many of the program’s severe shortcomings of procedure and strategy from full public view or effective remediation.

In the near term, the report gives ammunition to congressional staff from both parties who have been strongly recommending to the leadership of investigatory and oversight committees that more needs be done to get the program on track.

Specifically, the report strengthens the arguments on Capitol Hill favoring statutory changes to the Recovery Act, if necessary.  Quiet suggestions to remedy the program have been made primarily by Democratic staffers in favor of the program's goals but severly concerned about the reports from Members fielding calls from funding applicants in their distrcits.  Included in these discussions have been ideas to move the spending deadline past September 30 of this year, and to shift greater broadband stimulus appropriations from NTIA to the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

5 Key Findings
The Inspector General’s report published 5 key findings (quoted from the Report):

1.     BTOP’s size and complexity have presented NTIA with significant challenges. NTIA’s pro-gram staffing levels appear to be insufficient to simultaneously perform the necessary first-and second-round award activities. The office must rely heavily on a few key individuals and personnel from other agencies to carry out the program’s operations.

2.     NTIA’s inconsistent documentation of important information such as policies, procedures, staff roles, and key management decisions could lead to inefficiency and miscommunication.

3.     The first round of BTOP grant application processing exposed several problems with the online grant intake system, which affected efficiency and users’ experiences.

4.     A shortage of volunteer peer reviewers meant that application review for the first round was delayed. As NTIA manages the second-round process and handles post-award activities for first-round grant recipients, it must be careful to obtain enough reviewers for the workload.

5. NTIA will need to closely monitor grantees during the post-award phase to ensure they are in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

5 Recommendations
Additionally, the report made 5 recommendations (quoted from the Report):

1.    Create a staffing plan that outlines the necessary resources to manage BTOP, and that makes provisions to adjust to the loss of key positions.

2. Develop and implement policies and procedures that articulate key roles, responsibilities, and requirements for documentation.

3.    Have its in-house counsel document any program issues that arise and receive documented opinions from the Department of Commerce’s Office of General Counsel.

4. Supplement the existing pool of reviewers to address unforeseen delays or other impacts that could affect the application review timeline.

5.Continue to develop monitoring procedures to identify, track, and assist recipients at risk of experiencing delays in completing post-award (National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements.

The full text document is available via StimulatingBroadband on Scribd, here:
(posted document has been corrected to allow printing, sorry for the glitch)Inspector General US Dept of Commerce Report on NTIA Broadband Stimulus Published 04-12-2010                                                              
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