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Rewiring Government

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

Clay Johnson

Posts by Clay Johnson

Co-Founder and Chairman

Defeating the Culture of No, Part I

Have you ever sat in a meeting, tried to move things forward, and instead of a constructive meeting about possibilities, it’s become an open session on why anything proposed isn’t possible? Have you ever worked in an environment where most of the meetings you’ve had end up this way?

Chances are, if you’ve ever worked in government or you’ve ever worked in the enterprise, you have. Whether it’s just that one cynical guy in the corner, your general counsel’s office, or, well, you, anybody who has worked for a reasonable period of time has encountered this kind of culture. I call it the “Culture of No.”

The Culture of No is a pervasive culture that’s awful to work in. It’s a culture of mitigation. It’s the culture that prefers short-term preservation at the expense of long-term lifespan, and it works tirelessly to protect incumbency above all else.

The Culture of No is not native to government, but it thrives especially well in democratic governments and regulated bodies. But the Culture of No can thrive anywhere it’s not kept in check: your local non-profit, a small start-up, city hall, or a Fortune 10 business. At its best, the Culture of No provides friction for obviously good ideas to move forward and thrive. At its worst, it grinds at our ability to get things done.

So what can be done about the Culture of No? How do we get past it?

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Understanding the Culture of No

The following is a transcript of a Keynote address by DOBT Founder Clay Johnson to local, state, and federal officials of Mexico on February 20th, 2015.

I think there’s a bit of a false promise in the way we think about innovation in government. The current thinking is: “if we bring in private sector innovators, then they’ll fix the government with their whiz-bang ideas.”

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Another week, another Josh

Continuing our hiring spree from last week, we’ve decided to keep hiring Joshes. This week, Josh Goldstein joins DOBT as managing director. He’ll be helping me out on the business side of things as a primary point of contact for our customers, while also assisting in day-to-day company operations.

Josh brings a new area of expertise to our firm: international development. Before working at DOBT, Josh worked with Google to bring broadband to Africa, assisted at Stanford’s d.school in Jamaica, and helped launch Code for Kenya and Apps4Africa.

Screendoor has always been about accessibility – we made Bootstrap 508 compliant even before we had our first paying customer – but our commitment to accessibility extends beyond what federal law requires. All of our forms are fully mobile-compliant, and many can be filled out solely via email. Our broad conception of accessibility applies to cost as well: Screendoor is being used to turn million-dollar projects into thousand-dollar projects.

All of this makes Screendoor a great fit for the developing world – it’s no wonder that many of our very earliest customers are from the international development community. So we’re tremendously excited to have Josh here as an asset for them, and to help us continue to grow in that sphere.

Welcome, Josh!

josh goldstein headshot

Follow Josh on Twitter →

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Why We Design for Bureaucrats First

What is it, exactly, that’s so frustrating about a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles? Is it the color of paint on the waiting room’s walls? Or their choice of pens for the written tests? Does your exasperation with the local DMV have anything to do with the place’s design or aesthetic?

I bet not. I bet your frustration doesn’t have to do with the quality of your experience at the DMV. Your chief complaint with the DMV is probably that you have to go there at all. The DMV could be as nice a five star hotel and we’d still find a reason to complain about it if we have to interrupt our day to go there. If people are compelled by law to take time away from their work and families, no amount of “designing a great customer experience” is going to keep frustration at bay.

The default assumption in the civic technology community is that people want to engage with government. This is an assumption that needs to be tested. I believe that most people want to engage with their government about as much as they want to engage with a hospital. Which is to say: we don’t want to be there, but when we have to go, we want everything to work efficiently and with a minimum of hassle.

At DOBT we build tools for bureaucrats, not for citizens. That’s why our first big product is Screendoor, which makes it easy for government to capture and process information. For most people, it’s not the voting booth or the town council meeting that defines their primary relationship with government; it’s the form. Screendoor makes that form, and all the processes behind it, a fantastic experience – but most importantly, a shorter and more manageable one. When the work of bureaucrats is streamlined, citizens benefit.

Now approaching its first birthday, Screendoor is being used in all kinds of ways, from revamping procurement practices to hiring innovation fellows to granting musicians permits to perform at their local farmers market. Screendoor completely eliminates cumbersome PDF forms and the complex and expensive computer systems that sit behind them.

The bulky, costly, and unreliable “enterprise” approach to so much government technology today is demonstrably failing its stakeholders, from the healthcare.gov debacle to the Pentagon’s pending $11 billion health care records catastrophe. Screendoor helps small towns and large federal agencies turn million dollar problems into thousand dollar problems. That’s the savings you get from bureaucrat-oriented technology built with modern tools and agile development.

If you’re thinking about new ways technology can help you engage with your constituents while saving money, a great starting place is your own office. How can bureaucrats work together towards the goal of providing a better service experience to citizens? Before focusing on your organization’s blog or social media presence, think about the online interaction that your citizens really want to have with your office: a clear, easy-to-complete form that gets their problem solved quickly.

With the right tools in the hands of bureaucrats, we believe that government can deliver great service – without the wait in line.

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Welcome 18F!

Earlier today, the General Services Administration launched 18F, a new digital office inside of the federal government. Judging from the make-up of the organization and their GitHub repos, they’re already off to a great start. These are talented people doing important work.

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OpenRFPs: Open RFP Data for All 50 States

Tomorrow at CodeAcross we’ll be launching our first community-based project, OpenRFPs. The goal is to liberate the data inside of every state RFP listing website in the country. We hope you’ll find your own state’s RFP site, and contribute a parser.

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Welcome aboard, Alex!

Our mission at DOBT is to help government agencies create delightful experiences for their users, and we do this by supplying them with beautiful, modern software and technology talent. Convincing skilled engineers to work in an industry that is known for its beauracracy and sluggishness isn’t easy, but we work hard to create a pipeline where top tier technical talent can work on stuff that matters.

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The Reform Federal Procurement for Information Technology Act was Just Released

Today, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and Congressman Gerry Connolly released the Reform Federal Procurement for Information Technology Act. We think it’s an important second component to the already-through-the-House Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act.

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Let's Fix The Federal Lockout First

Ever since Barack Obama said that he wanted to “blow up how we procure for IT” there’s been a lot of talk about holistic, comprehensive solutions to the fix. Heck, we at the Department even have an seven chapter ebook called How To Fix Procurement.

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Bad Project Management Is Not The Problem. Competition Is.

The typical response from the government contracting incumbency is that the biggest issue holding back technical performance is poor project management – the current vendors are good and can do their jobs, but the program managers inside of government constantly derail their sophisticated approaches with changing expectations, political scheduling, and lack of knowledge. If we only had better people in government, the idea goes, the smart contractor – would be able to do our jobs well.

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So You Want to Fix Procurement

There's been a lot of talk about fixing IT procurement lately. And while most of it is focused on the federal level, large IT failures happen at the state and local level too. There's not a city or state government that we can yet point to that has a truly modern procurement environment.

Fixing IT procurement is going to take a lot of people and a lot of attention to get right. In that spirit, If you'd like to be involved with fixing procurement here are some questions to ask in your local community in order to understand how procurement is set up:

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Announcing Quick Consults

Today we're launching Quick Consults Whether you need to bring someone in to take a look at an RFP, figure out what's going on with some Ruby code, or work on that strategic plan, we're here to help. And fast.

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When Government Gets Tech Right Part I

Last week, I had an op-ed in the New York Times. The unfortunate headline (one that the Times came up with, but I consented to in a rush to get the op-ed out) was Why The Government Never Gets Tech Right. While I do agree that government rarely gets tech right, never is a dangerous word to use here, first because it's not true, and second because when government gets tech right, it's instructive and it's a bad idea to ignore where the success is for the sake of a clickable headline. Especially for the guy who wrote this book.

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How To Fix Healthcare.gov

Late last night, the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services finally communicated with the public and let us know their plans on fixing Healthcare.gov with a "tech surge". Their plan?

Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov.

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How Healthcare.gov Went Wrong

Here at DOBT we talk a lot about How To Fix Procurement, but you don't hear a lot about why things go wrong. The Healthcare.gov Fiasco is instructive in that it highlights every piece of our procurement process that's broken. How, with a half-trillion dollar a year spend, could something like this botch even happen? Here's how:

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The Healthcare.gov Fiasco

It's been a week since Healthcare.gov launched, and for anyone who has tried to register for new health insurance on the website, its online waiting room page is perhaps the most recognizable page on the site:

Healthcare.gov Waiting Room

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Weekend Reading

It was a full year ago that Adam, Jed, and I started as Presidential Innovation Fellows to make RFP-EZ: The software that ended up saving the government 30% on IT purchases. It was a remarkable journey that not only ended up in a successful shipment of software, but also a lot of lessons learned.

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Welcome Aboard Sid!

I'm so happy we managed to talk Sid Burgess into joining our team here at the Department. Sid is now the guy that links our great technology to the people who need it.

Sid's been around the space for quite some time (12 years!), and I admire his passion for using the web to improve the lives of everyday people. He's a fire fighter, a former city councilman, a combat medic and the president of a community non-profit. And now he's our new government liaison. I couldn't be more thrilled.

The notion that we can improve government by going upstream and giving people on the inside tools they love, and tools that help make great decisions just got a little more realistic. Welcome aboard, Sid!


Recommendations to improve large IT procurements

Earlier this year, California Governor Jerry Brown appointed DOBT founder and CEO Clay Johnson to the state's Task Force on Reengineering IT Procurement for Success, which was created to "identify how it can (1) hire the right vendors (2) at the best value, and (3) hold them accountable for their performance."

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Thanks to Measured Voice

One big problem we have in getting government to use new technology is the Terms of Service problem. See, unlike you and me, government employees can’t just “click through” a legally binding contract without reading it. Instead, if you want to buy something, you’ve got to have your counsel read through the Terms, and often, negotiate with the service providing the terms.

That’s why for a lot of small businesses, it’s good to have some kind of standardized terms. Eventually, we want to get to the point where Counsel says “oh, I’ve seen these terms before. It’s fine.”

We love MeasuredVoice – they’re out there selling, working on solving a hard problem (helping government listen better) and, like us, working on stuff that matters. So when we noticed that they had developed their own Terms with GSA, we asked if we could steal them. And they oblidged. They even put it up on github.

So now we’ve got something we can work with – a template, a place to start. Let’s work together to craft a terms document that works for everybody, so we can focus on what we do best – making great software.

Thanks MeasuredVoice!

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An Open Government Story

Imagine you’re an expert carpenter. And, solely out of altruism, you spend six weekends a year volunteering to build houses for Habitat for Humanity. You wake up early on a Saturday morning, walk away from your family, and spend two full days putting up a house for the greater good. Habitat’s not paying you in anything but the lunch and snacks they bring you, but its fulfilling – you’re giving back.

You get so good at leading teams to build houses you get a call from Jimmy Carter. Carter calls you up and invites you to Habitat for Humanity’s headquarters for lunch to thank you for your hard work.

But driving up to Habitat’s headquarters, things seem out of whack. You, as a builder can take one look at it, and understand that the place is about to fall apart. Structural beams are in the wrong place. There are two toilets in every stall in the bathroom. The water in the building is pumped into a large pool at the top of the building, and then trickles down to where it needs to go, and the pool is held up by very narrow wood beams. And the furnace and water heater are insulated with dry pine straw.

You don’t even want to go into the building, but it’s to meet president Carter, so you decide to essentially risk your life and get in the elevator and hit the button to go to the top floor. And of course even though you’re the only passenger on the elevator, the car stops at every floor on its way up to the top.

By the time you get to Carter’s office you’re terrified. Now this is an organization you’ve given a lot to, and that you care a lot about. You certainly don’t want the building to fall apart. You’ve got to say something, or at least figure out how an organization with so much access to excellent carpenters, plumbers, and electricians, could end up with such a terrible, dangerous building.

You sit and say to the former president, “Thanks for having me here for lunch. This building is something else, isn’t it?”

President Carter responds, seemingly well aware that his building is a disaster: ”It’s amazing, isn’t it? Have you ever seen a more poorly designed building?

“No, no Mr. President, I haven’t. It’s really dangerous – it’s not only aesthetically bad, it’s also structurally unsound.”

“Oh, I know. Our contractors told us it was. They’re fixing it now, thankfully. After they’re done fixing the insides, hopefully we’ll have enough budget to upgrade the aesthetics, too.”

“That’s a relief, Mr. president. Who built this thing? I hope they’re not building any houses.”

“Well, we bid this out and the only people who bid on this was Master Builders, Incorporated or MBI.” He says.

“I had no idea MBI still built buildings. Who is cleaning up their mess?” you ask.

“Well, MBI is on the hook to fix it too. The good news is, they’ve put 50 new people on the project. Including 45 new project managers.”

“Mr. President, I’m sorry, but you really should switch vendors. I wouldn’t trust the people who built this building to clean it up.” you say.

“Well, it was a 500 Million dollar project and there really aren’t that many builders out there that can qualify for a project of this size and scope. So we have to use them. They’re the only ones that have a track record of doing half-billion dollar projects.” he says.

“500 million dollars? For this office? How many people do you have in here, 60?”

“It has room for 60, but 30 of our people work in remote offices – out in the field building houses.”

“Mr. president,” you say, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but it’d probably take the crew I had this weekend to build a habitat house about 500k to build an office building like this. Half a billion dollars more than you need to build a town, not an office building.”

He raises an eyebrow: “I think there’s a lot more that goes into building a building of this size than one of the residential buildings our volunteers build. We have to be compliant with many more building codes.”

“Like what?” you ask.

“For instance, we need to be accessible to people with disabilities. This means we need ramps to our doors, urinals that are installed a bit lower, and braille on our elevator buttons. And we need to control access to the building. Stuff like that” he says.

“Mr. President – that’s generally cosmetic stuff – it shouldn’t increase the cost and scope of your building by 1,000x. And if you build your building with standards, most of that stuff is already done for you. Let me and a team come in here and fix this. We’ll do it for a tenth of the cost, and you can take the money you were planning to spend on your building, and spend it on building more houses and putting more people in them.”

“Really? I have to confess I don’t know much about actually building houses these days. I’m going to look into this. But for now, let’s just enjoy our lunch.”

You find president Carter charming, and he takes a liking to you too. At the end he gives you his card and says, “we really appreciate your help. And if you know how we can do anything better, you call me directly and let’s talk about it.”

You finish up your lunch with president Carter and get out of the building as soon as you can. Then on your way home, you drive past a home that you built for Habitat. It’s empty. By the looks of it, nobody’s been on the lot since the press event that happened right after it was built. You decide to take a look around at the other houses you’ve helped build. They all seem to be in some stage of disrepair and neglect.

By the time you get home, you’re outraged. You decide to sleep it off, but the neglected houses keep you up. By 9am, you find yourself with your phone in your hand dialing president Carter.”

“Hey there! Good to hear from you! I’ve been asking around about our building issue. It seems like MBI is the only builder that’s managed to go through our vendor qualification program, and thus they’re the only ones qualified to do the building. But if you went through the process, you could probably bid on the project and compete against them in the open market for the next round of work.”

“How long does that process take?”

“To register? I don’t know. Shouldn’t take that long, should it?”

“I guess not,” you say, “but Mr. President, I have a more pressing question – why is it that all the houses I helped to build are all vacant and neglected?”

“Ah, yes that’s really unfortunate. But the problem is, we don’t have the budget to hire the people needed to keep the property maintained and to put them in houses.”

“But… you’re spending a half billion dollars on your office building. Do you know how many people you could put in houses with that money?”

Carter chuckles. “Wow, that would be a lot, huh? Hey – I’ve got to run to a fundraiser. But it’s good talking to you. I’ll introduce you to our procurement people about getting registered as a vendor for us.”

You’re frustrated, but think you can solve the problem. You’ll just form a company with your friends from Habitat to get that building’s cost down so that money can get freed up, and then people can get in those houses. A few days later, you get a terse email from Habitat for Humanity’s procurement division:

“Dear Ms. or Mr. Smith,

Please see the attached documentation for signing up to be a supplier for Habitat for Humanity. Please note that your business must meet the minimum requirements in order to bid on our projects.”

Out of the 14 attachments on the email, you manage to find the document (titled 2012_AU776-REQS.PDF) describing the requirements. It says:

All Vendors must be at least 2 years old. Vendors for projects that cost more than 150,000 must have a one billion dollar liability insurance policy.

Well, so much for that. You won’t even be eligible to bid on the project for another two years. And there’s no way you’ll get an insurance policy like that. Only huge mega corporations have insurance policies like that. You call president Carter.

“Hey, it’s good to hear from you. You get connected with our procurement people?”

“Yeah, I did. It’s unfortunate though, because they say that I have to be two years old and have a huge insurance policy in order to even get a seat at the table to help you out. So, I guess that’s that.”

“Well, why don’t you partner up with an existing company and just subcontract through them. I think our procurement people have encouraged a mentoring program for this.”

You have to admit, you hadn’t thought of that. So you call up the procurement people at Habitat. They’re very accommodating and they give you a list of companies who say they’ll partner up with smaller contractors to “learn the trade.”

You set up meetings with MBI’s biggest competitors: Dynamic General Builders, Whiskey Elon Jackson, and Whiterock. And when you meet with them it’s clear that they don’t know anything about building houses. Not a single one of them uses termite treated wood, for instance. They all connect copper pipes to iron ones, not understanding that over time, that will cause corrosion and the pipes will have to be replaced. And when you mention these issues, they’re condescending about it: “Listen,” they say, “you may know a lot about building homes – but you have no idea how to build enterprise-grade buildings. You have to do things this way. Work with us and you’ll learn this in time.”

You just can’t bring yourself to do it. 99% of all new houses today use PVC piping and termite treated wood for damn good reasons, and you’re not going to go back and use tools and techniques from 50 years ago.

Then you realize it: this is, of course, the problem. This is the reason why the building costs a half-billion dollars in the first place. Habitat is trying to build a modern building using the tools from 50 years ago. It’d be like trying to buy a car with 300 horsepower by buying 300 actual horses and trying to get them to all go at the same time. Horses cost $5,000 each.

Defeated, you head home. The phone rings, and it’s president Carter.

“Hey there – I was calling to see if you’d lead a build-a-thon this weekend to put up a house in your neighborhood. Homelessness is way up because of the economy, but if we work together, we can give people a helping hand up.”

You get sick to your stomach. “Mr. president, I’d be happy to help, but I can’t very well build houses for you for free while you’re paying people a half billion dollars to build yourself an office. And I know you don’t have the budget to actually maintain and get people in the house.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do to change your mind?”

“Yes. You can make it so that your own volunteers who’ve built these houses can come in and fix yours. And that starts with changing who can compete for your contracts,” you say.

“Gosh, I’d really love to do that, but to be honest with you I really don’t want to pick a political battle with our procurement people. It’s an issue that doesn’t win me a lot of support with my board. They’re much more concerned with getting new homes up or meeting fundraising numbers,” he says.

“So you don’t think that spending a half billion dollars on your office building is a high priority problem?” You say, steaming.

“Well, I do. But I don’t think my board is going to let me do anything about it.”

“I think they’d be really concerned about it. Who is on your board?

“Well, we have a ‘representational board’” he says, proudly. “80% of the board votes belong to our members – people who donate under $250, and people who volunteer. Then we have 20% of the board represented by our large corporate sponsors: people who have given more than $50,000.”

“Really? Do those people usually vote on stuff?” You ask

“No, most are just happy donating. It’s the corporate sponsors who normally care about our operations.” he says.

“And who are they?” you ask.

MBI, Whiskey, Dynamic General, Whiterock, you know them.” He says.

You want to give up. But you think about it, and for some reason, you just can’t.

“Mr. President,” you say, “we’ve got to fix this procurement problem. And if it’s not an issue for you now, I’ve got to make it an issue. But for now, no. I can’t lead the build-a-thon this weekend. I’ve got a bigger problem to solve than building houses on the cheap.”

“Okay!” he says. “Well, hope to hear from you soon then!”

You grin and say ”You bet!

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How To Fix Procurement 7: Standardized Terms for Companies That Want Them

What we’ve discussed so far are projects that involve bidding and sales – largely customizable IT integrations that come from professional services consultancies. But that’s not all that government buys, and it’s certainly not the place where the most innovation happens online.

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How Would You Like To Reduce Your Government's IT Costs by 30%?

Today, the White House released the results from our pilot project through the Presidential Innovation Fellowship program. Here’s the most important part:

A Most Impressive Bar Chart

We’re the blue bar. The traditional methods of bidding are the red bar. These are the kinds of results you get when you open up the door for innovators to work with government. The federal government got over 200 new vendors, and achieved an average savings of over 30%.

We’re looking for 5 cities to help duplicate these kind of results. Work for government? Want to start saving 30% on your IT projects? Sign up for our pilot..

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How To Fix Procurement 6: Use Agile Policymaking

One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein:

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we used to create them.

In the case of crafting a 21st century procurement practice, it’s worth taking that to heart. Anyone that’s ever worked at any government agency – local, state or federal – and tried to do anything “innovative” ends up frustrated with procurement and probably ends up with lots of ideas about how to fix things.

And our natural instinct is to gather a commission of those frustrated people together and think up ideas for change. Then draft these ideas into a recommendations document. Perhaps we sign some petitions and organize a bunch of people together in order to send those recommendations to policy makers, who then may implement the policy changes. And some policies change. This is often how policymaking works.

Does this sound crazy to anyone else?

It’s like waterfall software development, but without any of the quality checks. We imagine what kind of policies might work and then implement them, never investigating whether or not those policies created the desired outcomes we were seeking.

As we move forward in figuring out what to do with procurement, I’d like to suggest that we avoid this model for crafting new policy and techniques. That is the level of thinking that created our significant procurement problems. Instead of using the waterfall technique of policymaking that got us into this mess, let’s be agile policy scientists and get us out.

That’s the battle plan for Procure.io:

  1. Find governmental bodies that are willing to participate in a test.
  2. Craft a low-risk test for that body.
  3. Publish the results of that test, and if the results are successful, use the results to justify expansion of the test, or to inform future policymaking.
  4. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The implications of working this way are significant because it allows for controlled failure. It makes it so you don’t need consensus of the whole acquisition community from the get-go: the seats at the table only expand when the scope of the test expands. And it means we don’t have to come up with all the answers before we affect change. We can acknowledge that we don’t know everything, and we’ll see what happens. If what happens turns out to be good, let’s implement it. If it doesn’t, we won’t.

We’re not going to solve IT procurement problems by sitting around the table drafting documents and signing petitions. We’re going to solve them by conducting tests, measuring outcomes, and implementing change based on the results.

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How To Fix Procurement 5: It's Not About Procurement

It’s easy to get distracted with the nuts and bolts of procurement. To look at the system, so broken and inefficient, and want to fix it for its own sake. But imagine a politician – say, a candidate for mayor – running for office. What do you think the chances are that our candidate will win if she runs on a platform of procurement reform?

While she’ll certainly win the allegiance of this blog and its (literally) dozens of readers, I’m not sure we’re going to see any mayoral candidates giving speeches about increasing simple acquisition thresholds, reforming set-aside programs so that they actually work the way they’re intended to, or “creating a 21st century acquisition workforce”.1 It’s farcical.

Nobody buys a house based on the quality of its plumbing and wiring, and nobody will elect a government based on the quality of its procurement strategy. The next step in fixing procurement is understanding that fixing procurement isn’t about procurement. It’s about the things that come with it. The opportunities that get created when it does get fixed.

First and foremost, fixing procurement is about local economic development: 21st century procurement processes create jobs. The first city to implement the changes we’ve outlined in this blog is in for a massive boom. Instead of jobs going to multinational contractors, it’ll be able to work with local designers, developers and other innovators within its own community.

Those local shops will be able to create jobs, innovate further, and improve quality of life of the city’s residents. Service delivery will work better. Constituent communications (both input and output) will work better. Imagine never having to wait in line at the DMV again. Or using your smartphone to grant yourself entry to mass transit. Or knowing what the status is of that hole in the sidewalk outside of your house. Or being able to attend a government zoning hearing via your computer or phone?

Those things aren’t just conveniences, they’re things that make people want to live there. All of these things exist in government today, but they’re incredibly hard for government to pull off because they’re expensive and there aren’t a lot of businesses that can both do the technical work to do it. Fixing procurement means that these things can happen easily and in a way that is affordable to the taxpayer.

But when you talk to government about “procurement reform” they don’t see these things. They see months of meetings with contracting officers. They see huge, intra-personnel political battles. They see committees and round tables and inertia. They see an unwinnable fight. And to local citizens? You have never seen eyes glaze over faster than when you say the word “procurement” when you’re trying to inspire people to take action.

Procurement reform is a huge opportunity, and the first government to enable the innovators in its own backyard to easily work with the city is bound to have a boom of jobs and convenience. But we, the champions of reform, must be about the jobs and convenience, not about the reform itself. It’s not about the reforms, its about the outcomes.

  1. Discussed in depth in this GAO Report

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The Most Interesting Part of the President's New Open Data Policy

Open Government-land is buzzing about an executive order outlining a new Open Data policy. Here’s my favorite part:

(b) Within 90 days of the issuance of the Open Data Policy, the Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy, Controller of the Office of Federal Financial Management, CIO, and Administrator of OIRA shall work with the Chief Acquisition Officers Council, Chief Financial Officers Council, Chief Information Officers Council, and Federal Records Council to identify and initiate implementation of measures to support the integration of the Open Data Policy requirements into Federal acquisition and grant-making processes. Such efforts may include developing sample requirements language, grant and contract language, and workforce tools for agency acquisition, grant, and information management and technology professionals.

(Emphasis Mine)

Well would you look at that. Maybe the federal government wants to create its own Open RFP Library. Or maybe it’s foreshadowing to an IT overhaul executive order that couples itself with this?

The whole memo is great. Here’s hoping that there’s a way to pay for it. I suspect that most of the things that the White House is asking agencies to do can be done in individual increments, for less than $150,000 – and that they could use RFP-EZ to open the door to a wide swath of new, nimble technology companies to do this work.

What an opportunity.

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How To Fix Procurement 4: Change Contracting Officer Culture

So far in the series we’ve tackled three of the biggest problems in large enterprise procurements: getting the right people at the table, doing that efficiently, and asking them the right things. The fourth big problem? Judgment, and knowing what the best value is. We’re going to cover that today.

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How To Fix Procurement 3: Ask for the Right Stuff

So far we’ve talked about two ways to decrease government’s IT costs: streamlining the process that agencies use to vet and certify new businesses, and leveraging APIs to make it easier to interface with government for those registrations. These two things are important because it increases competition and thus increases quality and decreases cost. But good information technology at a low price isn’t all we’re after. We also want government to pick the right information technology for the job.

An important lesson If you’re a programmer is to take a look at Recovery.gov, which cost $18 million dollars. But why did it cost $18 million dollars? For the answer to that, let’s take a look at the RFP and the somewhat-redacted winning technical proposal written in response. If you’re a technologist, you might come to the same conclusion I did: Government is paying a reasonable amount of money for what it’s asking. The problem is that it’s asking for the wrong thing. XML Firewalls? Data-cubing services? Seriously?

So how do you fix it? One might say: “hire a consultant to look at the RFPs, and she’ll tell you what you do and don’t need.” But government already has this – both in Technical Representative Programs (COTRs) and in open requests for comments in the procurement process. Unfortunately, each has its problems; COTRs tend to work on COTRing, not on remaining up to date on technology and its costs, and in an open request for information, the people who have the best input are also the people who can do the best job. This doesn’t sound like a problem, but often times you cannot bring someone in to help steer what kind of work to do, and then do the actual work.

The long-term fix for these problems is to partially separate the RFP process from the procurement process. This helps on three fronts:

  • It helps get feedback from outside the context of a particular procurement. Instead of commenting on an RFP for “this” website, we can comment on an RFP for “a” website.

  • It promotes reuse. RFP content gets written over and over again, without tracking any success or results. This adds expense to the project since a), you don’t know if what you’re asking for is the right thing, and b), you’re doing work that’s repetitive.

  • It improves language. By soliciting feedback from a wider community, you stop the atrocious act of using phrases like “Information Distribution and Discovery Platform”. By calling them “websites”, you’ll be using the same language that’s used by folks who do the work regularly.

One way to solve these issues is by creating an Open RFP Library. It’s something we hope to work on here at the Department, and it’s something that others (like Beth Noveck’s WorldBank/NYU Wagner collaboration on Innovative Procurement) are working on too. Imagine an open library for RFPs where a government agency can contribute their documents and share them with other agencies of all kinds, across different levels of government. And where the vendor community, the open government community, and other governments can comment on them and make them better. Imagine if people could ballpark what each RFP should cost, and imagine if you could circle back with them after the job was done to see how the work turned out.

While it would be difficult to show returns in the short term, this is a long-term play that reduces cost by making the requests better and faster. In other words: knowing what to ask for is just as important as asking the right people.

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How To Fix Procurement 2: Up The API Game

We’re dedicating this week to talking about how to fix procurement. Yesterday we discussed where to start in procurement reform – fixing the registration process for businesses – and today we’re going to provide an example of one way to fix it: by upping the government’s API game.

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How To Fix Procurement 1: Fix Registration

The way government purchases information technology is profoundly broken – leading to federal websites and information technology systems to sometimes cost as much as an entire scientific initiative to map the human brain. And it’s easy to complain about how much these websites cost, or about how their high prices and lengthy procurement processes don’t impact quality or user experience, but it’s not so easy to be thoughtful about how fix it. So this week, we thought we’d talk specifically about how to fix the procurement process.

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What Is The Future Of Open Government?

A couple weeks ago, President Obama announced a new research initiative to map the human brain – making a significant investment of $100 Million Dollars to prevent, treat and cure brain injuries.

This is a website called Sam.gov. It launched late last year, and it’s the central hub responsible for all the databases behind government contracting. The GAO estimates that this website will cost the taxpayer $181 Million dollars.

I’d like to say that this is just a one-off anomaly, but government regularly pays millions of dollars for websites.

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