This post is written by Clay Johnson, the co-founder and CEO of the Department of Better Technology, and cross-posted from the Department of Better Technology blog. 

The way government purchases information technology is profoundly broken – leading to federal websites and information technology systems to sometimes cost as much as an entire scientific initiative to map the human brain. And it’s easy to complain about how much these websites cost, or about how their high prices and lengthy procurement processes don’t impact quality or user experience, but it’s not so easy to be thoughtful about how fix it. So this week, we thought we’d talk specifically about how to fix the procurement process.

Many organizations are interested in shifting the policy and regulations around to make the process easier and less cumbersome. Our own product procure.io helps focus down on making simple acquisitions easy. But before you get into acquisition policy and technology, another one has to get fixed up the chain: business registration processes. Here’s what happened when Jed Wood, our colleague on RFP-EZ, catalogued his experience trying to register his business just to be eligible to be awarded contracts:

It provides a glimpse of the process and the problem. He didn’t make it through. It’s due to poor communication: e.g. you register an “entity” not a “business” in Sam.gov, and you’re asked if arcane sections of the Federal Acquisition Regulation apply to you without links to the regulations for you to read. And it’s due to poor technology (even though Jed eventually filled out his form, the system still would not allow him to register for reasons unknown). This registration process is important – it’s not just something the federal government uses. Local governments use this central contractor registry to vet their own vendors, as do private companies: Microsoft uses this to vet its own suppliers.

Ideally, this isn’t the only process a business goes through in order to just have a chance at competing for government work. They should also try to qualify for small business certifications – like being a HubZone company, a Woman Owned small business, or just a plain and simple small business certification in order to quality. At the same time, should the business decide to work with local government, they have to go through similar processes.

These processes take a lot of time and cost a lot of money both for businesses – who are dealing with systems that often don’t work – and for government – most of these forms are paper and the tools on the inside (ironically because government can’t afford good, cheap technology) don’t work well and take a long time. It can often take a small business months just to get set up to be eligible to win contracts.

When the open government community talks about “Fixing Procurement” what we’re really talking about is making it so that the contracts don’t keep getting awarded to the same giant IT enterprise integrators over and over again. In general, our theory is that if you do that, then price will go down, and quality will go up.

The first step of that is increasing the pool of “eligible vendors” – because government is never going to have a completely open process where anybody can bid on anything. The complicated set of rules called “set-asides” are valuable social policies. They’re meant to ensure that when government does spend taxpayer dollars, they get the most “good” (by giving preference to service disabled veteran owned businesses, for instance) for those dollars. It’s not pragmatic or politically palpable to simply get rid of those programs, and the intent of them is good. But they could stand for improvement, and the first step of that is making it easy for people to register to contract, and to make it easy for the people who qualify for these programs to qualify for them.

That starts at the Small Business Administration at the federal level, and your local business development enterprise organization at the local level. Step one in solving this problem is by streamlining the user experience via software. Turn paper forms into digital ones. Make the language look great. Every place there is a PDF file and/or a fax machine in the process, there is likely room for innovation. Once these simple barriers are removed from the process, you’ll increase the contractor pool and ensure more diversity in the procurement ecosystem.

 

Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.