Catherine Geanuracos
August 23, 2021

4 Common pitfalls in government technology procurements - and how to avoid them with modular technology

What's wrong with government technology procurement?

It's not uncommon for residents and businesses to complain about their experiences interacting with local governments. What those people don't realize is that the government staff on the other side of issuing a permit, license, or permission are just as frustrated. Waiting weeks to get the go-ahead for a building permit for a home renovation means that the staff at your local government are also spending weeks trying to make sure that all the approvals are completed correctly and all the right people have signed off. Far too often, that's happening because local government staff are using antiquated and unwieldy technology systems...or no system at all.

Why is local government technology so frustrating for both applicants and staff? A lot of the blame can be placed on how governments have traditionally purchased new technology: through a public procurement process.

Procurement processes in government began in response to corruption and favoritism. Procurement is built to promote fairness and equity of access to government contracts. But as anyone familiar with trying to respond to a government technology RFP can tell you, many current public technology procurement processes lead to significant unintended consequences. Traditional procurement can result in botched development, misspent funds, and  stifling innovation.,

So here's our short list of common problems we've encountered in government procurements from our experience working inside of governments as well as from the vendor perspective. It's resulted in our general policy that we don't respond to RFPs unless invited to do so, and our belief that a modular technology approach to municipal, county, and special district tech needs is the way to go. We're defining modular technology as bringing together specific tech tools to solve different problems, and connecting them digitally if/ when that's required and cost-effective.

Thinking too big

Don't assume that one gigantic procurement is the right way to go.

It's pretty common that we run into the "Technology is magic" and kitchen sink problems. It's easy to assume that because today's technologies are so powerful, that there's an overarching, all-in-one solution to all your problems. In most startups or businesses, the trend is actually moving in the other direction: finding a specific software solution for each problem, and connecting them digitally when that's necessary (a modular technology approach). A modular approach makes it easier to test and iterate your technology as you go, and keeps you from getting too far off track and wasting time and money in the process.

You'd be surprised how frequently we see very small governments issue RFPs that would make sense if they were processing thousands of permits each month, instead of 50. Complex, deeply integrated and custom systems might make sense for you if you're operating on a very large scale. But if you're a small or medium-sized government they might create more expense, more complex setup, and more difficult maintenance than you can handle. And it's frequently easier to implement small technology projects over time than one gigantic switch-over.

You might be able to spend a lot less time and money than you think you need to!

Not doing your research

Don't assume you know the best way to solve your current problem or reach your goals.

Just because you used one type of technology previously or solved a problem a certain way several years ago, please don't assume that the same pathway that you've used before is the right way to go now. Technology changes very quickly, and there are constantly new products and technology capabilities available for local governments. Doing a thorough google search and checking on what recent case studies you can find may help you save a lot of time and money. It's possible that there's a low cost product (like CityGrows for permitting) that can help you avoid an RFP entirely.

Getting too far into the weeds

Don't write an RFP that is too specific on how your problem should be solved.

You're an expert on how your department does their work, but you're probably not an expert on the latest technology for accounting, permitting, asset management, civic engagement or whatever your team does. It's really tempting to write an RFP that focuses a lot on "how" something should get done - exactly the features you want or the specific technical capabilities you need. The problem is that you might box yourself into a corner and never see responses from vendors who might have a better solution to your problem, but approach it in a different way.

Not bringing your organization's core values into the process

Don't forget your bigger goals when you think about technology.

Local governments are usually organized around creating the conditions for a safe, equitable, and prosperous community. It's important to make sure that your organization's values around fairness, access, equity, and local prosperity are reflecting in your RFPs. That means that you may want to encourage local businesses to apply and make sure you don't have criteria that inadvertently privilege bigger, incumbent vendors at the expense of local suppliers.

4 Ways to avoid wasting time and money with modular technology

So here are 4 things to keep in mind to keep your next technology purchase on track as you implement a modular technology approach. We're defining modular technology as bringing together specific tech tools to solve different problems, and connecting them digitally if/ when that's required and cost-effective.

  • Do your research, ask questions, do some google searching, and look for recent case studies for guidance.
  • Think small, and focus on a specific need rather than gigantic system transitions.
  • Focus on the problems you want to solve and be open to new ways of solving them.
  • Keep your values front and center.
  • Be open to new types of technology and new budget levels. Your options are getting better and better every day!

Our team at CityGrows knows that government technology vendors shouldn’t depend, as the former leader of Code for America's Jen Pahlka says “on government clients having little to no technology background, and little ammunition against their aggressive negotiation.” As vendors, we need to sink or swim based on the strength of our technology and our ability to fulfill the needs of our government clients and the constituents they serve. Implementing values-based procurement and avoiding the common mistakes we listed above should help ensure that the best tech companies win. We're excitd to be part of your modular technology plan for your team!

Catherine Geanuracos

Catherine is the CEO and a Co-Founder of CityGrows. She's dedicated to supporting local governments and helping them improve outcomes for their residents and staff members. She is a former VP of the City of Los Angeles Innovation and Performance Commission and co-founder of LA's Code for America Brigade Hack for LA. She's based in Los Angeles.

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