Bungling at top sabotaged worthy education goals
Ohanian Comment: In explaining the behavior of the U. S. Department of Education in buying a PR campaign to sell NCLB, Spellings never mentions NCLB. She offers the high-sounding purpose of trying to inform parents. Her real whine seems to be that the campaign was botched, not that it was sleasy or illegal.
Try deconstructing this sentence. I've read it three times, and I give up:
This noble goal was sabotaged by a bungling execution. In addition, the ad produced was placed in outlets that were unlikely to reach their intended targets; and the language for the task order was written so sloppily as to allow for the impression that Williams' public endorsement of the law as a commentator, as well as the ads his firm produced, would be helpful.
THERE are moments in life where one is left mouth agape at how decision-makers can show a lack of critical judgment. This is one of them.
That was my reaction as I reviewed the findings of the inspector general audit and investigation of the Department of Education's contract with Ketchum public relations and its subcontractor, Armstrong Williams.
Although this contract was initiated and executed prior to my arrival at the Department of Education, I have been looking forward to the release of this report and its findings because it is my strong desire to understand how this happened and to ensure it is never repeated — on my watch or under any future secretary.
According to the report, at the department's request, Williams' firm was hired as a subcontractor by Ketchum to conduct a minority outreach communications campaign. The department sought to use Williams' services to create and air advertisements to encourage minority parents to take advantage of free tutoring services available to them under federal law. The goal was to reach those parents who were the most affected by the educational achievement gap that exists in this country between the haves and the have-nots.
This noble goal was sabotaged by a bungling execution. The department didn't get all the ads it paid to produce. In addition, the ad produced was placed in outlets that were unlikely to reach their intended targets; and the language for the task order was written so sloppily as to allow for the impression that Williams' public endorsement of the law as a commentator, as well as the ads his firm produced, would be helpful.
The inspector general found that the department did not violate any laws or regulations involving the formation of the Ketchum contract or task orders, but the report clearly shows serious judgment lapses and poor decision making by senior department officials. There were numerous issues, such as a dearth of communication and information sharing within the department, between the department and Ketchum as its prime contractor, and between Ketchum and Williams.
More important from my vantage point, there was also a critical lack of oversight on several levels that ultimately showed a lack of regard for how taxpayer dollars were ultimately used.
In short, what happened here was wrong.
The report explains the "how." I am focused as well on the "why."
My personal observation is that the office of the secretary carries weight. That might seem like an obvious fact, but when the secretary, his/her chief of staff and other senior officers urge, hint, suggest or recommend anything, it can start a chain reaction within the building to carry out that request. As a result, it is the secretary who must be careful about and is ultimately responsible for the signals that his/her office sends.
I know that public service requires a professional commitment to excellence. Those who are chosen to serve as top decision-makers should ensure that they are fully informed and that they are actively managing contractors, vendors and grantees so that taxpayers get what they pay for. I expect my staff to take our stewardship and oversight of taxpayer dollars seriously, whether they are spent on public communications or student education.
There clearly are problems in several aspects of contract management that I have already begun to fix. In addition, I will implement all of the inspector general's recommendations as well as other measures I am initiating that go even further. We are currently examining potential monetary remedies under the contract. In addition, the senior appointees who were responsible for this contract no longer work at the department. It was a problem that originated at the department and ultimately will be fixed by the department.
As a lifelong education policy-maker, mother of school-age children and taxpayer, I care deeply about the credibility of the Department of Education. That's why I will work diligently to regain the public trust in this agency, as well as those who serve in it.
I intend to stay focused on education while also heeding the lessons contained in this report and ensure that taxpayer dollars are used effectively and judiciously. We have much work to do to ensure that all children in this great nation, no matter their circumstance, get the quality education they so deserve.
Spellings is the U.S. secretary of education.
Margaret Spelllings, U. S. Secretary of Education
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