Civic Tech Procurements

Technology

Civic Tech Procurements

I’m generally wary of the fanaticism around civic tech, but found myself nonetheless at the Code for America Summit in Oakland this week, genuinely impressed by Codeando Mexico‘s Retos Públicos open technology procurement platform.

I picked sessions using the tried and true “pick one with words that aren’t English” method, and landed in: Retos Públicos: Attracting Companies to Civic Tech Through an Open Procurement Process.

Procurement? Snore, right? It’s so much more fun to talk about things we’ve already made, or things we’re going to make, than to get into the dry business of making sure we institutionalize fair, sustainable, and competitive practices for hiring people to make things going forward. I admit, I’ve built some things for some agencies that, if put out to public bidding, I probably would not have been awarded. Or I would at least have had to answer for why I did things a certain way, or why I charged what I did. I also find out about projects after the fact, and wonder if I would have had a shot if they’d been properly advertised. It’s a little nerve-wracking to think about opening this process up, just when I’m starting to get cozy on the inside. But just because I don’t think I’d do anything truly shady doesn’t mean that’s a good standard of shade, or that as a constituent I wouldn’t rather my public resources be better allocated. But how?

A Flow Chart
[In English: 1) Call is Launched / Proposal for a New Idea, Evaluation of Proposals; 2) Selection of 5 Finalists, They Receive Support for Development / Functional Prototypes; 3) Winner of the Contract]
Retos Públicos (Public Challenges) is a format of public procurement.

Key elements:

  • Encourages smaller businesses to apply. Applicants with revenue over $4 million pesos per year (about a quarter million US) are disqualified. The goal is to nurture an ecosystem of capable civic technologists. This is both to discourage relying on one or two multinational organizations (which is not very open or competitive), and to make that civic technology ecosystem more sustainable.
  • Governments begin by releasing a problem statement. This is much more simple than the dozens or even hundreds of pages that agencies typically publish when seeking technology development. As a person who bids on this kind of work, the idea of a starting from a simple prompt is exciting.
  • Applicants submit mockups of what they would build if selected. The agency announces its evaluation criteria in advance, and selects a handful of finalists to continue.
  • Each finalist receives funding to build a working prototype of their finished product.
  • A winner is selected, and hired to build the full tool.

I was so excited at this point that I started doodling.

A bad doodle, with a poop emoji
[the correct URL is actually: http://retos.datos.gob.mx]

Ok, skepticism time. *cracks knuckles*

  • Isn’t that working prototype just making vendors work for free? Wouldn’t only well-heeled vendors be able to participate? No, because the finalists are compensated for their prototypes. It’s unclear how much they receive, but this definitely levels the playing field.
  • How do you ensure new tools integrate with olds ones, or are easily maintainable by agency staff after implementation? New projects are encouraged to be highly modularized. Large, complex systems like Healthcare.gov are what inspired this approach. Retos exercises tool and language agnosticism, and keeps the problem statement as simple as possible.
  • If the problem statement is symbol, and you don’t offer with documented requirements, how do you ensure submissions meet legal requirements for accessibility (compatibility with screen readers, color-blindedness, etc.)? Accessibility is important in technology, and accessibility is a key part of the evaluation criteria in the mockup and prototype reviews.
  • Who owns the unselected mockups and prototypes? All submissions must be made under an open license, so the government or anyone else can make use of any materials submitted.

So far so good. And it appears to be going strong in Mexico. Codeando Mexico recommends picking smaller, self-contained projects for this method, such as radio alerts for natural disasters and an application to verify and track industrial logging. They’ve received thousands of mockups only nearly a dozen projects, and will continue. Codeando Mexico hopes that their presentation at CfA will inspire other cities to use their openly licensed materials to open civic tech procurement in other countries.

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