Hello, I’m Catherine, and I’m a government technologist.

A Serenity Prayer for Government Technology

This weekend I saw a tweet from Mark Headd and just couldn’t resist amplifying it…

Sometimes the effort and energy it takes to improve government technology makes most people I know in the field want to check themselves in to a temporary technology detox program.

There’s been a lot of talk this summer (at the Code for America Summit, Public Spend Forum’s Technology Procurement Symposium, and at Data and Donuts) on improving technology procurement and contracting in/ for government. We’re slowly coming to a consensus on what that might look like for large custom state and federal-level projects: smaller contract units, built-in contingencies, and goal rather than feature-driven RFPs.

But most government software doesn’t require anywhere near that level of time and investment or custom development. For almost every local government agency we encounter, from the state level on down, there are lots of things being done with overly customized, on-premise, non-interoperable tools. And far too often processes are still running on paper or PDFs/ email systems with some improvised data storage plan. Neither of these approaches is necessary or productive- but it’s difficult for people to escape the twin defeatist technology mindsets of govtech that lead there:

a) technology should magically fulfill all my needs and automate everything perfectly, even if in doing that we overspend by a factor of 10 and create something so cobbled together it’s destined to break constantly or

b) technology is more trouble than it’s worth, I’ll stick to my spreadsheet, thank you very much.

Rather than build or buy, we see all too often that governments are frozen — not sure which way to go, or what to do.

But there’s hope!

One of the bright spots of our summer was the RFP issued by the City of Boston for a cross-departmental, self-service workflow and forms software. The RFP was the result of more than two years of pilot program implementation and assessment. I strongly encourage you to read Josh Gee’s account of his “forms killer” adventures, if you haven’t already. He outlines the work that Boston put in to really understand their technology needs. And I’m hoping that many other cities can benefit from their work. (One of my pet peeves is how difficult it is for governments to learn from each other — I hope Boston goes on a conference road show soon to share their work with other governments.) During Josh’s tenure in Boston, he moved more than 100 forms online and estimates that he saved Boston resident 10,000 hours of time. And that’s without working on any forms with complex workflow (departmental review and approvals) or payments involved — where we think the real time savings lie for folks inside of government.

The Department of Innovation and Technology (that’s right DoIT!!) was really thoughtful in putting together an RFP based on everything Josh learned, and was both realistic and ambitious. They want to get all their 400+ forms and processes online — and they realized that they needed something that was self-service, low-cost, and scalable. Here’s a summary of the outcome they’re looking for (emphasis added, or you can read the full RFP here)

“To this end, the City is looking for a robust, and flexible solution that provides an underlying infrastructure and capabilities to consolidate business processes, simplify the submittal of information and let the City process the data quickly and efficiently, and include the ability to:
● Submit information via any device;
● Create online forms quickly and easily (no or low development required)
● Integrate with other systems or sources of information (e.g. Payment
Solution, Address Database)
● Easy creation and digitization of workflow processes (no or low development required)
● Easy creation of simultaneous and tiered reviews and approvals”

They realized that there was no way to meet the ever-changing needs of the City’s processes without a platform that gives City employees the ability to manage workflows themselves…. not via the IT department or an external contractor or vendor, but on their own. Of course, we believe CityGrows is the best solution to meet the requirements outlined in the RFP (if you work in government and you’d like to read our whole response to the RFP and our price proposal, email us at info@citygro.ws and we’ll send you a copy so you can see why).

But honestly hat was most encouraging to us is that even a City as big and with as much internal capacity as Boston, realized that while they *could* build their own from-scratch forms and workflow platform, that wasn’t the best use of their resources or expertise, when there were products in the market that could meet most or all of their needs.

Whether we win this RFP or not, we’re very happy to see Boston demonstrating, as the Serenity Prayer says, the wisdom to know the difference between when to build, and when to buy software. Here’s to more cities, counties, and states doing the same!


Interested in learning more about CityGrows? Get in touch via info@citygro.ws or just sign up here, start testing out our platform, and you’ll hear from us soon!

Thanks to Michael SpitzerRubenstein and CityGrows

Catherine Geanuracos

Written by

Serial co-founder 1st-time CEO. Transforming govt technology @citygrows. Creating new civic spaces in LA @hackforla @ciclavia @silverlakeforward. @geanuracos

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