Paying for It

The road to modernizing public-sector procurement.

On the road to digital transformation, government is confronted with a number of roadblocks that represent traditional business processes. These methods were developed during a time when technology was just viewed as a back-of-the-house enabler of public programs. Systems just had to work — speed and convenience (and — gasp — innovation) would largely come later. Processes were imperfect, and a certain amount of downtime and related business impact was expected.

There’s perhaps no better example of a legacy process than procurement. Rules and regulations relating to spending the people’s money, crafted with the best of intentions, are largely relics of an earlier time. Leading jurisdictions ran into this friction between procurement and the new age of IT several years ago. And they haven’t been sitting on their hands.

In this issue, we focus on many facets of IT procurement that government has struggled with, in the hopes of providing some useful examples of states and localities that are making changes that respect the intention behind traditional buying rules while supporting more modern service delivery.
11 Ways to Speed Up the Government Procurement Process is our big-picture look at the state of IT procurement today, offering perspective from a handful of former CIOs, industry groups and trade associations. Together, they provide a look at several approaches that can improve the process, as well as tips from practitioners who have been in the thick of the journey to modernize.

That old and oft-cited definition of insanity comes to mind in 3 Strategies for Procurement Success — the one that defines insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different result. We examine several recent efforts to turn procurement on its head in the name of innovation. Smart new approaches are reaping interesting new outcomes. Take Ohio’s recent analytics RFP, written to lure a new class of respondents into the mix by lowering some of the barriers that normally keep smaller companies from bidding in the first place. They didn’t do the same thing they always did, and the considerable effort paid off. The state qualified 50 companies for exploratory analytics projects across 14 different disciplines.

In Agile Acquisitions: Rethinking Public-Sector Purchasing, we explore updates to procurement brought on by the dramatic uptick in agile development across the government IT landscape. The more nimble approach, with its short sprints and evolving outcomes, clearly clashes with a contracting process that bids once, with all outcomes strictly prescribed at the outset. Many states are developing internal partnerships that include procurement staff to make needed adjustments to purchasing in light of agile. The update to the California Child Welfare Services Case Management System demonstrates that there’s reason to be hopeful that procurement and agile development can successfully coexist.

“There was no regulation that we couldn’t work within the confines of, and no policy so tight we couldn’t work through it,” Peter Kelly, chief deputy director of the California Health and Human Services Agency’s Office of Systems Integration, told us. “Most people initially assumed this was a nonstarter.” 

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter. Follow @GovTechNoelle