Momentum on Procurement Reform

In following the conversations with over 500 members of the broader civic tech network at the 2013 Code for America Summit , I was struck by a shared commitment from the community: a commitment to speak candidly and honestly about the barriers we must address and the collaboration required to reduce those barriers.

Many challenges came up during the three days of conversations. Probably, though, the most striking message coming out of this year’s Summit was this: we have to take on procurement reform.

Thinkers such as Clay Johnson and Stacy Donohue rang the bell; government leaders such as Mike Bracken and Mayor Sly James spoke to the reforms already happening; and entrepreneurs like Jeff Rubenstein showcased how technology itself may actually inform how we purchase technology in a new way. (If you haven’t seen Mike Bracken’s talk yet, stop what you’re doing, take 25 minutes, sit down, and enjoy. It’s worth it.)

Procurement has been front and center to our work from the very start. As an organization, we see the processes and systems that governments use to build or procure technology to be just as essential — if not more so — than the technology itself. A structural change to the process can lead to sustainable improvements.

In a way, the fellowship itself has been our kind of “hack” on the procurement process. As I’ve written before, the way government buys technology is at odds with the way we build it.

Long lists of requirements, rigid timelines, and top-down designs are antithetical to the lean and agile methodologies championed by today’s leading technology organizations. The fellowship flips that typical government process on its head: starting with a defined problem space (rather than a defined solution), pursuing outcome-driven development based on user research and user testing and finally, building in an open and collaborative way. Some of the most exciting outcomes from the fellowship were unexpected: DiscoverBPS and Adopt-a-Hydrant in Boston, for instance, weren’t in any RFP or RFI.

Of course, the fellowship model isn’t designed to be the sole-source of technology for local governments. Instead it’s designed to show what’s possible, and encourage institutional change that leads to ongoing innovation within that city on future projects. What we’ve learned over the past few years is that based on those projects, the advocacy of national thought leaders, and the passion and enthusiasm within city hall, momentum is growing for a new way of doing technology in government. Things are changing.

Both Philadelphia and San Francisco are now piloting projects to more directly engage entrepreneurs (both outside and inside government) in the problem solving process. Philly’s FastFWD program, led by New Urban Mechanics Story Bellows and Jeff Friedman, seeks to connect technologists and urbanists with city officials at the problem definition phase, not the proposal submission phrase. They are putting the horse back in front of the cart. In addition, Philadelphia has already shown that instead of exhaustive policy overhaul, sometimes change is as simple as taking advantage of the freedom to experiment.

With an understanding of the threshold under which the full competitive bidding process was unnecessary, CDO Mark Headd leveraged the popular open source development platform GitHub to recruit developers to bid on small-dollar city contracts. The lesson here is simple enough: if you want talented local developers working on city problems, go to where they are and speak their language.

San Francisco recently launched the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, partly inspired by our Accelerator partnership with their Office of Innovation. The program seeks to stop procurement and RFPs from forcing us to reinvent the wheel. Entrepreneurs with existing solutions were asked to pitch to work hand-in-hand with the city on how their tools could help.

Kansas City, MO, has taken executive leadership on this front. Mayor Sly James penned an executive order calling for IT procurement reform, specifically calling for more avenues for small, local businesses — that is, civic startups — to contract with the city. With the host of companies cropping out of the Silicon Prairie (MindMixer, Citizenvestor, to just name a few) we’re already seeing the emergence of a thriving ecosystem.

These are just a handful of the examples we know of, and surely there are many more we don’t. Over the next year, we will be looking to the community to identify others, and to use them to align on a strategy on what we can do city-to-city to take on this crucial issue. But of course this isn’t just a local issue. President Obama just last week said so himself on NBC with Chuck Dodd:

You know, one of the lessons learned from this whole process on the [] website is that probably the biggest gap between the private sector and the federal government is when it comes to I.T. How we [procure] it, how we purchase it… And I actually think that once we get this particular website fixed, there are going to be some lessons learned that we can apply to the federal government generally.

I certainly hope so. As Tom Steinberg (referencing Chris Lightfoot) wrote, “What good governance and the good society look like is now inextricably linked to an understanding of the digital.”

This is more apparent than ever given the enormous impact of the the launch on people’s lives.

As we move forward, it is this “understanding of the digital” — an understanding of how technology really works, and how government should structurally rethink its approach to technology — that must be at the core of the conversation.

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