Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is: Procuring Government Digital Services

Illustration of an old toddler game. A triangle-shaped block is ready to fit in through a triangle-shaped hole.

If you’ve been following along for any amount of time, you know that our team talks a lot about the values and principles that we think make for great, scalable, and usable digital products. As we talk about our tenets — problem first, people first, context first, and content first — those set the direction for more logistical development principles — developing digital products that are always responsive, accessible, performant, and secure. We also value the benefits we get as a state from using open source software, knowing that we as a state regularly benefit from work others have shared with the community. We all grow exponentially when we work together and share our work.

So as we embark on a replatforming project to build a new digital platform for state agencies, we knew that a first step would be to find vendor partners who share those same values. We’re not all talk — we’re putting our money where our mouth is.

And while private companies can simply hire a design or development firm based on conversations and a good proposal, we in the government sector have to wade through a lengthy procurement process to select and award a contract. Government procurement — the process of finding and signing on vendors to provide services for the state — is a bear of a process, but a noble one. The goal is to provide a fair and level playing field for any interested company by openly grading their responses to a series of questions. This is all with the stated aim of providing the state with the “best value” for work.

Finding the right partners and setting the right terms is a process that can make or break any project. Critically for the government, if your procurement is written in a way that allows opportunistic companies to game the system, you can end up with vendors who never deliver on the work promised, or a disaster of a final product. Just think of the fiasco that came out of the original healthcare.gov procurement.

But that’s the system we’re working within, for better or worse. And it’s a crucial piece of the digital transformation puzzle. So when we started to chart out a path for our next phase of digital replatforming, we knew we needed to get this part right. We also wanted to build a pool of trusted vendor partners that we can work with over time, in the hopes of getting the procurement work out of the way first, so we’re free to focus on the work of building the things.

So after months of procurement work, we recently selected our Drupal 8 Development vendor pool. With it came a lot of lessons learned. While reviewing and scoring responses wasn’t easy, we found that writing requirements that ensured partners align with our core principles made it easier for us to identify the companies who were most skilled, and most likely to be the best partners. We were able to easily see which respondents best understood our goals, and successfully identified which vendors would not be the right partners for us.

This is key. I believe that all digital products should be responsive, accessible, performant, and secure. So I also believe that all government procurements for digital work would benefit from requiring their vendors to understand that as well.

How the Sausage Is Made

So how did we do it? We had a series of mandatory requirements for respondents to display understanding and skill in providing work that met our principles and tenets.

For a vendor to qualify for the development pool, they had to demonstrate that they have made significant contributions to the open source Drupal community. We benefit from open source software contributions, and so do the development vendors who profit from the business of building Drupal sites. So we want to make sure the partners we work with contribute work back to that community, to make the best use of our tax dollars. We also want to make as much of our code available to other state entities as we can, so we need a partner who knows the difference between writing one-off custom code and writing contrib code. This is where many respondents dropped out of the pool, with very little contribution back and little understanding of our request to explain their process for contributing code. Because it’s such a critical aspect of our future vision, I’m glad we could identify that skill gap quickly.

Respondents were also required to demonstrate how their work has met Section 508 and WCAG 2.0 accessibility guidelines, show examples of their device-agnostic (responsive) approach to designing and developing, and explain their process for ensuring code is optimized for performance. They also had to demonstrate skill following Drupal 8 best practices for keeping sites secure.

For every prompt, we required that they provide a narrative to explain how their company addresses these principles, and in most cases to show proof of work “in the wild” that demonstrates them. I’m pleased to say that all our awarded vendor partners are not only leaders in the Drupal community, they also demonstrated skill providing work that meets our development principles.

Why go through all of that?

It’s one thing to ask a company, “When you write code for me, can you make it accessible to WCAG 2.0 AA standards? Can you also make it responsive, make things load quickly, and check it for security? Also, will you think about how the work you do for us can be contributed back to the open source community as a whole, and build our platform in a way that we can share it easily with other entities that want to use it?” Any company faced with the promise of a government contract will simply say, “Yes, we can do that,” whether or not they’ve ever thought of it before.

“What’s wrong with that?” one may ask. “Surely if they say they’ll do it, they’ll figure it out, right?”

Well, not necessarily. If these principles aren’t already built into a company culture, it will be really hard for them to suddenly build those habits into their work now, just for us. So it would potentially cost us time, money, and lost quality as we attempt to regularly course correct teams who are learning all of these principles as new habits. What we need are partners who already think this way, value what we value, and can prove it.

This is just one of a handful of vendor pools we’re putting together based on needed skillsets. We’re close to awarding contracts for an enterprise branding and design effort and a content strategy pool as well. Later we’ll identify vendors who can audit for security, usability, and accessibility. With each new procurement stream, we check for understanding of accessibility, responsive design, performance, and security whenever it’s relevant — these principles affect each stream in some way. We expect to identify vendors with significant experience gaps through those questions, and that helps us drill down to the best in class vendors.

Now What?

Really, identifying a vendor pool is just the beginning. Now that we know who is best qualified to provide Drupal 8 services for us, we can work with them to identify where each vendor will best be able to provide solutions. That means writing more procurement documents — Statements of Need, this time — for just the qualified vendors. Soon we will be off and running with signed contracts and roadmaps to work towards completing our vision for a scalable, flexible, and best-in-class digital platform for the state.

As a team of people who geek out over solving design and development problems, who value simplicity and plain language on the web, it’s been frustrating to spend months writing and scoring documents with forced procurement language. I don’t think the system is perfect, by any means, and we’ve spent much of that time trying to figure out which hoops we have to jump through to get the kind of results we need within our state’s procurement requirements But solving procurement problems is just as important as the work that comes after. And it’s been gratifying to know as each solicitation closes, it opens doors to new opportunities with new partners. Partners who value what we value, and are excited to solve these civic tech problems.

Want More Detail?

If what I’ve said here strikes a chord as something that may help you get through your own procurement woes, here’s a list of our Drupal 8 Development vendor questions.

If our work helps you in any way, please email us or let us know!

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