That’s gotta be a record, because government software procurement is a nightmare. For a single piece of software, it probably takes 30 days just to write the RFP–Request for Proposals, a document that explains what the government wants and how much they’ll pay for it.
Once the RFP is announced, government contractors spend the next few months submitting their bids, before the government at long last chooses a winner. It’s already been several months, and not a single line of code has been written. The winning contractor delivers the final product a year or two later. (Oh, yeah: even if the product stinks and nobody ever uses it, the contractor keeps the money–your money.)
So what government contractor is responsible for this unprecedented success in DC? None. The DC Chief Technology Officer (Vivek Kundra) simply opened its data catalog and asked the general public to have at it. One month later, the DC government has dozens of new mashups and mapping tools for city transportation, tourism, law enforcement, and public safety. The CTO estimated that the normal contracting process would have taken up to two years.
This is phenomenal, but it’s not the best part. The best part is, this whole program–called Apps for Democracy–cost a total of $50,000, which was awarded only to the best submissions. Estimated cost of doing it the normal way: $2 million-plus.
This is good news in any year. But this year, it is a blessing. A deep recession is coming, and government technology budgets will fall. Government IT executives can take the lazy way out by simply spending less money on their poor system.
Or, they can use their budget shortfall as an opportunity to create a better system. They can starve their slow-moving, wasteful systems, or they can try newly evolved, more efficient systems. Compared to a government contractor, independent Web developers are cheap–even free, sometimes.
A faster, cheaper, and more honest system will always be needed, but it will never be easier to push through than it is right now, when leaders are most desperate for cost-saving measures. If a crisis is the best time for bold ideas, then Apps for Democracy couldn’t have come at a better time.
I hope Kundra’s example will do two things: give other creative CTOs the cover and courage to get their own disruptive ideas out the door; and make all chief executives wonder why their own CTOs aren’t already doing this. Politicians will always be antsy about public campaigns like Apps for Democracy–after all, if you don’t try anything new, you don’t risk embarrassed.
But at some point, the potential payoffs outweigh that risk. I don’t know where that point lies, but a 4,000% return on investment is obviously above that point of equilibrium: DC is already preparing for their next contest.