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Rewiring Government

The Department of Better Technology helps governments deliver great digital services to the people who depend on them.

Adam Becker

Posts by Adam Becker

Co-Founder and CTO

Collecting Net Promoter Score using Screendoor

We love the concept of dogfooding at DOBT. Even though we’re not a government agency, we’re always on the lookout for new opportunities to use Screendoor for ourselves. So, when our Customer Success team mentioned that they were looking at different tools to conduct a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey with our users, we immediately thought, “Hey, we can build that with Screendoor!”

We’re pretty excited about how easy Screendoor makes this process, so we’ve decided to share our strategy (and our own Screendoor-NPS repository) with all of you. Feel free to try it out and let us know what you think.

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Interview: Aidan Feldman on cloud.gov and the new marriage of policy and technology in government

Quote from Aidan Feldman, excerpted from the transcript below.

In this episode of Rewiring Government, DOBT’s CTO Adam Becker steps in as guest host and talks to Aidan Feldman, an Innovation Specialist and developer at 18F, which is part of the United States General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service. They discuss cloud.gov, some interesting “bureaucracy hacks,” and the remaining barriers to real technological change within the federal government. If you’re interested in learning more about the work 18F is doing, check out Aidan’s talk about IT compliance, 18F’s guide to launching software, and cloud.gov.

Use the player above to listen, or subscribe on iTunes and Google Play! You can also add our RSS feed to your favorite podcast app. If you like this episode, rate and review us on iTunes, and tell your friends.

A transcript of the interview is below, edited for content and flow.

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Welcome, Becca!

We’re happy to announce the newest addition to our team, Rebecca Moore.

Becca joins us from the California Department of Parks and Recreation, where she gained first-hand experience with the many challenges that front-line government workers face. This makes her the perfect addition to our growing customer success team, as well as an adept project manager for some of our larger clients.

Becca also joins me and Kari as the team’s third California-native. She graduated from UC Davis in 2013 with honors in Classics and high honors in History.

Welcome, Becca!

becca's headshot

Follow @beccamoore09 on Twitter →

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Designing a better authentication system for Screendoor respondents

Last month, we rethought the way that respondents to our customers’ hosted forms authenticate themselves. Previously, we required respondents to create an account, which adds unnecessary friction. We redesigned the system to deliver all of the benefits of account creation with none of the downsides, taking cues from the “passwordless authentication” movement.

We wanted to give you a look into the problems we identified with our old system, the design process we used to iterate upon user flows, and how we migrated to the new system with minimal impact to our users.

But, first, if you want to try out the new system, check out one of our sample forms to see it in action.

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Screendoor (finally) gets a "trash" for responses

Today we shipped a major feature to Screendoor. All projects now have a “trash can” where you can send deleted responses.

Screenshot of Screendoor's trash

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Adding a new type of form field in Screendoor

Besides seeking feedback from our users, we keep a close eye on the forms they publish. Seeing all these great forms really helps us guide Screendoor’s product direction.

Here’s one example we wanted to share. Over the past few months, we’ve seen several users create form fields like these, asking respondents to agree to certain conditions before they continue:

checkbox field as a confirmation

Screendoor’s form builder lets users add checkbox fields, but they aren’t designed for a single option with a blank label. That’s why the asterisk indicating a required field appears in the screenshot above. We considered changing the behavior of checkbox fields to remove the stray asterisk. But ultimately, we decided to create a new type of field, one that would more clearly fit a user’s mental model of providing confirmation.

So, that’s all to say that we shipped a new field type today: “Confirm.” It looks like this:

confirmation field

Screendoor users can now take advantage of this new field type to create better-looking, more semantic forms that are easier to understand. And we’ll continue looking for ways to make our customers’ forms even better.

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A whole slew of Screendoor updates

We’ve been quiet for the past month or two! Here’s a peek of what we’ve been up to:

Improved message presets :love_letter:

screenshot of message presets

We’ve re-worked the user flow for sending messages. Not only can you now add a name to your message presets to make them easier to identify, you can also tweak their contents before sending them. This should be a great time-saver!

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Scheduling appointments with Screendoor

This week I heard from a government official whose department plans to host office hours to stay in touch with the public. He had looked at various software tools for scheduling these meetings, but nothing offered both the power and simplicity he needed. He wanted his staff to be able to manage meeting requests and quickly send meeting details to attendees. Above all, the tool needed to be accessible to the public, especially people with limited connectivity or technology skills.

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Building a nomination form with Screendoor

Recently, a client asked us how to build a “nomination form” inside of Screendoor. In this instance, the client was running a fellowship program and wanted to allow members of the public to nominate potential fellows. Nominees would receive an email informing them that they had been nominated, and asking them if they would like to apply.

We responded, detailing how this could easily be built by using our integration with Zapier. We liked this solution so much that we decided to share it with you, too.

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Our “New Client Guide,” and how we educate government about Software-as-a-Service

When purchasing software, government tends to play by a fixed set of rules.

First, stakeholders are convened, requirements checklists are created, and RFPs are issued. For entirely custom-developed systems, the work might take years to complete, if not decades. A popular alternative is to purchase software as “Commercial off-the-shelf” (COTS), a practice which aims to reduce risk and time-to-delivery, but still results in the same failings as custom-developed software. These are the two most popular methods that the federal government uses to purchase software, yet they’re practically designed for failure. The Standish Group reports that 94% of these large-scope projects fail in one way or another.

A big part of our mission at DOBT is to change these rules.

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Public infrastructure and government IT have a lot in common

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Our public infrastructure is in bad shape. A federal report from 2006 deemed 70,000 bridges “structurally deficient,” the American Society of Civil Engineers gives our infrastructure a “D+” grade, and the issue has even been featured on popular television programs like 60 Minutes and The Daily Show. But when it comes time to spend money on this vital infrastructure, our governments are reluctant to open the pocketbook until we reach a time of crisis.

Government IT is no different.

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Why your agency should consider a “procurement pilot”

rfpez screenshot

Pictured: RFP-EZ, a pilot project in federal IT procurement.

If you’re a follower of DOBT and our blog, you know that we’re a bit obsessed about government procurement – in fact, some of our most widely-shared posts have been on the subject. But when Clay and I first met in 2012 during our Presidential Innovation Fellowship, procurement wasn’t discussed outside traditional government circles, especially not by the “civic tech” or “civic hacking” community.

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Using Turbolinks to hack JavaScript's beforeunload

Want to jump straight to the JavaScript library? https://github.com/ajb/beforeunload.js

If you’ve ever implemented auto-save behavior in a web app, you’re probably familiar with JavaScript’s beforeunload event, which is the “hook” that lets you stop a user before they leave a page. This is what it looks like in Chrome:

beforeunload alert

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New Screendoor Feature: Activity Feed!

We just launched one of our most requested features, the ability to see an “activity feed” of a response inside of your Screendoor project. Here’s what it looks like:

screendoor activity feed ​ This feature makes Screendoor an even better way for you and your colleagues to collaborate and make decisions with ease. It works with your existing projects, so sign in and take a look!

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Welcome, Kari!

We’re excited to announce that Kari Mah has joined our growing team at DOBT. Not only is Kari a talented programmer and writer, but she has also served as a fellow at the The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, meaning that she has experience in the grantwriting and RFP processes. It’s hard to imagine a better fit for DOBT, and we’re extremely happy that she’s decided to join our cause.

kari's headshot

Follow @kari_mah on Twitter →

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DOBT's Year in Review

Wow, what a year it’s been! The time has flown by, but when looking back on what we’ve accomplished over the last twelve months, it’s truly night and day. Before heading into the new year, we want to share with you some of our proudest moments from 2014:

1. We grew the team

There’s a moment in every startup’s life when you start to feel like a “real company,” and for us, it was when the team expanded to more than just the two of us. It’s not an easy choice to join a small, fully-distributed company, and it’s humbling as a founder when you find others that share your vision. Aviv Nitsan, Josh Rubenoff, and Josh Goldstein all joined us in 2014, and we couldn’t be happier to have them on board.

2. We built Screendoor into a mature product

We’ve built a lot of software in our short life as a company, but in early 2014 we made the decision to double-down on Screendoor. Collecting and managing information is one of the core functions of government, and we saw the opportunity for our software to make a real impact. In 2014, Screendoor went from a rough beta to a mature, battle-hardened platform. Before, it was barely possible to use Screendoor without some significant hand-holding from our team, but now government agencies we’ve never even talked to are signing up and using it successfully. We’ve rolled out an extensive knowledge base, documenting every nook and cranny of the application, and shipped some seriously awesome features like e-signatures, payments, and the ability to integrate with over 300 other apps.

3. We’ve earned some stunning praise

When our users are happy, we’re happy. Here’s a few of our favorite Tweets from 2014:

4. We’ve had the pleasure of serving some amazing clients

We talk a lot about government, but we also have the pleasure of serving some truly inspiring non-profits as well. In the past year, we’ve seen organizations like Code for America and Mozilla OpenNews use Screendoor to manage applications for their respective fellowship programs. We’ve helped streamline the way they select talent, and that’s something that pays real dividends down the road. We’re extremely grateful for each and every one of our clients, and we wish we had room to name all of them here.

Looking forward…

We have some exciting developments in store for 2015, and can’t wait to share them with you. In the meantime, we’re still focused on our core mission: making great software that helps governments and non-profits better serve their communities.

Happy new year from the DOBT team!

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Screendoor feature updates

Another week, another round of awesome features being shipped in Screendoor. Here’s what we’ve been working on:

Organization-level permissions for projects

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You can now assign project collaborators on a per-organization basis, which should be a great time-saver!

Email address in unsubmitted response details

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We added the respondent’s email address to the unsubmitted responses page, so you can follow-up with anyone who hasn’t completed your form.

Show read/unread status on responses page

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Now it’s easier than ever to track if a response is read or unread.

Better notification emails

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We now send notification emails with the “from name” set to the triggering user, so it’s less likely that your coworkers will pass over them.

Still haven’t given Screendoor a try? Sign up for our free trial here: go.dobt.co/screendoortrial

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Why our free trials no longer have an expiration date

If you’re familiar with the Department of Better Technology, you know that something that sets us apart from other government-focused technology firms is that we build hosted platforms. That means there’s nothing to install, and that setting up a new agency or organization takes minutes, not days. This allows us to offer a completely free trial of our applications – something we think is a necessity when selling software. We want our customers to buy Screendoor because they’ve used and loved it, not because they looked at a carefully-crafted marketing page, or a salesperson promised it would change their life.

For the past year, these free trials would last for seven days. Enough time, we thought, for a potential user to set up a form in Screendoor, collect some responses, and show their colleagues what it can do. Even though this length of time is often seen in the startup world, we have realized that in our line of work, it is nowhere near enough time to really evaluate a product. Today we’re announcing that starting now, Screendoor (and our other apps) will come with a free trial that never expires.

Why the change? We want potential customers to be able to use Screendoor for a real-world project, and we realize that in government, these projects don’t always happen overnight. We’re well aware of how long the government purchasing process can take, and we don’t want to be in the position of restricting an agency’s access to our software just because we’re waiting for the puchasing department to deal with payment.

Our hope is with these extended free trials, we’ll be able to give a lot more folks a chance to really see how Screendoor can improve their agency’s communication, workflows, and efficiency. If you haven’t tried it yet, there’s no better time to sign up and see what it’s all about. If you already have an expired free trial, just get in touch and we’ll put you on our new “Free forever” plan.

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Announcing Payments for Screendoor

Have five minutes to spare? Here’s a quick screencast about payments, one of Screendoor’s new features that we’re most excited about:

Our integration with Stripe gives Screendoor users access to the best payments platform on the web. Want to give it a spin? Get in touch!

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Welcome, Josh!

One of the first things we learned when building software for government was that shininess is overrated. Sure, you can slap Bootstrap on your civic app and it’ll immediately look better than 99% of the software that governments are currently using, but when developing an app like Screendoor, everything comes down to user experience. Today, we’re excited to announce that we’ve hired Josh Rubenoff, a talented designer who will help us make our products even more intuitive and easy-to-use. (And heck, maybe a little shinier, too.)

Josh is a self-taught product designer who’s done everything from designing iPad & Web applications for the healthcare industry, to compiling a syllabus for new designers, to interviewing film directors about their work. We couldn’t be happier that he decided to bring his myriad talents to DOBT. Welcome, Josh!

josh's headshot

Follow @joshsj on Twitter →

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Aviv Nitsan joins DOBT Support!

Hey friends! First, we’d like to announce a recent addition to our team. Aviv Nitsan is a talented programmer, as well as a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s Comparative Literature program, so it’s only natural that he’ll be doing technical customer support here at DOBT. If you find yourself in a coffeeshop in Boulder, Colorado on a weekday, you might just spy Aviv writing code, replying to support requests, or proofreading the horrendous grammar in one of my or Clay’s blogposts.

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Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience, Part 3: Many hands make awesome work

This post is the third in our “Creating an Unbelievable Citizen Experience” series, highlighting the features and benefits of our flagship product, Screendoor.

If you’ve been following along with this mini-series, you’ve heard our pitch over and over again: the most drastic way you can improve the citizen experience is by making the necessary interactions with government quicker and easier, and that Screendoor is designed to accomplish just that. But did you know that in addition to saving time for your citizens, Screendoor can also help you and your staff save time and money?

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OpenRFPs on National Day of Civic Hacking

National Day of Civic Hacking is this weekend, and we couldn’t be more excited to continue the great work that’s been done on OpenRFPs, our community-driven effort to write scrapers for government contracting opportunities. If you’d like to get involved, we’ve written up a current state-of-the-project here: https://gist.github.com/adamjacobbecker/005f3ed586964220c54d

Feel free to join us – either in-person in NYC, Seattle, or Los Angeles, or in our chatroom – and together, we can start to get this important data in the hands of the people.

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New Service Status Page

Last week, we experienced a small period of downtime due to a network issue in our underlying data center. While small incidents like this one can happen to anyone, we realized that we needed a way to keep our customers informed about the status of our services. I’m happy to announce that now, you can see current and historical uptime data for our apps at status.dobt.co, as well as subscribe to be notified of future outages and planned maintenance.

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Screendoor New Features: Tables & Multi-Page Forms

We just shipped two new features in Screendoor, and we think they’re so awesome that we couldn’t wait to tell you about them.

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OpenRFPs: Day 1

This past weekend, DOBT participated in Code Across 2014, a nationwide hackathon where community members and local governments come together to develop tools and applications that improve their communities. We’ve attended events like this before, but this weekend was special because we had just launched OpenRFPs, our community-based initiative to democratize RFP data across the country.

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Screendoor New Features: Messages, Edits, and more!

We’ve been heads-down on our flagship product, Screendoor, our software that makes it easy for you to list projects online – like jobs, RFPs, and apps contests – and find the winning responses. You might think, from our recent blogposts, that all DOBT does is yammer on about procurement reform and build silly Hubot scripts. Not so! Let’s take a look at some of the great new features we’re rolling out in Screendoor.

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Team Management with Hubot

When Clay and I first started working together, we quickly realized that we are both total nerds when it comes to team productivity. In just a few weeks, we had built the first version of MorningCheckin, a lightweight app that lets each team member “check in” every morning and let others know what they “got done” the previous day and what they intend to “get done” today. Our team started using MorningCheckin fastidiously, but after a few months the habit just wasn’t sticking. When we arrived at our office in the morning, the first thing we wanted to do was open a new browser tab, wait for MorningCheckin to load, and craft a new checkin using its special syntax.

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Showing Adopta some love

A little over a month ago, we launched Adopta, our version of Code for America's Adopt-a-Hydrant that let anyone set up their own Adopt-a-Anything website. While our original goal was just to see if there would any interest in such an app, we quickly realized that more than just making the app widely available, it was also our duty to see what we could do to improve it.

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Made Bootstrap accessible

One thing that’s been frustrating about developing apps for the government web is that some of the great front-end frameworks we use don’t take accessibility into account. A week ago I announced our plan to add some modest accessibility improvements to Bootstrap, and asked some friends from Code for America and the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program to help contribute.

I’m proud to announce that as of today, our changes have been merged into the main Bootstrap repo. Our work isn’t completely done, (in round 2, we’ll start testing Bootstrap with an actual screen reader,) but we’ve already achieved significant progress in making Bootstrap more friendly to users of assistive technology.

Major credit is due to the folks that showed up to hack, both in-person and virtually: @criscristina, @dannychapman, @louh, @bensheldon, and @jasonlally. Thanks everybody for helping out!

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Making Bootstrap accessible

Recently I’ve been working on making Screendoor “508 compliant”. Section 508 is a federal law stating that all IT systems must be accessible to users with disabilities – kind of like WCAG, except mandated by the federal government. In it’s most simplified form, it’s basically a checklist of accessibility best-practices that all federal websites need to follow.

Unfortunately, everyone’s favorite Twitter Bootstrap is rife with accessibility issues. Things like using the <i> tag for icon classes, using anchor tags to toggle menus… and some trickier ones, like encouraging users to use non-semantic header nesting. (Is the biggest header on your site an <h1>? no? bzzzzzzz)

That’s why this weekend we’re hosting an informal gathering in Oakland (and virtually) to work on making Bootstrap follow accessibility best-practices. Where we need your help is filing issues – before Sunday, we would love to have a fairly comprehensive list of where Bootstrap fails 508 and WCAG guidelines. I’ve started building the list, and would love any and all help filling it out:

https://github.com/dobtco/bootstrap-accessible/issues

Bootstrap is already a great foundation for any web project. We hope that after some concerted efforts this weekend, that foundation will be accessible, too.

Announcing Adopta - SaaS-ifying government software

A while back, before Clay and I had even conceived of DOBT, I tweeted:

Someone needs to create the 37signals of government software.

If you’re familiar with 37signals, you know that they’re behind Basecamp, Campfire, Highrise, and a bunch of other highly-regarded web applications. None of these apps are particular unique – there’s probably at least 10,000 other project management tools out there – but users love these apps because:

  1. They do one thing and do it well
  2. They start out free, and the price scales with the size of your organization
  3. They’re Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), so there’s nothing to install and they’re never out of date.

Our open government community has made some pretty some pretty big strides in the past decade. A lot of the cutting-edge apps and platforms that governments are using are open-source, so anyone can grab the code and deploy an instance for their city. But what happens when someone wants to use these applications, but doesn’t have the technical know-how to take the code, customize it, and host it themselves?

That’s why today we’re launching Adopta, a SaaS version of Code for America’s most-redeployed application, Adopt-a-Hydrant.

adopta screenshot

Adopt a Hydrant is one of CfA’s biggest successes. It was originally developed for the City of Boston in 2011, but the community quickly realized that it had applications beyond just adopting fire hydrants. In 2012, Honolulu launched “Adopt a Siren”, an application that allows citizens to take responsibility for tsunami sirens by checking to ensure their functionality and reporting the status to the City.

Today, Adopta empowers anyone, regardless of coding skills and technology know-how, to create their very own Adopt a Hydrant for their community. Every aspect of the site is customizable – so no matter if you want to adopt hydrants, storm drains, or banana stands, you’ll be able to tweak the website copy and images to fit.

So far this has only been a small side-project of ours, but we’re excited to test the waters and see where we can go with this SaaS-for-government model. If it piques your interest, give us a hand and help test out Adopta!

Screendoor new feature: Custom rating fields

Today we’re launching a new feature in Screendoor: custom review fields. We’ve had this one on our minds for a while, and we think that it will make Screendoor an even more effective tool for reviewing large numbers of applicants.

With all of our features we want to make sure that we keep Screendoor as simple as possible, so when adding customization to the application, we never want to create more work for you, our user. Here’s how it works:

When you create a project in screendoor, we create an overall rating field for you:

default rating fields

This should be enough for most use cases, but if you want to rank your responses on say, a combination of “skill”, “experience”, and “creativity”, it’s as easy as creating those three fields here:

custom rating fields page

This will let your reviews rank each response multiple times, and the system will automatically calculate the average rating across all fields and display it to you.

And that’s just one way to rank responses. You also have the option of reviewing by response field – so you can ask your reviewers to rate a specific section of a response, like so:

response field rating fields

Right now, you have the option between Stars, Red/Yellow/Green, a Number Range, and Free Response. Here’s what they look like, all in a row:

all fields

This should be a ton of help for anyone who is managing a ton of reviewers, or integrating Screendoor with an already-established review process. And it opens up all kinds of possiblities for new features – weighted review fields? Bid discounts for registered vendors? As always, drop us a note to let us know what you think!

Bringing Procurement Reform to Every City in America

Last month, the White House announced that our project, RFP-EZ, helped cut the costs of government IT projects by an average of 30%. Today, I’m excited to announce that we’re making that same technology to every city and state in America, regardless of the size of their budget or their IT department. We’re doing this by launching Screendoor.io, a software-as-a-service application modeled after RFP-EZ. This means:

  • You pay for a monthly subscription, with no initial upfront cost
  • You can try it out, without ever spending a dime
  • It never goes out of date, and new features are always being developed
  • There’s no server upkeep or other hidden costs
  • You can cancel your subscription and take your data at any time

By now you’ve probably heard about the fantastic results we saw during our pilot of RFP-EZ inside the federal government. Recently we’ve been talking to cities and encouraging them to try a similar pilot, but we realize that not every city has an RFP-EZ-sized budget available to them for procurement experimentation. By embracing a software-as-a-service platform, we’ve done something incredible: every single city, county, and state government is now able to run this pilot completely free of charge. We expect participating governments to see decreased cost, increased number of competitive bids received, and heightened engagement with small and local businesses. And if we don’t see this success? They won’t have spent a dime.

If a city has an engaged technology community and would rather own the application themselves, Procure.io will live on as a separate open-source project, available for cities and organizations that want to customize every aspect of the software.

Screendoor will be extremely affordable for cities that decide to continue using it – our plans start at just $29/month and scale with the size of your city and the number of procurements you’re running through the system. You can sign up starting today, and if you use the coupon code “SCREENDOORLAUNCH”, and your free trial will be upgraded from one project to ten.

And another note…

We’re happy to announce that we’re one of the 9 organizations that were selected to receive funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of the Open Gov Knight News Challege. It’s going to promote and extend our Procure.io platform, to support and scale Screendoor, and to build out an open library of RFPs and Statements of Work for anyone to use at any level of government.

We’re extremely excited to be able to empower new innovation in procurement, and we hope that we’ve given governments everything they need in order to make the leap. Stay tuned, and hopefully you’ll be hearing from us soon about how Screendoor has helped save taxpayer dollars, increase government transparency, and empower local businesses and communities.

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