Volunteers Will Screen Stimulus Applications - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management
Commentary
7/9/2009
02:34 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins
Commentary
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Volunteers Will Screen Stimulus Applications

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is calling for "qualified" volunteers to screen applications for the $4.7 billion it has to spend as part of the $7.2 billion broadband stimulus package.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is calling for "qualified" volunteers to screen applications for the $4.7 billion it has to spend as part of the $7.2 billion broadband stimulus package.The NTIA is admittedly in a very difficult position: on the one hand it has to pick the projects with the best chances of successfully completing a broadband project, and on the other, it has to accomplish this screening process quickly so the projects can meet the equally-pressing goal of creating jobs.

Apparently the fastest way it found to find qualified people is a call for volunteers. Reviewers won't be paid but "will be making a significant contribution to enhancing broadband services throughout the United States."

The NTIA will take applications for its first round of grants from July 14 through August 14, and panelists are going to be reviewing thousands of applications "through at least the end of September." According to a call for reviewers issued by the agency, reviewers:

must have significant expertise and experience in at least one of the following areas: 1) the design, funding, construction, and operation of broadband networks or public computer centers; 2) broadband-related outreach, training, or education; and 3) innovative programs to increase the demand for broadband services.
Applicants will also have to hew to conflict of interest and confidentiality regulations.

The idea of using volunteers rather than paid professionals has the broadband community up in arms. Broadband strategist Craig Settles told me he feared "an unmitigated disaster [is] about to happen."

I'm not sure I agree with Settles, because given the time constraints involved, there's no guarantee the agency would be able to hire people who are any more qualified than volunteers. Moreover, there's a lot to be said for picking qualified people who are so committed they're willing to work for free -- think of the open source community, for instance.

But Settles had some interesting questions, which I've sent to the NTIA without receiving a response:

  • why have you decided to use volunteers rather than hiring employees or contract workers, particularly as Congress funded that overhead?
  • how will you verify their competence?
  • is it true that they will be allowed to work from home and, if so, why?
  • if they will be allowed to work from home, how will these groups be managed?
  • how will you ensure there isn't conflict of interest, either because of professional affiliations or loyalties to their home states?

  • Settles has long argued that communities benefit from broadband in many ways, from attracting employers to improving education, but said last night that the broadband stimulus plan has merged the complexity of broadband planning and the twisted realities of politics into a Frankenstein monster. "We're trying to jam both into an impossibly short time line and it runs against the nature of both," he told me. Despite the long-term benefits of broadband, "we've lost the ability to plan this thing out as if it were an investment."

    (The national broadband strategy being devised by Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski is a separate issue and will be presented to Congress in February.)

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