This brings me to one of my favorite gripes with the Washington press. There is an endless supply of fun, important stories about the nitty-gritty of government that are not covered because reporters have to go find them instead of waiting for some inspector general or congressional committee to discover them and serve them up. Some reporters, such as Robert O’Harrow of The Washington Post, do this kind of work, but not many. The same is true for how the press covers or doesn’t cover most state and municipal governments.
As an example of what else might be out there, take the aforementioned GSA.
The GSA is the equivalent of the people who manage everything in your office, from the building’s lease and services to the photocopying machines to basic cleaning and supplies. In the federal government that means an agency with 12,000 people and a fleet of 190,000 vehicles that oversees $66 billion in annual spending for products, services and facilities. Its budget for its own people and the facilities it builds or maintains is over $600 million. (In fact, just the GSA Office of Inspector General has 338 people in 14 locations scattered around the country and spends $62 million a year.)
One good story might ask whether we need a GSA at all, given that just about every agency of the federal government has its own facilities and procurement offices. It’s a question I couldn’t help asking myself when I noticed that one of GSA’s three “strategic goals” listed in the introduction to its 260-page annual budget request to Congress is [PDF]:
Customer Intimacy. GSA will seek an intimate understanding of and resonance with its customers in order to serve with integrity, creativity, and responsibility. GSA will develop strategic partnerships with industry and with other Federal agencies to develop new and innovative tools for a more effective Government.
Cherry-picking this kind of bureaucratic drivel out of a massive document is easy and unfair without more reporting. GSA could be an unsung engine of cutting-edge management efficiency. Either way, it’s worth a look.
Even if GSA passes that overall legitimacy test, there are all kinds of questions lurking in that budget document that are potentially as interesting, and more important in terms of dollars, than the Vegas jaunt. For example:
GSA is spending $36 million dollars to fix up a border crossing in Dunseith, North Dakota. I was at that border crossing in conjunction with a book I did about the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that seems like a lot of money; as I recall, Dunseith is the least busy of the three full-service border crossings in North Dakota. Who’s getting all that money? How could it possibly cost $36 million for this small facility? Is there a congressional pork story behind this? Or has Denseith, population 713, become an as-yet-unheralded terrorist crossroads that needs almost 50 percent more than the federal money North Dakota got this year in aid for the Head Start early childhood education program?
There’s lots more, page by page, in turgid budget documents like the GSA’s - from the $145 million to redo and consolidate the FBI’s office in San Juan to the $7 million to improve on “wellness and fitness programs” in government buildings.
Put simply, there’s no reason the DC press corps has to wait for an inspector general to generate its own scoops.
3. What are the “Cuban medical brigades”?
Here’s a sentence buried in the amazing New York Times story last week recounting how a team of U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal seems to have caused a cholera epidemic in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake:
At first, Doctors Without Borders and the Cuban medical brigades, both self-financed, handled the overwhelming majority of cases.
What are “the Cuban medical brigades?” A Google search took me to a Wikipedia entry titled “Cuban Medical Internationalism,” which says that “Cuba provides more medical personnel to the developing world than all the G8 countries combined, although this comparison does not take into account G8 development aid spent on developing world healthcare It is widely believed that medical workers are Cuba’s most important export commodity.”
Cuba has long been known for making healthcare a priority and for exporting health workers. But with medical care such a hot topic in the United States, this story out of Cuba could be an eye-opener.
4. Is Mexico also ahead of us on health care?