KCMO: Making Room for Experimentation

Ever since the the highly-publicized failure of Healthcare.gov, the news has been full of government technology horror stories — overdue contracts, bloated budgets, broken bidding processes, and malfunctioning software. While such cases are not infrequent in government IT, they are not the whole story. As a recent NPR report pointed out, a small but growing contingent of leading government agencies and entities are doing IT procurement right.

NPR highlighted the Kansas City region — Kansas City, Missouri (KCMO) in particular — as one such example, citing success factors like support from the top of their departments and cities and openness around technical requirements from the beginning of the process.

Ashley Hand, KCMO’s Chief Innovation Officer, explained in an interview with Code for America why buying good technology is a priority for the City, and how leadership has supported city staff in creating flexibility and room for experimentation while still adhering to the rules governing procurement.

Built on Innovation Infrastructure

Kansas City, Mo. and Kansas City, Kansas are proof that cities don’t need to be New York or San Francisco to be hubs for technology and innovation. In 2011, the Kansas City metro area was selected from over 1,000 applicants to be the first Google Fiber community. The launch of Google Fiber sparked a flurry of high-tech startup companies in the Kansas City region, eager to take advantage of ultra-high speed connections and massive bandwidth.

And yet, explains Hand, many of the city’s business processes such as business licensing were still paper-based and required in-person applications, which was not meeting the expectations of the region’s newly wired constituents. Suddenly, acquiring technology to streamline city services was at the top of the city’s priority list. To adapt to the changing demand, KCMO developed a comprehensive online business licensing process, and is now turning their attention to other processes that need a digital overhaul. With an increased understanding of both the constituent needs and the city’s own business requirements — and heightened awareness in City Hall of the importance of providing high-quality digital services — Hand says they’re better positioned to make smart technology decisions.

“By shortening the process and being more collaborative in our procurement — bringing technical and business needs together — we are moving towards bringing better solutions into the organization quickly, helping us avoid the catastrophe of adopting out-of-date technology,” says Hand.

The traditional procurement and contracting process is lengthy, burdened by strict registration requirements, statements of work stretching for dozens of pages, and archaic bidding processes. Typically there is little room for experimentation before a contract is won, and little room for testing and iteration built into the development process — which, as critics have noted, was a key shortcoming leading to the Healthcare.gov failure.

As Hand points out, the typical procurement approach doesn’t work for governments in the twenty-first century. “Technology changes rapidly, as do its users. We too, as local governments, must be more agile in our approach to procurement and implementation. We cannot dismiss the importance of testing, validating the product and thinking in terms of scale.”

Making Room for Experimentation

In June, the city moved to make their commitment to improving the way the City acquires new technology official. Mayor Sly James signed Resolution 130492, which commits the City “to establish within 30 days a program and system designed to formalize its relationships with innovative entrepreneurs and business that does not supplant its regular procurement policies and procedures.” KCMO is not just working on improving the formal procurement process, but also thinking about other avenues to partner with forward-thinking entrepreneurs and smaller businesses to make the city work better — those that might not have the same capacity to compete with larger, established vendors otherwise

In response the passing of this resolution, the City Manager has launched the Innovation Partnerships Program, which essentially opens up opportunities for entrepreneurs and small businesses to propose ideas could add value to City land, facilities, equipment, right of ways, and City data. Approved projects would be piloted on a limited basis in partnership with the city and be evaluated on a set of performance measures, giving the City and entrepreneur a chance to test the initiative’s value before potentially pursuing it via traditional procurement channels.

Since the program’s launch in July, the city has since begun receiving applications from a diverse group of local startups and businesses interested in working with the city government.

“We aim to not only evaluate proposals for their potential impact on city government and understand the risks associated with this new model, but also ensuring that our process is not burdensome to smaller companies just looking for their first big win with the City,” explains Hand. “Our goal is to support entrepreneurs and new businesses by serving as a platform for innovation. Why shouldn’t government be open to testing new approaches, particularly if it advances our priorities for the community, or saves time or money?”

What Comes Next

Good technology purchasing decisions are about more than just getting the latest and most innovative solution available. Factors such as workforce development, accessibility, and standards across the organization must be acknowledged when adopting new technology in government.

In Kansas City, Hand is working to make sure technology decisions are rooted in a deep understanding of the desired outcomes and rigorous evaluation to ensure those outcomes are being met.

“We cannot assume that technology will rectify processes that are broken in the first place. Technology is powerful but it will only compound problems if your processes are flawed,” says Hand. “Take the time to review how — and why — things are done to ensure that the technology you buy will truly improve your effectiveness.”

Lauren Dyson Content Manager

Research and content development @codeforamerica.
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