If you ask any given member of the self-declared resistance to President Trump what they dislike about his policies, they’ll likely respond along ideological lines, protesting his administration’s attitude to immigrants, Muslims, or the environment – to name just a few of-the-moment issues.
Sarah Zapolsky, a researcher and social science analyst who works in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has a slightly different perspective.
Having worked in a number of federal executive agencies, from HUD to Homeland Security, Zapolsky, descended from Russian Jews — her father, Harold Zapolsky, was once a star of “Old Jews Telling Jokes” — has an insider’s eye for the importance of policy detail. For her, the ideas behind an executive order or Act of Congress are important, but plans for its implementation can be just as telling.
That’s why, when she first saw plans for the administration to consider contractor’s bids to build the proposed border wall with Mexico, she felt she had to spring into action.
The administration was hoping to evaluate initial proposals in a mere four days, before requesting more detailed bids from selected vendors. Zapolsky, who has previously served as a liaison with government contractors, thought that for a project of the wall’s immensity – and projected financial cost of anywhere between $12 and $21.6 billion – the speed of that turnaround was insulting.
She took to social media in response, half-joking that her friends should register as interested vendors – the first step in submitting a bid to build the wall – and suggesting they send in questions about the process, facetious or serious, which the government would be required to answer. If significantly more vendors registered than were anticipated, or more questions were submitted, it would force the government to reconsider its implementation strategy, potentially helping taxpayers avoid having their money spent on an ill-conceived, poorly-evaluated project.
She even suggested they register themselves as affiliated with a fictional corporation named #ArtThatWall.
Her friends responded with a host of entertaining ideas, from having the wall be partially patrolled by fennec foxes to having it be built out of Legos. (That idea, as Mother Jones reported, came from Zapolsky’s 12-year-old son.)
More importantly, they followed her advice. After having an unprecedented number of interested vendors register, the administration changed its process for accepting and evaluating proposals. The Forward spoke with Zapolsky about her impromptu organizing effort; read excerpts of that conversation, below.
Talya Zax: Can you tell me how #ArtThatWall got started?
Sarah Zapolsky: The main point was the initial RFI – request for information – came like a week after the first travel ban. I have a young son, but he’s old enough to understand when things are weird. He said, “Mommy, isn’t this illegal?” He said, “we should protest.”
The very next week out comes this notification – one of the things you have to do in the federal government is contract out a lot, and I’m a core contract officers’ representative – scrolling through the daily feed I saw “we’re putting out a RFI on the wall. We’re going to ask for a two-part process. The first part will be send us your concept papers, and four days later we’ll select who we want to send us bids.”
I’m like, you’re kidding me. You’re going to blithely award 20 billion dollars because you think no one’s watching? If so many administration activities are a hammer on the thumb, that was my ow. I was offended by the four day turnaround. I went to social media, tried to explain what the issue was, and said you don’t have to promise to build anything, the first stage is to develop a proposal.
I sent it to friends who are the organizers of Burning Man. You go and you register as an interested vendor. All that means is you’ll get a notice when the request for proposals come out. When I first did that there were like 10 interested vendors, the usual suspects. The next week there was an article in the Government Executive that said there were 200 vendors, and some of them were kind of bogus, like #ArtThatWall.
Later, I got a call that was like, there are over 600 entries and some of them are like, breweries – do you have anything to do with this? I called them. They’re a craft brewery called #BrewThatWall.
What exactly was your thinking in figuring out how this project could help stall or deter progress on the wall?
Because of the way that the procurement is set up, when somebody submits a proposal or a concept paper, the government must read it.
The original procurement team was two guys in Indiana. Once they got the 200 interested vendors they set up two mailboxes just to take in interested correspondence, and then they had to push back the deadline. If you want to talk to the government, here’s the way to do it.
How has Customs and Border Protection responded to #ArtThatWall proposals, including your own?
I haven’t submitted any proposals, and I told my friends not to. How they were first going to do the request for proposals was so badly formatted that you could have flooded the office with proposals and they would have had to read them.
Then they restructured the request-for-proposals type, to have you prove you prove you’re good for whatever you’re bidding. They put in a false claims clause saying don’t lie. And then the third thing was, of those, they said who we select, you have to have built a politically contentious wall for at least 25 million dollars previously. The point of the initial thing was sort of closed through that loop.
How did you move forward from there?
Under the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) there’s a questions period where you can ask questions in a very specific format about the bid for proposals. So I said, we can’t propose, but we can ask questions. Don’t be rude, don’t be mean, but throw them out there.
They have to read all of those. They’re supposed to publish all of them and make everyone who bids sign an amendment saying they’ve read all the questions. I was just asking things like, can you make the proposal in interpretive dance?
Now that the period in which the government was accepting proposals has closed, does #ArtThatWall have a future?
I think it’s a closed project. It’s not an actual entity. People said set up a website, make it a movement, but I work full time, in a department under transition, I’m home with a young son, it’s not like I can devote my life to milking this thing along.
There’s more of a spotlight on the project – the fact that it hasn’t gotten funding, even starting before Trump was elected the wall-crossing type of immigration was decreasing – it’s not needed. Probably #ArtThatWall has served its purpose.
Do you think #ArtThatWall was effective? How so?
Government’s this big behemoth, and a lot of people don’t understand it. The contracting process has a whole battery of law behind it and it seems impenetrable. I hope that what #ArtThatWall did was show there are simple ways to show that you care what your government is doing and you want them to do it correctly.
The other part of that is if they weren’t going to follow the Federal Acquisitons Regulation, that was a statement that they would have to make in front of a whole lot of people out in public. It would have sent a really large message if they’d said “we don’t think we have to follow any rules or regulations.” Now they did follow the rules, so either way it would have been effective in shining a light on what was going on.
What are you taking away from #ArtThatWall? Is there more advocacy in your future?
This project wasn’t deliberate. It’s just that one little thing: Stand up and follow the rules or don’t, but do it publicly, and we can decide how we as people want to react to that.
I’m not an activist per se, but every day the news cycle brings out strange new policies. Working for the federal government, there’s so many smart and intelligent people doing so much work, there’s a lot of areas that could use improving and streamlining. I’m doing this as a person who cares about my country and my tax dollars.
The government works for the American people. They say you can’t fight city hall, but you can sure as heck make fun of them. If everyone’s laughing, they have to eventually behave in a way that garners respect.