Connecting state and local government leaders
A panel of experts talked procurement reform at NASCIO’s midyear conference in Baltimore.
BALTIMORE — Rapidly disruptive technologies and changes in the way states deploy them have turned chief information officers into resource managers, who must also factor in citizen demands and cyber threats.
States once focused on on-premise information technology systems, but cloud-based solutions have complicated the procurement process further.
“We’ve got to think way outside the traditional box in terms of what measures are required for procurement,” said government contract lawyer Robert Metzger, who was part of on Wednesday’s procurement reform panel discussion at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ 2016 midyear conference being held this week in Maryland’s largest city.
Vendors feel “a lot needs to change,” he added.
At the federal level, the General Service Administration’s digital services delivery office, 18F, offers something of a procurement model for states.
Formed in 2014 after the Obama administration's problematic HealthCare.gov launch, 18F started with eight federal employees and has grown to 200 people trying to provide better experiences for people interacting with government.
“Agile informs that because we have to listen to real users,” said V. David Zvenyach, 18F’s acquisition management director, whose job it is to “make federal acquisitions more joyful.”
18F’s product lead and technical lead work directly with its contracting officer throughout the procurement process, and with projects like mobile applications, federal law now compels modular procurement—focused on six-month deliverables.
But if procurement happens too fast, it can become unfair and exclude vendors.
“Modularity has its limits, and scale or scope is one of them,” Metzger said.
While it does have its place, state governments should still make use of the request for information process, he said, because they’re often isolated from best-in-class commercial tech and need more information about offerings.
Governments unwittingly transfer risk to vendors when they fail to specify requirements like whether or not a solution should be hosted in the cloud, Zvenyach said.
Using contracts to shift every source of risk and liability onto vendors isn’t an answer either because it results in excess litigation. A balanced approach is needed.
“I think the government should own more risk than it historically has,” Zvenyach said.
Chief information officers should be talking to vendors throughout the process, as should contracting officers.
Georgia’s chief technology officer, Steve Nichols, said his state focus on getting things right, rather than a speedy procurement process. Multiple submissions with critiques and lots of one-on-one sessions with suppliers are common.
By the time the contract is in place, “we feel that everyone has a very clear idea of what we’re actually buying,” Nichols said.
CIOs need to be willing to admit they don’t know everything upfront and can’t be ignorant of their state’s politics. But that doesn’t mean a unnecessarily distinct procurement process for IT is worth the extra time and money spend creating one, Metzger said.
Trust is built between states and vendors by doing small things together repeatedly and effectively, Zvenyach said.
And more states should consider total cost of ownership during the procurement process, Metzger said, though there’s no single checklist for best value procurement.
“It’s going to stay with us because there is more to IT procurement than lowest price,” he said.
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.