How Government IT Projects Can Avoid Repeating the Same Mistakes By Looking at Procurement
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How Government IT Projects Can Avoid Repeating the Same Mistakes By Looking at Procurement

An innovative project in Guelph shows a way to avoid some common IT pitfalls.

Screenshot from Government of Canada.

Screenshot from Government of Canada.

Phoenix, the Canadian federal government’s recent information technology debacle, has been a brutal experience for tens of thousands of government employees. The project was a large-scale IT overhaul intended to upgrade and improve the software systems used to manage payroll. The failure? The new system was rolled out and employees were underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all, for months on end. “Some public servants maxed out their credit cards, went on stress leave, or quit because they could no longer afford to pay for their child’s daycare bill,” wrote the CBC.

Another example of big-time government IT project failure was the 2013 launch of in the U.S. In the wake of these failures, subsequent dissection of the problems tended to focus on the tech and the way the project was managed, sometimes including the way the project was sourced and bought.

The reality is, the way that governments shop for IT solutions is a fundamentally flawed process. This, coupled with the incorrect rhetoric that standalone IT can create boundless efficiency, has most governments, at all levels, well positioned for the next Phoenix to occur.

Sadly, what’s most damaging to the quality of core service delivery from our governments are the countless mediocre and outdated IT systems and solutions that we’ve been buying, building, and maintaining for decades. They don’t blow up or make headlines. They cost hundreds of millions annually. They are the direct result of outdated procurement processes. And they fail to improve lives daily. We should be angrier about this.

People that work in tech inside government know these problems intimately. Which is why many are watching the City of Guelph with interest as it explores one approach to address some of the dysfunction in government IT purchasing.

Screenshot from Open Guelph.

Screenshot from Open Guelph.

Procurement – AKA Buying Things

As Andy Best, Guelph’s open government manager, puts it: “One of the main tools that people in government have to fix stuff is to buy something—purchasing is one of our only avenues to getting things done.”

Most government staff are not tech experts. And to be clear, they shouldn’t be. They know what they need to do their work, but they may not know how to say it in tech terms. Nor do they have insight into what kind of tech solutions are possible. This makes it challenging for them to write requirements for the IT solutions they want. But they have to.

It’s the first tripwire of procurement legislation—government needs to be quite specific in what it asks for from vendors. Many government staff know that this is not how to use best practices for designing technology but procurement laws make it challenging to do otherwise. This tight legislation around purchasing, compounded by problematic requirements from internal IT, lead governments to issue requests for solutions that are as specific as they have to be, but vague where they can be.

Being vague about parts of a desired solution is a policy workaround that governments can use in an effort to create some room for innovation and co-design with the vendor. It also leaves a lot of room for big trouble.

Creating large, locked-in business contracts that include intentionally vague terms blows the door wide open for all the stereotypical technology project problems: scope creep, budget overruns, illogical requirements born of old systems or old laws, surprise system integration needs, trendy features, not consulting with the right users, overshooting on automation in the name of efficiency, recreating old systems—the list is long and varied.

Hacking Procurement

In an effort to address some of these problems, the City of Guelph has launched a civic accelerator program. Here’s the policy innovation, in three parts:

Firstly, the City selected a set of challenges that it needs to solve: reduce residential water consumption, improve the notification process about city planning processes, and maximize the value of parking in the downtown. Rather than defining the tech solutions it wanted from a vendor, it shared its problems. This is a huge process improvement.

Secondly, the City opened its doors to the winning companies to co-develop a solution with city staff. “That’s how this process survives every step in the bureaucratic grind and gets internal buy-in, this is an investment of staff time in reaching their own goals. We’re seeking to solve problems that are in their work plans already,” said Best.

The winning firms were recently announced—Alert Labs from Kitchener for the water challenge and Milieu from Ottawa for the planning notification challenge.

Screenshot from, one of the civic accelerator winners. Screenshot from, one of the winning civic accelerator firms.

Finally, the accelerator evolves the purchasing approach. The firms will work with the City for four months with no money changing hands. After four months of working with the City, gaining access to city staff on a weekly basis, and co-designing a product with them, three things can happen:

  1. Nothing. At the end of the term, both parties have the option of walking away from the collaboration—in this case, lots of learning on both sides and no commitment to a solution that doesn’t fit.
  2. Extension of the acceleration period. Both parties agree that they’re on to something after four months, but need more time.
  3. The City of Guelph can make a purchase if what’s developed actually solves their problem.

The embedding period for the firms is just getting underway, and prototypes will be shared in December.

A critical enabler for this experiment was having broader support at the City, namely from procurement and legal. As Best tells it, “Mid-size cities may be the best equipped to be the R&D labs for government. To get this Request for Proposal process designed, we worked with our three staff in procurement and our six staff in legal. We could walk into offices and keep the work moving along with a team senior enough to make decisions and ground-level enough to understand the intricacies and nuance.”

In the meantime, as the Guelph accelerator project unfolds, Toronto residents may be able to begin to get a better handle on Toronto’s IT status quo. Councillor Michelle Holland (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest) has an item coming up at Council’s Government Management Committee next week for the City to do an assessment and review of its information technology platform. Knowing what we’re starting with is a helpful step to improved openness with our IT systems. Having a baseline will enable public oversight and input into how the systems can and should be built out.

When the amount of money that we pay for government IT surfaces in any story, looking for incompetent and opportunistic firms in the private sector is an appealing route to take. So is the tale of a wasteful and thoughtless government. Neither is the root problem.

The root problem is that the legislation that governs how government IT must be bought and built is in dire need of an overhaul. “Think of the millions tied up in government procurement processes,” says Best. “Innovating on that process to produce better outcomes, even in small ways, has huge potential financial benefits. Smarter solutions to complex problems.”

Screenshot from 18F.GSA

Screenshot from 18F

In the U.S., 18F is making headway on the issue. 18F is a government initiative that “helps other federal agencies build, buy, and share efficient and easy-to-use digital services.” Its work is provoking defensive results from some in the tech industry, as 18F represents “a shift taking place in government IT, one that emphasizes agility, results and cost effectiveness over established buying procedures—requirements traditional tech firms have invested heavily to meet.”

The overhaul needed in the Canadian context requires updates to laws that govern purchasing. In an ideal world, the laws that dictate government data management and sharing practices would be be revisited in parallel. By failing to delve into these pre-tech-era laws that force governments and their vendors into buying and building bad solutions, we’re destined to make the same mistakes time and time again.