Procurement has a branding problem. It’s also too rigid, its participants don’t communicate optimally, and it’s often constrained by legal contracts that don’t serve anyone particularly well. But there’s hope that state governments are finally identifying and attempting to solve these problems, representatives of two state IT and procurement associations said this week at the National Association of State Technology Directors’ annual conference in Indianapolis.
Governments ought to stop using the term “procurement” altogether, and call it “IT acquisition” instead, said Meredith Ward, the director of policy and research for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. That, she suggested, will make procurement officials less defensive when IT people complain that the “procurement process” is broken, because everyone knows the process could be improved, but the blame should be distributed.
“It’s all about understanding each other and understanding where they’re coming from,” Ward said.
She outlined the last several years of a partnership between NASCIO and the National Association of State Procurement Officials, or NASPO. Since 2016, the two groups have traveled around the country, bringing together state IT and procurement officials to figure out why the IT acquisition process is so frequently slow and stodgy.
Surveys by the two groups shows that state procurement needs to be improved, at least in the eyes of the technology companies selling to government. While 68 percent of IT or procurement officials said they believed states’ procurement processes were “effective” or “very effective” at achieving cost savings, just 31 percent of vendors agreed. Similar differences in opinion were found between the groups when asked whether the processes were conducive to innovation or “getting the best value.”
But many in government recognize the shortcomings in procurement processes. One government worker reported having two children during a single sales cycle, NASCIO and NASPO reported.
Megan Smyth, NASPO’s director of research and innovation, said a lot of progress has been made within the last few years in understanding what’s gone wrong. And many of the initial recommendations made by the groups in past reports have been updated to reflect the findings of their in-person meetings with IT and procurement officials, she said.
The groups’ current top recommendations for state governments are straightforward. The advise officials to craft solicitations that encourage companies to develop creative solutions, rather than being overly prescriptive, and to work with all parties to establish a flexible process in which people can communicate.
Few disagree with those pieces of advice, but some top recommendations — such as removing unlimited liability clauses introducing more flexible terms and conditions — can be more controversial, Smyth said.
“Let me tell you, if you want to upset a group of state attorneys, you can tell them to remove unlimited liability clauses and watch them all panic,” she said, adding that the groups stand firmly behind their recommendations.
Despite the pushback on some of the groups’ recommendations, both Smyth and Ward agreed that the research they’ve been doing has provided a more rich knowledge base for officials, and — perhaps most importantly — that simply bringing together officials from across disciplines has done wonders for their working relationships.
“Our only goal when we started was to increase communication between CIOs and CPOs,” Ward said. “They had never sat in the same road together. We were really shocked. A lot of this was like couples counseling.”
Ward said one of the gnarliest frustrations brought to light by those meetings — and something that’s reflected in many of the groups’ recommendations — was that IT officials tend to get involved in the procurement process too soon. That was something that IT officials and procurement officials agreed on, she said.
As for the question of who should own the procurement process — IT or procurement officials — the groups are agnostic.
“It’s been our experience that it doesn’t matter,” Ward said. “As long as both parties are involved from the beginning and both parties have a seat at the table, we’ve seen some success.”
NASCIO’s October 2018 report, titled “A View from the Marketplace: What They Say About State IT Procurement,” provides more on the groups’ findings and recommendations around state IT procurement.