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State Department’s Kindle plan offers a lesson in diplomacy

Dan Page

This story was first published in the August issue of Government Executive magazine.

The initial reaction was stunned outrage. After Nextgov first broke the news on June 11 that the State Department was mulling a $16.5 million contract with tech giant Amazon to purchase 2,500 Kindle Touch e-readers for overseas programs, one particular calculation started making its way around the Internet: $6,600—the amount the department reportedly was planning to pay per Kindle. 

Considering the e-readers normally retail for $189, this set off many alarm bells on Facebook, Twitter and beyond as yet another needless government contractor markup. “The State Department is buying Amazon Kindle e-readers for nearly 3,500 percent of their list price,” the Heritage Foundation tweeted.

But it wasn’t true. Once the obliquely worded contract was properly explained, it turned out that State has a plan in mind that is somehow both more reasonably priced and much more expansive than what was first reported. 

The five-year contract could include as many as 35,000 devices, and while State plans to buy the individual Kindles for 10 percent below retail price, the deal also includes 3G Internet access, language translation software and tons of preprogrammed content, along with the potential to download more directly from the department in the future.

Yet despite all the publicly available information, neither State nor Amazon would talk about the partnership until a contract was finalized. That was slated to take place June 19, but the date came and went with no announcement and the status of the contract, at press time, remains in limbo. A news conference with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos to map out the Kindle Mobile Learning Initiative, originally scheduled for June 20, was postponed indefinitely.

But we do know some things. Most notably, the goal of the Kindle venture will be about more than giving people fancy new toys. The devices will be deployed in the service of State’s American Spaces program, overseen by the Bureau of International Information Programs, in an attempt to broaden U.S. cultural influence and improve English literacy worldwide.

This idea is nothing new. Spun off from the Cold War-era U.S. Information Agency, which sought to halt the spread of communism through U.S. propaganda, the American Spaces program has been around for more than a decade. It started with a single Foreign Service officer stationed in Moscow who saw a desire among Russians to learn more about American culture. So the officer worked with local libraries and universities to bring American books and movies, along with English conversation clubs, to outposts around the nation.

“It was an idea too good to leave in one country,” says Courtney Austrian, State’s acting deputy coordinator for regional coordination and American Spaces. Expansion followed, and American Spaces started opening up around the world—some just corners in libraries, others entire cultural centers with auditoriums and exhibits. Now the program has more than 800 sites in 126 countries. State provides funding for the items brought to the venues while local partners pay the employees’ salaries.

The kinds of books that State generally sends to American Spaces vary. Because many spaces make for popular after-school study areas, often there’s a heavy emphasis on young adult literature, particularly historical fiction—a “Johnny Tremain kind of a thing,” Austrian said, referencing Esther Forbes’ 1943 children’s novel set during the American Revolution. Other selections focus on topics like federalism, the Constitution, politics, sports and biographies of famous Americans.

Kindles would seem to be a natural extension of American Spaces. And being sleek devices designed by some of the country’s best and brightest minds (though made in China), the e-readers carry the mystique of modern American ingenuity—a merging of creativity and free enterprise that State most likely wouldn’t mind putting front and center.  

In some respects, Kindles, iPods and similar devices are becoming iconic American cultural symbols. They serve as more than vehicles for Americana; in essence, they are Americana. Amazon is one of the four global-yet-American tech companies routinely trotted out these days as symbols of the country’s entrepreneurial spirit (the other three being Google, Apple and Facebook, although arguments could certainly be made for more). Some would say this is another reason why exporting Amazon’s products to government-sponsored cultural centers makes sense for a federal program aimed at promoting American values. 

Austrian says American Spaces is seeing a growing number of requests for books about entrepreneurship, especially
from countries like Greece, Spain and Italy that have been hit hard by Europe’s economic disaster. And America’s own financial problems notwithstanding, the Kindle has been an unquestionable business success, with sales in the billions of dollars and climbing. 

And Amazon is showing a greater willingness to think bigger than at least one of its competitors. Representatives for Barnes & Noble, which makes the Nook e-reader, said the company has not yet discussed any international plans for the device. Meanwhile, representatives for Apple, which makes the iPad, did not return requests for comment, although State officials previously toldNextgov the tablet has too many unnecessary functions that pose “unacceptable security and usability risks.”

Of course, as Twitter demonstrated, poorly worded contracts can pose a risk of a different kind: a PR disaster. But if State and Amazon can stop the spread of misinformation, imagine what they could do when spreading actual information.

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