Peoples of the Procurement Departments! Hear me now!
What in the world have you done? Have you doomed us all!?
I present to the people of #OpenGov some of Chicago finest civic coding craftsmanship – ChicagoLobbyists.org
Don’t keep reading, click the link first then come back to me. See the awesome disclosure powers of this site. Every lobbyist. Every lobbying firm. Every action they ever sought. Which agency they lobbied. All. Of. It.
This was done by a team of volunteers who created this because they have a passion for open government. And, they made it open source and they posted it on GitHub. Seriously, it’s right here. After they released the first version, they worked with the city chief data officer to help refine the data and made the site better.
This is a exactly the kind of thing that should happen with #opengov. It wasn’t easy, as the lobbyist currently turn in everything on paper and it has to get digitized the old fashioned way.
So, as part of Chicago’s reform efforts the city wants to build a website where lobbyist register their activities online. Simple enough. So, they come out with an Request For Proposal. It’s objectives are as follows:
- enable lobbyists registered with the City to file, on line, all retired registration documents and activity reports.
- enable the Department to review and approve these filings as quickly as possible and communicate with lobbyists who must and have not completed their filing requirements.
- make data compiled from all lobbyists’ filings publicly available on line in various searchable, queriable reporting formats.
Now, ChicagoLobbyist.org already does #3 and does it pretty well. Now, you’d think that this #opengov project could just take the next step and throw their hat in the ring to make the site. (And they have) However, there is a problem.
I’ll quote the ChicagoLobbyist blog for this next part
Responding to an RFP for the City of Chicago is a herculean task. In the 152 pages, in addition to the usual cover letter, cost proposal, timeframe, etc, the responder must provide
- a project management/implementation plan (including org chart, all software and third party products used, etc)
- audited financial statements for the past 3 years
- an economic disclosure statement and affidavit (EDS)
- proof of $500k workers compensation and employers liability
- proof $2 million in professional liability insurance
Needless to say, this approach to an RFP results in proposals from one type of contractor: firms that are very large and able to jump through all the hoops that the City has to ensure the minimum amount of risk and liability for the City itself. The idea is, if they remove all apparent risk in the selection process, no one will be to blame if the project fails since they vetted the options so thoroughly. What the contractor actually builds and how they plan on going about it is completely secondary. This type of process rarely provides high quality products at a reasonable price, especially in software development.
As a group of volunteers working in our free time on this project, we are not what this RFP is targeting. We are, however, very competent developers and designers and have become experts on this lobbying data and how to display it. If the third objective of the RFP (above) sounds familiar to you, that’s because you’ve been to ChicagoLobbyists.org. We have already met objective 3.
And you know what? He’s right. A small business of super-elite developers and designers are still not going to carry $2 MILLION dollars in liability insurance – much less a group of volunteers who create awesome in their spare time. The only firms who are going to do this are giant firms who are probably in the ChicagoLobbyist database already. It’s not that only the big boys can code – it’s the freaking RFP rules. (And, on a personal – if not a little biased note, I sometimes think that my system would work better if it was developed by a small elite team instead of a huge software company that only does 2% of it’s business helping me serve the public)
Are we killing citizen civic innovation when we as government agencies slap these kinds of rules on our procurement process? Code for America just announced their organizing brigades of civic coders to help link like-minded developers in their community to help solve problems. If a small business can’t meet the procurement standards how are the Code for America Brigades? I would make a wager of Chicago’s finest brew that if you put together the sharpest developers in one city to solve a city problem, the result would be better than what a huge company would put together. What have we done with the RFP rules?
Please tell me that this is an oddity Procurement Nation? Do RFPs HAVE to be over a 100 pages long? Seriously? While somebody is sure to tell that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation on why the RFP rules are set up so unreasonably, it seems like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with things like this.
What are the procurement rules in your agency? Are they as large as this? What should they be?
You can follow the site’s progress on Twitter