What? Volunteers to Approve $4.7 Billion in Broadband Grants?

Now there’s a headline that’ll give a broadband applicant pause – and the rest of the network project team terminal heartburn.

NTIA unveiled in Boston yesterday they intend to recruit an army of volunteers to make up the panels that do the first round of the review process. This legion of un-paid but patriotic souls will influence whose grant applications make the cut by meeting the basic requirements according to the NOFA rules.

As NTIA let that little one-slide tidbit hit the screen, I gather there was a collective gasp from a majority of the people attending this workshop. The reaction was swift, and it was not positive. RUS, by the way, quickly pointed out that they’re handling the impending application onslaught the old fashioned way by hiring more staff and contractors.

I try not to be overly critical of NTIA because they have an impossible job and most of us wouldn’t want it. On the other hand, this is a pretty surprising revelation that has potential to produce some bad consequences for broadband.  

Get on the horn (e-mail, the phone line they rarely answer, your newspaper) and make your voices heard if you feel this is definitely NOT the way to go. Harold Feld, a fellow broadband activist, said it well – “you want good policy? Then you roll up your sleeves and get ready to fight for it.” I believe we definitely need to ask probing questions about this policy because it raises some doubts for quite a few people.

What were they thinking

Congress authorized a sizeable chunk of money (in the many millions) for NTIA to pay for administrative/logistical tasks. If there is a greater need for quality logistics support, you won’t find it this side of the North Pole.

When last I checked, this is a stimulus bill for creating paying jobs. How the heck can you justify asking people in a crappy economy to work for nothing on a jobs-creation project that has money budgeted to pay for the work these volunteers are being asked to do? But set aside the perverse irony for a minute.

You’re about to enter a competitive bidding process with millions of dollars at stake for your community. I think you’d want the best people stimulus money can acquire influencing who the winners are. Did you read the job qualifications required? Jiminy Cricket! NTIA wants people with some serious brain power, which is a good thing. But I feel it’s a reach to expect the best people are going to volunteer for this gig.  

If you have these skills, you’re already working fulltime or you’re looking fulltime for a job that pays you to be this good. In either scenario, you’re likely hoping to cash in on one of these broadband projects that eventually gets funded. The confidentiality and conflict of interest clauses can work against you all around.

Where does this leave the grant-proposing world? Probably with gatekeepers who sorta meet the requirements, were selected on a first come, first served basis and maybe without a lot of serious screening, and are working mostly from home with (according to the impression some workshop attendees got) moderate supervision .

Another thing…

Backtracking to conflict of interest, another concern you want to express to the powers that be is that there appears to be a lack of clarity from NTIA on how they intend to police this. As a practical matter, can you really police this?

I’m at home (hypothetically) reviewing proposals from my state and I don’t particularly like Los Angeles. I could zap every L.A. proposal in random ways and you’d never know. If I gave favorable point awards to a proposal from a vendor or county my best friend works for, would I be in conflict? You betcha! Would NTIA find out, or if they did what are they going to do, withhold my last Attaboy? I’d like to think that paid contractors give you stronger legal recourse to respond to such a scenario.

With this volunteer admin army, are there enough incentives, training time, management skills and oversight capability within NTIA to make these troops sufficiently competent, efficient and reliable to recommend the “A Team” of grant proposals? Would you trust the integrity of the grant process with such an army in place if the answers to all of the above is “no”?

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9 Responses

  1. [...] round) in 14 months it has to cut some corners to make sure it can handle the load. That means bringing on citizens to review grant applications. From the letter calling for volunteers: As a reviewer, your evaluations will be an important [...]

  2. are the folks who sit on the various ieee standards boards paid? how about the army of volunteers who somehow managed to build linux? this call for volunteers may not be as out to lunch as some would make it out to be.

    • In one sense, relying on volunteers as a concept isn’t a bad idea. However, with so little time to recruit, qualify and train people how to decipher 100-page applications, are we really going to have people really prepared for the task at hand? What’s more, how much prep work has NTIA done to maximize volunteer’s time and skills, and minimize the heartburn of managing volunteers? People at the Boston workshop had a hard time pinning NTIA down to concrete answers to these and other basic questions.

  3. There is one more possible consquence of using unpaid volunteers. What is to stop the incumbents from activating their retirees, all with good looking resumes, to volunteer with the intention of squashing any possible competition.

    I am recommending that all who apply for NTIA grants follow up the grant request with a Freedom of Information request asking for the names and the resumes of the volunteers who reviewed their grant.

  4. I am an academic and as such have a number of NSF grants and have been a reviewer for grants. Review panelist receive a nominal per diem to cover travel expense, but are not otherwise compensated. Your first sentence, about the headline giving “grant writers pause” is therefore very misleading. Grant writers understand the review process and the fact that reviewers are not paid. Maybe in industry reviewers expect to be paid, but in academia faculty and grant professionals see serving on a review panel as a chance to learn more about the review process, expand their professional network, and do something meaningful.

    • Mike,

      I agree with your assessment of the value of peer review, and as I mentioned previously, I don’t have a problem with volunteers per se. It’s the seeming lack of adequate preparation. Even qualified volunteers are going to have limits on their effectiveness if the people managing them don’t have their act together.

      The other disturbing thing for many of us is that, were the NTIA to – like RUS will – hire people to do this task, these would be the only jobs created this year by what is supposed to be a jobs creation bill. There are tech companies that had to lay off people because the stimulus in effect froze many government projects while officials wait to see if they can win a grant. At least if these laid off workers were hired to review projects, assuming non conflicts of interest was properly managed, you’d be putting some people back to work.

  5. [...] Blogs picked up on the call (.pdf) this week, taking it as an opportunity to ridicule the idea. [...]

  6. […] Blogs picked up on the call (.pdf) this week, taking it as an opportunity to ridicule the idea. […]

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