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How Government Is Reforming IT Procurement and What it Means for Vendors

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The way state and local government handles IT Procurement is changing. But how?

Flexibility. If there’s one thing that everybody involved in government procurement — chief information officers, procurement officials, vendors and civic tech folk — appear to agree on, it’s that the future of government’s technology-buying should be more flexible.

The trend in that direction seems well underway too. Consider, implores longtime public-sector IT specialist Sherry Amos, the cloud.

“I’ve seen a maturity in the last five years, maturity not only of acceptance of cloud solutions but of [the] necessity of cloud solutions, not only for cost containment but because fundamentally it’s the only way to use certain solutions,” said Amos, the managing director of industry strategy for education and government at Workday.

And the cloud, even more than traditional government tech work, is a kind of symbol of flexibility. The whole software-as-a-service model is built around the concept of buying something available over the air instead of installed via disk; purchased through subscription as opposed to bought outright; updated weekly rather than released in a new version every year.

The cloud isn’t the only driver here. Government IT Procurement is, in the timelines of the digital age, an ancient quagmire. The process differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but generally goes something like this: Agency X has a tech need. It spends a really, really long time trying to write down its needs in a request for proposal. It requires vendors to take on as much risk as possible in the process. The vendor gets a massive check and a deadline, often a year or longer depending on the system, to deliver the goods.

Everybody has something bad to say about this approach to IT Procurement. It takes too long. It costs too much. It favors the entrenched tech giants over innovative smaller players. It delivers products that users find difficult to navigate. It props up a paradigm of slow replacement cycles resulting in legacy systems that become more difficult to keep running over time. The list goes on.

So how are state and local governments working to create a better system?

The 18F Way
18F was always, in its genetic matrix, meant to be disruptive. The “digital consultancy” set up within the U.S. General Services Administration in 2014, essentially co-opted talent and ideas from the private tech sector in an attempt to fix government procurement.

Now its ideas are showing up at the state level — first in California and Ohio, and potentially on its way to Indiana and Oklahoma.

In California, it first took the form of a request for a new case management system from Child Welfare Services (CWS) — an important tool, since it’s the nexus through which the state checks in on tens of thousands of children suffering abuse and neglect each year. The agency took years crafting exactly the kind of RFP everybody complains about. Those familiar with the project say even the people who wrote the RFP didn’t think it would end with a good system.

Then, Code for America got involved. It took, more or less, two ideas from 18F’s way of doing things. First, it broke up the contract into pieces. Second, it retooled the vendor qualification process.

“The approach we wanted to use in the Child Welfare Services process was in embedded technology delivery, not just project and contract management,” said Dan Hon, who was at Code for America when the project got underway.