Five Ways to Make Government Procurement Better

Mark Headd at Civic Innovations:  “Nothing in recent memory has focused attention on the need for wholesale reform of the government IT procurement system more than the troubled launch of
There has been a myriad of blog posts, stories and articles written in the last few weeks detailing all of the problems that led to the ignominious launch of the website meant to allow people to sign up for health care coverage.
Though the details of this high profile flop are in the latest headlines, the underlying cause has been talked about many times before – the process by which governments contract with outside parties to obtain IT services is broken…
With all of this in mind, here are – in no particular order – five suggested changes that can be adopted to improve the government procurement process.
Raise the threshold on simplified / streamlined procurement
Many governments use a separate, more streamlined process for smaller projects that do not require a full RFP (in the City of Philadelphia, professional services projects that do not exceed $32,000 annually go through this more streamlined bidding process). In Philadelphia, we’ve had great success in using these smaller projects to test new ideas and strategies for partnering with IT vendors. There is much we can learn from these experiments, and a modest increase to enable more experimentation would allow governments to gain valuable new insights.
Narrowing the focus of any enhanced thresholds for streamlined budding to web-based projects would help mitigate risk and foster a quicker process for testing new ideas.
Identify clear standards for projects
Having a clear set of vendor-agnostic IT standards to use when developing RFPs and in performing work can make a huge difference in how a project turns out. Clearly articulating standards for:

  • The various components that a system will use.
  • The environment in which it will be housed.
  • The testing it must undergo prior to final acceptance.

…can go a long way to reduce the risk an uncertainly inherent in IT projects.
It’s worth noting that most governments probably already have a set of IT standards that are usually made part of any IT solicitation. But these standards documents can quickly become out of date – they must undergo constant review and refinement. In addition, many of the people writing these standards may confuse a specific vendor product or platform with a true standard.
Require open source
Requiring that IT projects be open source during development or after completion can be an effective way to reduce risk on an IT project and enhance transparency. This is particularly true of web-based projects.
In addition, government RFPs should encourage the use of existing open source tools – leveraging existing software components that are in use in similar projects and maintained by an active community – to foster external participation by vendors and volunteers alike. When governments make the code behind their project open source, they enable anyone that understands software development to help make them better.
Develop a more robust internal capacity for IT project management and implementation
Governments must find ways to develop the internal capacity for developing, implementing and managing technology projects.
Part of the reason that governments make use of a variety of different risk mitigation provisions in public bidding is that there is a lack of people in government with hands on experience building or maintaining technology. There is a dearth of makers in government, and there is a direct relationship between the perceived risk that governments take on with new technology projects and the lack of experienced technologists working in government.
Governments need to find ways to develop a maker culture within their workforces and should prioritize recruitment from the local technology and civic hacking communities.
Make contracting, lobbying and campaign contribution data public as open data
One of the more disheartening revelations to come out of the analysis of implementation is that some of the firms that were awarded work as part of the project also spent non-trivial amounts of money on lobbying. It’s a good bet that this kind of thing also happens at the state and local level as well.
This can seriously undermine confidence in the bidding process, and may cause many smaller firms – who lack funds or interest in lobbying elected officials – to simply throw up their hands and walk away.
In the absence of statutory or regulatory changes to prevent this from happening, governments can enhance the transparency around the bidding process by working to ensure that all contracting data as well as data listing publicly registered lobbyists and contributions to political campaigns is open.
Ensuring that all prospective participants in the public bidding process have confidence that the process will be fair and transparent is essential to getting as many firms to participate as possible – including small firms more adept at agile software development methodologies. More bids typically equates to higher quality proposals and lower prices.
None of the changes list above will be easy, and governments are positioned differently in how well they may achieve any one of them. Nor do they represent the entire universe of things we can do to improve the system in the near term – these are items that I personally think are important and very achievable.
One thing that could help speed the adoption of these and other changes is the development of robust communication framework between government contracting and IT professionals in different cities and different states. I think a “Municipal Procurement Academy” could go a long way toward achieving this.”