By Patricia H.
In a New York Times
editorial that appeared over the sleepy Fourth of July holidays, John Sopko,
special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, is reported as highlighting
in his office’s latest quarterly report seemingly as many fiscal mistakes by
the US government and its myriad of contractors as by the Afghans. The purpose of the special investigatory office
is to 1) promote efficiency and effectiveness of reconstruction
programs and 2) detect and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.
There’s the $771.8 million spent by the Pentagon for aircraft –
including the purchase of 30 Russian helicopters – to be flown by phantom Afghan
pilots. Then the ongoing investigation of prime contractors who have apparently shorted
their subcontractors by $62 million and the continuing investigation of
contractors who have neglected to screen subcontractors who may be in bed with
the Taliban. Add in the investment in expensive
projects like rural hospitals the Afghans cannot sustain – and likely will not
need – not to mention questionable data from USAID and the Pentagon claiming meaningless
successes or ones not due to US government funding at all.
Senior USAID officials objected to Sopko’s
criticisms – although the Pentagon apparently has not yet been heard from –
with the objections that the IG’s investigations are too narrowly focused or ignore
Veteran Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaram digs
deeper or at least tunnels in a different direction. He points out that the IG’s
investigations show that a US “initiative to spend millions of dollars on
construction projects in Afghanistan, originally pitched as a vital tool in the
military campaign against the Taliban, is running so far behind schedule that
it will not yield benefits until most US combat forces have departed the
Something is wrong
with this picture
Why is the US approach to so many things international that
of throwing money and expensive contractors at a problem (after having
neglected what should have been being done on a far smaller scale and at a far
cheaper price years earlier) and then to measure the results using
quantitative data that may have little or no relevance to what should have been real goals?
GPRA is part of the
problem – not the solution
In the 1990s Congress – in its infinite wisdom – mandated
that the executive branch of government adopt and implement GPRA (the government
performance and results act). This is a quantitative tool designed to provide numerical
answers to curbing government spending. Yet,
the only people I saw benefiting from it at the time were contractors who made
money by teaching bureaucrats how to comply with the new and often time consuming additional requirements.
I remember the countless hours wasted at conference tables
at the then US Information Agency in the mid-1990s trying to devise ways to
measure the effects or outcomes of programs that in reality were either
non-quantifiable or the results would only be visible so far in the future that annual
reporting was meaningless. Nevertheless,
like the good bureaucrats we were, we grumbled but soldiered on. From there followed the invention of reachable goals based on creative – and sometimes meaningless – mission statements that could be measured regardless
of the intrinsic value to the US taxpayer.
Still GPRA lumbers on and the Congress versus bureaucrat
GPRA cat-and-mouse game continues unabated. In the case of Afghanistan, it seems to me that
USAID was handed tasks the US military didn’t want, or couldn’t do, and playing
under mandatory GPRA rules, USAID officials devised goals – programs – and measures that the agency would have
a chance of meeting. But is this approach really in the
best interests of either the US or Afghanistan?
Does the special IG need to dig through myriads of GPRA-compliant questionably
designed projects that have thus far produced questionable results before
getting to the question of the misuse of funds and lack of contractor oversight
(or connivance depending on how one sees it) which is where attention should be
focused? And wasn’t that
contracting data already available pre-GPRA?
So how useful is GPRA anyway?
Playing the numbers
Yes, I know this is a digital world and if this country
weren’t so good at playing the digital game we also wouldn’t now be burdened
with the Mannings and Snowdens who were hired for their computer skills – not
their common sense. (There are ways to
be a federal government whistleblower without going AWOL and absconding with the booty à la Captain Hook).
True, we might – or might not – have had more terrorist attacks but all the
NSA’s Snowdens didn’t prevent the Tsarnaev brothers’ audacious murders and maimings at the
Boston Marathon in April.
Pray tell: How did that plot fly under NSA’s radar if
America’s snooping is so ubiquitous? One response is that an espionage organization can collect infinite data but in
reality it still has limited capability to sift through it all in a timely enough
fashion to change the course of history.
Missing: the watercolor of the violin and the curvy, transient expressions of the saxophone
Last night I was reading Ron Rosenbaum’s interview of
digital pioneer Jaron Lanier in the January 2013 Smithsonian. Lanier is far
more subversive than either Manning or Snowden because of his questioning of and
rebellion against the effects of the digital or virtual reality, on American
society, a reality he helped create in the 1980s. Besides he has not gone on the lam.
In the interview, Lanier – also a musician – is quoted as
writing about MIDI (the digitizing program that “chops up music into one-zero
binaries for transmission)” as being conceived of “from the keyboard point of
view.” What it can’t do, he tells us, is to “describe
the curvy, transient expressions of a singer or (that) a saxophone note (can)
produce. It (can) only describe the
tile-mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolor of the violin.” It also cannot produce the impact or true
sound of a live opera or symphony performance or the feeling and sound
that immerse a performer in a group of instrumentalists or singers.
It’s the violin’s watercolor or the saxophonist’s curvy,
transient expressions that is missing from the application of GPRA’s all too MIDI
like-characteristics – among other things.
It’s also a case of zeroing in on the trees but missing the forest and
this is what GPRA is also prone to do.
John Sopko (someone I’ve known for years) is a smart, savvy,
and highly experienced government investigator who is capable of seeing the
trees as well as the forest. So maybe (as reported) this special IG did not commend USAID
for projects that are working as USAID senior managers beset with the GPRA
mentality would have preferred. But to do his job well, Sopko’s investigations need to understand the broader picture and its nuances not just to dissect the intricacies of a raft of paint-by-number pictures.