The annual Code for America Summit is this week.
Seeing all of the posts on social media today, I was reminded of my first time at this event in 2013. I got to present on the main stage and I talked about some of the ways that the City of Philadelphia (where I worked at the time) was trying to change its approach to buying technology and software services.
That seemed like a really exciting time for the issue procurement reform. A lot of people in civic tech had become aware of the problems created by the way government procurement worked, and were committed to doing something about it. A few years after I left the City of Philadelphia, I got to join a procurement team at 18F, which experimented with new ways of running procurements. USDS also had a team looking at ways to make procurements more aligned with modern software development practices. The issue seemed to be getting a head of steam.
But then somewhere along the way, it just all seems to have… stopped.
Procurement reform hardly gets a mention anymore in most civic tech circles, and enthusiasm for running procurements differently seems to have largely dried up. (Probably because the reason government procurement works the way it does is a lot more complex than most people new to civic tech initially realized.)
Being on the other side of the procurement fence now has reawakened my deep belief that procurement reform is absolutely essential if we want to enable agencies to deliver better digital services. Much of the work that is done to build, deliver, and support government digital services comes from private vendors. It’s naive to think that we’ll ever improve them as much as we hope without changing the outcomes that are possible through existing procurement rules and practices.
There is a session touching on procurement on the agenda for this year’s Code for America Summit. And that’s at least something. But if we don’t regroup as a civic tech community and reengage on meaningful procurement reform, I’m pessimistic that we’ll make much progress on improving the quality of government digital services.
Improving the way that governments buy technology and software services is the great unfinished work of the civic tech movement of the last 15 years or so.
We need to change that.
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