Chicago ain’t ready for procurement reform - Despite changes, the city continues to shut out tech innovators

Proposal Declined

Jan 12, 2012 – We recently received a rejection letter from the City of Chicago regarding our bid to build them an online lobbyist registration app. Crowe Horwath LLP, an accounting and consulting firm based in Oak Brook, lllinois, won the bid instead.

We were almost certainly rejected because we did not fulfill the application requirements set out by the Department of Procurement Services. We never intended to. Despite being very competent technologists and experts on lobbying data, we simply couldn’t meet them: The city’s requirements are not crafted with tech startups in mind.

Despite Mayor Emanuel’s pledge to promote entrepreneurship, his moves to modernize the city’s technology, and his promise that last year’s city contracting reforms would “ensure competitive, accountable and open bidding,” high barriers to entry that protect entrenched incumbents and shut out innovative startups are still very much in place.

“In private industry, many organizations have adapted their procurement process to suit modern website development,” says Paul Baker, the co-founder and president of Webitects, a web design firm. “The city still treats it like you’re pouring 60,000 tons of concrete, like you’re building a bridge.”

Smart organizations judge you based on your track record and the quality of your (proposed) solutions to their problems. The city, on the other hand, focuses on requirements: of the 152-page request for proposal (RFP) the city issued for the lobbyists app, only 10 pages touch on actual applications specs (p. 87 – 97.) The rest is largely forms and legalese.

Why? Because the city is more concerned with minimizing the risk of project failure than with seeking out ideas and ability. Though the intent is no doubt to protect taxpayers, the results are perverse: innovators are shut out, city IT is stuck in the stone age, city workers and citizens lose.

Consider the firm the city chose to build the lobbyist system: Crowe Horath is the same company that built the City of Chicago’s current website. The city paid them $1.8 million in 2010 to carry out the city’s first website redesign in 9 years. This company also built the Explore Chicago tourism website, and applied the same design to the City of Chicago site.

At an OpenGov Chicago meet up in November, the group discussed the City’s website. Some people raised usability issues, and several suggestions for improvement were made. The city seems to recognize that there are issues with the site, since they are looking to redesign it again after being in use for less than two years. (Note: I am a co-organizer of OpenGov Chicago, but this blog post is my own opinion and not a statement on behalf of the group)

The question now is, with Mayor Emanuel touting innovation and change, why is it still business as usual when it comes doling out taxpayer dollars for the projects that really matter?

We believe technology can help transform government at the core. But Government 2.0 will never become a reality without real procurement reform to level the playing field for innovative newcomers. In other words, procurement is the problem.

And we want to be part of the solution. We’re announcing the creation of a nonprofit civic startup: an open gov, open-source development shop that will not just build apps on open data, but also compete to build re-usable software that transforms how government does business.

More on this to come soon.

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An open process

In the spirit of openness, the goal of this blog is to share our milestones, setbacks and thoughts as we continue to develop and expand this project.

Who are we?

We are Open City, a group of developers and designers based in Chicago that build civic-minded apps using open data.

Paul Baker
President and co-founder of Webitects
Derek Eder
Developer at Webitects and organizer for OpenGov Chicago
Chad W Pry
Engineer at Groupon, Code Academy mentor, and all around charming fellow
Nick Rougeux
Designer and CSS wiz at Webitects

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