Thursday, September 10, 2009

CHSRA To Re-Bid Communications Contract

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

California High Speed Rail Authority Chairman Curt Pringle has announced that the communications contract that caused some significant controversy last week when it was announced Mercury would be the winners is going to be rebid:

The California High Speed Rail Authority is scrapping a staff recommendation from last week that a firm with connections to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should receive a $9 million, five-year public relations contract, according to a memo sent today by Board Chairman Curt Pringle.

The authority will re-advertise the contract and start its selection process from scratch, Pringle said in the memo. He expects that staff will provide a formal recommendation with more transparency as soon as November.

This is exactly what I predicted would happen last week. The full memo from Pringle:

California’s high-speed train project ought to be an example of a government project done right – and that means being 100 percent open and transparent with Californians every step of the way.

In seeking out a new statewide communications and outreach contractor, the Authority followed the proper RFP procedures and made an objective recommendation. However, we realize we could have been more transparent about the process in order to more openly display that objectivity and strict adherence to state procurement procedures.

Therefore, following discussions with and recommendation from Executive Director Morshed and Deputy Director Barker, the Authority will re-advertise the solicitation and re-conduct the RFP process for this important contract in a way that more openly displays our procedures and sets a precedent for transparency in the awarding of government contracts.

Reaching out to the public as broadly as possible and ensuring access to information about the proposed high-speed train system is critical to the success of this project. I expect that a formal recommendation will be brought before the Board as soon as the November meeting.


CHSRA's critics won't be swayed by this, but this is an honest letter that admits a mistake and sets out how they're going to put it right. The Sacramento Bee article linked above added that the more transparent process used for the re-bid may reach out beyond the CHSRA:

Rail Authority Deputy Director Jeffrey Barker, one of the three staff panelists and a Schwarzenegger aide until Sept. 1, said the authority will use a larger review panel, possibly selected by a third party. Barker also said the authority will provide more information on its criteria for review.

That "third party" will be interesting. USDOT? Governor Schwarzenegger? Department of General Services? Of more importance will be the criteria for review, which enables the public to see the metrics by which bids are judged.

Ultimately this is something of a tempest in a teapot. Most PR firms are basically alike, especially in the relatively small world of California politics. All of them are politically well connected. And the communications strategy isn't quite the same as the all-important decisions about construction contracts, picking someone to supply the trains, and selecting an operator.

This may well be a good learning moment for the CHSRA. When those more important decisions are made, it will be to the CHSRA's benefit to use a very public process to make those decisions. That may or may not have been the plan all along, but this controversy is teaching them how to approach contract decisions the right way.

So we will see what happens in November!


Spokker said...

Why do they need a PR firm anyway?

cynic said...

to write their business plan

Anonymous said...

Speaking of conflicts, did you know that Curt Pringle owns a lobbying firm and Parsons used to be their client?

Brandon in California said...

Is that a conflict? Eh?

The point... I think you should closely check California laws on the matter before you besgrudge someones name like that.

Anonymous said...

Agency sees Central Valley as high-speed rail facility site

Anonymous said...

So the Chairman of the CHSRA, Curt Pringle, owns a lobbying firm, which does business with Parsons, and they are paid by Parsons. Parsons is in charge of the Bay Area to Merced segment of the project.

Is that a conflict?

I don't know for sure, but it sure warrants investigation.

There are cozy relationships between other board members as well. Diridon gets his salary from the Minetta Institute in San Jose. Parsons Brinkerhoff, the overall project manager (a separate unrelated company from Parsons), contributes funds to the institute.

Bob in the thread here, wants to brush aside the real reason why the PR contract awarding is being re-done.

Clearly this was a give it to your friends contract, orchestrated by the new Deputy director, Barker. He has only been on the job one month, and this is his way of doing business? Sounds like he needs to be watched like a hawk, or else just fired right now.

TomW said...

Spokker said...
Why do they need a PR firm anyway?
cynic said...
to write their business plan

Not to write it, but to make it look good. Also, remember PR = Public Relations, somethign the CHSRA hasn't been great at... a godo PR firm will help them communicate better with the public.

Brandon in California said...

Anon at 5:32,

In the time you wrote what you did... you probably could have investigated for yourself what the applicable conflict of interest laws there are in California.

Without that context, you're writing like a troll.

Anonymous said...

TonyW wrote:

"Not to write it, but to make it look good. Also, remember PR = Public Relations, somethign the CHSRA hasn't been great at... a godo PR firm will help them communicate better with the public."

Actually as was put forth, the PR firm was to wirte the business plan

What a PR firm will actually do

"do as much as they can to deceive the public, hide pertinent but sometimes negative information, and try to keep awarding of contracts and other ways of giving out the money, as invisible to the public as possible."

Anonymous said...

"This is exactly what I predicted would happen last week."

Robert - good job. We continue to be amazed and pleased that you have such a good bead on the inside matters at the authority - or- maybe you're just a gifted psychic. Either way, this is why we read your blog - you're well informed, and like to share.

So, it would be awseome if you could give us your take on the status of the lawsuit now; What is the plaintiff asking for? what is the authority objecting to? when will we see the details in print? When is the judge expected to hear these issues and make a decision

Anon 7:50 said...

I forgot to add - your "best guess" would be appreciated.

Unknown said...

Brandon -

Conflict of interest is a conflict of interest, not what the state of California allows or doesn't allow. There was nothing illegal about PR procurement process, but clearly conflict of interest is ultimately defined by what the public can tolerate.

The revolving door in California is making a lot of people rich in California and not helping the cause of public policy one whit.

Going above and beyond the letter of the law when it comes to disclosing potential conflicts and taking steps to minimize them is IMPERATIVE for this project.

If you high speed rail has a PR issue now, wait until week and week all the various insider connections hit the papers.

dave said...

Hey, here's another stoy not in the papers:

Local Peninsula Nimby's self interest in their real estate values fearmonger on about HSR!

Oh, My! What A scandal!

You people are no different, so shut up!

Zachary Dahl said...

I find it interesting that the CHSRA is being chastised for hiring a PR firm, but then is also being chastised for not doing enough public outreach. At the town hall meeting in Menlo Park, Congresswomen Eshoo along with many people in the audience specifically requested that the CHSRA provide a more robust public outreach campaign and make information about the project more available and accessible. The goal of hiring a PR firm is to do exactly that.

As to the comment about the PR Firm writing the business plan, that is just not true. The business plan will be prepared by the CHSRA, the PR Firm will take that business plan and make it presentable to the public. While this may be construed to some as spin and deception, the reality is most people don’t want to take the time to read and understand these large documents and then misunderstanding and misinformation persists. A great example of this is Congresswomen Eshoo not understanding that the alignment along the Peninsula was already established.

I applaud the CHSRA’s efforts to establish a highly transparent process and hope that it continues through out the life of the project.

I also would like to thank Robert for providing such great information and insights about this project. This is a great resource and I will continue to read this blog daily and recommend it to others who seek knowledge and information about the California High Speed Rail project.

Anonymous said...

Not certain you understand... California has Conflict of Interest Laws... see here

That post spoke nothing of the PR firm. It was about the unfounded accusation by an anon.

Board Watcher said...

I find it interesting that the CHSRA is being chastised for hiring a PR firm, but then is also being chastised for not doing enough public outreach.

The difference between PR and public outreach that one is self-serving and the other serves the public.

In other words, the CHSRA is being chastised for being self-absorbed spin doctors while simultaneously not giving a rat's ass about the public's "legitimate concerns" - Simitian's words.

Fred Martin said...

I find it interesting that the CHSRA is being chastised for hiring a PR firm, but then is also being chastised for not doing enough public outreach.

Yeah, the difference between manipulative PR spin and genuine public outreach and involvement should be obvious, even to hardcore HSR-heads.

A PR firm should have nothing to do whatsoever with the business plan. If CHSRA wants the document to look pretty, hire a graphic designer. CHSRA certainly doesn't need a PR firm to "manage" (or "cook") its business plan.

Spokker said...

I'm sure there are a bunch of railfan nerds with graphic design skills that would beautify the business plan for free in exchange for a ticket on the maiden voyage.

...if there is one!

ry said...

Is "PR Firm" the term CAHSR has been using, or has this just been a case of everyone quoting a reporter?

Anonymous said...

PR firm is their term. And 'manage the business plan' is what Morshed said they needed them for.

This rather begs the question, if they don't even choose the firm that will manage the business plan until November - how will they complete a business plan, more detailed, competent and professional than the one they already have, by December? I thought the legislative analysts big criticism of the existing business plan was that is was too much PR gloss, and not enough business.

Brandon in California said...

This is a rather dumb exchange going on here.

Every large organization, and many medium sized ones as well, have personnel with the exact or similar responsibilities as whom ever will get the contract here.

Whatever steps the Authority takes to bring on a firm will be critized for doing this or that.

Let's stop being ignorant of the needs of the the state and the 8 or 9 people actually working for the the State of California at the Authority; they are certainly good people, but they are not equipped to handle these larger tasks in-house.