This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

Since the troubled rollout of Healthcare.Gov, few elements of government information technology development have received as much attention as the procurement process. In the name of ensuring frugal use of taxpayer dollars, agencies at all levels of government typically feature a thicket of well-intentioned but often complex procurement rules. Frequently, these rules are poorly suited to technology projects.

There’s no question that addressing procurement effectively is a long-term challenge that may require new policies at the local, state and federal levels. In the short-term, however, there are some approaches that human services agencies can consider to begin bending existing processes in their favor.

A VITAL DECISION, A MAJOR CHALLENGE

In our research, the people to whom we spoke were clear that vendors of technology solutions – and consequently, the selection of vendors – play an instrumental role in successful technology innovation projects. Vendors can play a number of important roles in technology projects, from project manager to systems integrator to quality assurance—each with its own challenges and responsibilities. Making the right choice, however, can be a genuine challenge for human services administrators.

One part of the problem is that few human services agencies know what they need, and therefore struggle to find the right vendor and then structure a contract appropriately. As a local technologist told us, “The processes of procurement, budgets, and contracts can be as labyrinthine as it can be in any hierarchical organization.”[1] This means that good intentions on both sides may not be sufficient to forge a productive relationship. In the words of one human services administrator, “Procurement processes are so convoluted and so difficult and so full of so many pitfalls that we miss a tremendous opportunity in terms of engaging meaningfully with vendors and each other.”

A second problem can be the structure of regulations that govern procurement. In particular, many said that existing technology procurement procedures can introduce unnecessary and counterproductive delays into technology innovation projects. One nonprofit director said to us that “state government procurement and implementation is horribly inefficient and takes far too long. Given the pace of technology innovation, by the time a technology is purchased and deployed, you’re likely a generation behind.” A state administrator to whom we spoke realized early in an effort to develop new technology that “when we tried our first software-as-a-service contract, it took us six months getting over our internal barriers.” Another state administrator agreed, stating, “As fast as technology’s moving, it might be two years before you even start a project [due to procurement cycles], and often times you get recycled technology that’s old the day you put it in.”

Due to the complex web of regulations, procurement processes can actually inflate development costs and shrink the marketplace. In an interview, a researcher told us that “those major systems replacements—that might take a half million dollars just to put together a proposal. That cuts out a lot of those mid-size firms, those smaller firms.”

A third challenge is that, even when agencies begin to compare vendors, they lack the expertise to both select and manage a private partner in an informed way. “You need pretty strong expertise in-house to guide the work of the vendor,” said a local manager. Unfortunately, this is expertise that many agencies lack, putting them at the whim of the vendor rather than in the driver’s seat.

All in all, procurement represents one of the most daunting challenges to the successful development of 21st century technology in human services agencies. As one administrator summarized, “I believe our procurement has got to be improved. There can be tiers of it. We have a one-size-fits-all approach for procurement. It’s outdated and needs to be modernized in a way that reflects our current business environment.”

PRACTICAL STEPS TO CONSIDER

Some of these challenges will require long-term policy changes at the state, local and federal level. The good news is that states and localities around the country are beginning to experiment with processes and steps that can help agencies move forward with innovative projects. In particular, our research revealed several key insights.

First, many of those we interviewed noted that initial communication is critical. Because agencies are far more familiar with their own human services practice and needs than vendors, communicating a clear agency plan with prospective vendors can help ensure that solutions meet essential goals. “We already know what we want [the technology] to do when we engage them, and we’re very clear what we want the functionality to accomplish for us,” said a senior administrator in the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Relayed a colleague, “We’re so deliberate in pursuing technology, the vendor selection becomes very clear for us.” This individual also said that clear planning and precise communication with vendors means “they’re building what we need and not driving our projects.”

Second, some of those to whom we spoke argued in favor of putting the right expertise in place to manage vendor relations. As a New York City administrator observed, “You need excellent contract management skills.” A technologist in New York City concurred, “You will not be able to innovate if you cannot maneuver these processes skillfully.” In a strong agency-vendor relationship, “having people who can play that liaison role between the business role and the IT partner” is important, a Boulder County technologist noted.

Third, communication and management can be aided through smart structures. In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, regular meetings with vendor personnel help to ensure coordination between the agency and its partners. “We have a monthly business planning session where we sit down with [vendor staff], talk about the statement of work, the contract status, if we need any visioning sessions,” said one county administrator. Coordination with vendor personnel can some facilitate learning and strengthen agency technology expertise. Explained a technologist in Boulder County, “We have the best relationships when our vendors aren’t trying to help us implement, but when they’re helping us learn and adapt their tools more fully.”

Without question, navigating procurement to adopt truly innovative technology was among the most cited problems by local and state agencies. These three strategies – communication, dedicated expertise and effective structures – cannot alone solve the procurement problem, but they can make a difference. A longer-term conversation on procurement is imperative. In the meantime, forethought and diligence can help states advance technology projects without waiting for policy changes that may take years to arrive.