A people-first approach to public procurement: introducing a technology selection toolkit
Co-authored with Daniel Honker
Technology procurement is mission-critical for public servants to deliver on their outcomes. Governments buy and contract out a lot of services to deliver on public value for residents. Currently, the City of Austin manages nearly 2,700 contracts valued at $5.5 billion according to a special report from the Office of the City Auditor. One particular area of public procurement that’s especially important is technology procurement. Information technology systems, and the software that underlies them, are needed to deliver programs residents are eligible for such as Medicaid, unemployment insurance and child welfare. Success for these public services depend on the underlying technologies that power them.
The Office of Design and Delivery believes public servants and residents we serve have access to world-class technologies — the kinds they may experience on the marketplace. Civic trust in our governments depend on it. This is important to get right.
For governments, the cost of selecting the wrong technology is too high
Public procurement is one area where governments must improve. The track record for governments in getting technology procurement right is not high. Only 13% of large government software projects are successful, defined as software projects valued at $6M and over.
Governments purchase expensive technologies that do not work. There are countless case studies of governments not getting what they want from technology solutions. The archetypal case study in the United States for disastrous IT procurement is the initial implementation of HealthCare.gov, the website that supports citizens in accessing the Federal Health Insurance Marketplace (Marketplace), providing citizens the ability to compare, shop for, and enroll in affordable healthcare plans. The initial rollout of HealthCare.gov was a failure, and, depending on what estimates you used, cost the government anywhere from $194M to $600M. While HealthCare.gov eventually stabilized, the sunken costs undermined trust in the federal government’s ability to deliver on healthcare outcomes for years.
This is not a problem unique to the United States. Our Canadian neighbors are undergoing their own technology procurement problem in their purchase of the Phoenix system, a payroll system that impacts Canada’s 290, 000 federal employees. However, more than half its employees have reported being negatively impacted by the Phoenix system where some employees have not been paid at all — in some cases for months at a time. It is estimated it will cost the Canadian government $1.2 billion to stabilize the system.
Leveraging user needs improves technology procurement evaluations
There are countless examples of government technology procurements that are challenging that while not costing hundreds of millions of dollars, may still nonetheless be expensive. Many public servants are vexed when they end up with an onerous new piece of technology or software that doesn’t end up getting used. It is no surprise when adoption is low, and our governments are still on the hook to pay for it.
One challenge is that technology procurements aren’t grounded in user needs. A City of Austin audit report on city contracting practices finds that, among other problems, the City does not always initiate contracts based on accurate and verified information, and that “the City developed contracts based on what third parties offer rather than City goals or established community needs.”
This strongly suggests that technology change must happen at the level of individual behavioral change. It is important to understand the people involved with using technology, especially as people’s expectations for digital services have changed.
Governments have typically struggled to make decisions around purchasing the right technologies that address their needs. The Office of Design and Delivery investigated the current process of how decisions are made around technology procurement.
We learned that:
- Decision-makers lack the tools necessary to choose technology well.
- We often end up defaulting to pick expensive, high-maintenance technology solutions.
- The solutions that are implemented often do not serve user needs. This frustrates staff and erodes morale.
There are many examples around. City staff within a department that recently purchased a new piece of technology, in which they were not consulted, at best gave mixed feedback:
“The features are misleading.”
“I hear all kinds of issues about [the software solution]. It has been a bumpy ride. I guess it will not meet all our department’s needs, which was sad to hear.”
“The software solution definitely had a learning curve… Overall, I’m pleased with it. We’re still figuring out how some things work, but we’re down to fine-tuning, rather than solving fundamental problems with the software.”
We can and must do better. In an era of “smart cities” —technologies are often billed as civic solutions to make our cities better places to live for residents. It will be especially important for public servants working in local governments to have the tools needed to get this right and evaluate those claims appropriately.
During our session “Buying Technology that Works” at the Civic Futures Summit on October 1, 2019, we asked participants what their biggest pain point was with the procurement process. We broke down the overall procurement process into five-stages:
Many participants indicated that the first stage — identifying needs and requirements, provokes many frustrations. Participants noted stakeholders that are supposed to use the technology are often not consulted.
The OECD’s playbook on ICT procurement states that “[p]rocurement-led approaches often lose sight of user needs in favour of highly functional specifications — embed a user-centred, design-led, data-driven approach.” 18F’s own handbook for state grantee budgeting and oversight states that the first principle to de-risk custom technology projects is to start with user-centered design. Best practice suggests you begin by trying to understand your user needs. The question is then, how?
The Office of Design and Delivery wanted to build on the work done to incorporate understanding user needs into technology procurement. To this end, we produced an alpha version of our technology selection toolkit on GitBook. We propose an 8-step process to go about understanding your user needs throughout your procurement process:
- Identify your users
- Identify user needs
- Obtain other organizational requirements
- Analyze the market to identify technology platforms that are able to meet the needs
- Develop usability testing plan
- Test in sandbox environment
- Evaluate usability
- Recommend a technology product
This toolkit intends to offer:
- A rigorous approach to define technology selection product requirements from prospective users;
- A method to evaluate the usability of potential products that meet identified product requirements with prospective users; and
- Data to inform potential adoption of technology products.
This toolkit outlines a process for departments and purchasers to discover user needs, transform those into requirements, and evaluate products for the usability. It is our hope that those doing the hard work of technology procurement in government will benefit and shape these tools.
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