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Posts tagged with “Procurement”

GovTech Link Roundup: Volume 7

Discovery research and modular procurement in action.

18F takes a deeper look at modular procurement and discusses their approach to a new system for the Forest Service. The Technology Transformation Service started this engagement with discovery research, “a process used to better understand what people need from a product or service,” instead of diving into the work. In the end, this upfront feedback helped them build a better user experience and laid the foundation for a more trusting partnership. (Keep an eye out for the rest of the series on their blog.)

If you’d like to see how modular procurement works “in the wild,” look no further than the Child Welfare Digital Services (CDWS) project. CDWS is an attempt by the State of California and local agencies to implement a new child welfare reporting system “using Agile methodologies, free/open source software (FOSS) and user-centered design.” They just awarded a new contract to CivicActions, who will provide development operations management for the project.

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GovTech Link Roundup: Volume 5

GovTech funding and the path to $100MM ARR.

One potential mark of startup success is funding—namely, progressively-larger rounds of funding. Government Technology Magazine dug into the funding history for companies on their GovTech Top 100 list to find out just how much funding these companies were commanding in each round, along with the increase in capital from round to round. (GovTech funding may be gaining momentum, too. Govtech Fund recently invested in seven more companies, more than doubling their portfolio.)

Of course, healthy revenue is the other big marker of success. Nick Bowden is back with a teardown of the path to $100MM ARR. Aside from the usual suspects (access to cash and market size), he discusses how the founders’ competencies, the product’s value-add, and the team’s makeup can all affect adoption and, ultimately, the company’s bottom line.

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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