Procurement and Civic Innovation

Derek Eder: “Have you ever used a government website and had a not-so-awesome experience? In our slick 2014 world of Google, Twitter and Facebook, why does government tech feel like it’s stuck in the 1990s?
The culprit: bad technology procurement.
Procurement is the procedure a government follows to buy something–letting suppliers know what they want, asking for proposals, restricting what kinds of proposal they will consider, limiting what kinds of firms they will do business with, and deciding if what they got what they paid for.
The City of Chicago buys technology about the same way that they buy health insurance, a bridge, or anything else in between. And that’s the problem.
Chicago’s government has a long history of corruption, nepotism and patronage. After each outrage, new rules are piled upon existing rules to prevent that crisis from happening again. Unfortunately, this accumulation of rules does not just protect against the bad guys, it also forms a huge barrier to entry for technology innovators.
So, the firms that end up building our city’s digital public services tend to be good at picking their way through the barriers of the procurement process, not at building good technology. Instead of making government tech contracting fair and competitive, procurement has unfortunately had the opposite effect.
So where does this leave us? Despite Chicago’s flourishing startup scene, and despite having one of the country’s largest community of civic technologists, the Windy City’s digital public services are still terribly designed and far too expensive to the taxpayer.

The Technology Gap

The best way to see the gap between Chicago’s volunteer civic tech community and the technology that the City pays is to look at an entire class of civic apps that are essentially facelifts on existing government websites….
You may have noticed an increase in quality and usability between these three civic apps and their official government counterparts.
Now consider this: all of the government sites took months to build and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Was My Car Towed, 2nd City Zoning and were all built by one to two people in a matter of days, for no money.
Think about that for a second. Consider how much the City is overpaying for websites its citizens can barely use. And imagine how much better our digital city services would be if the City worked with the very same tech startups they’re trying to nurture.
Why do these civic apps exist? Well, with the City of Chicago releasing hundreds of high quality datasets on their data portal over the past three years (for which they should be commended), a group of highly passionate and skilled technologists have started using their skills to develop these apps and many others.
It’s mostly for fun, learning, and a sense of civic duty, but it demonstrates there’s no shortage of highly skilled developers who are interested in using technology to make their city a better place to live in…
Two years ago, in the Fall of 2011, I learned about procurement in Chicago for the first time. An awesome group of developers, designers and I had just built – our very first civic app – for the City of Chicago’s first open data hackathon….
Since then, the City has often cited as evidence of the innovation-sparking potential of open data.
Shortly after our site launched, a Request For Proposals, or RFP, was issued by the City for an ‘Online Lobbyist Disclosure System.’
Hey! We just built one of those! Sure, we would need to make some updates to it—adding a way for lobbyists to log in and submit their info—but we had a solid start. So, our scrappy group of tech volunteers decided to respond to the RFP.
After reading all 152 pages of the document, we realized we had no chance of getting the bid. It was impossible for the group to meet the legal requirements (as it would have been for any small software shop):

  • audited financial statements for the past 3 years
  • an economic disclosure statement (EDS) and affidavit
  • proof of $500k workers compensation and employers liability
  • proof of $2 million in professional liability insurance”