A few years ago, when I was doing the research that led to my work in open government, I had a conversation with Aneesh Chopra, later the first Federal CTO but at the time, the Secretary of Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia. I remember him telling me about the frustration of being in government, knowing that you could go to someone down the street to build a website in a week, but still having to put the job through procurement, a process taking nine months and resulting in a website costing ten times or more what it could have cost if he’d just been able to hire someone on the open market.
Much of the difficulty stems from stringent legal regulations that make it difficult for companies to compete and do business with government. (Like so many government regulations, these rules were designed with good intentions after scandals involving government officials steering contracts to their friends, but need to be simplified and updated for current circumstances.) The regulations are so complex that often, the people who do business with the federal government are more specialized in understanding that regulation than they are in the technology they’re providing. As a result, there are specialized intermediaries whose sole business is bidding on government jobs, and then subcontracting them to people who can actually do the work.
The problem has been compounded by the fact that many things that were once hard and expensive are now easy and cheap. But government rules make it hard to adopt cutting edge technology.
That’s why I’m excited to see the Small Business Administration launch RFP-EZ as part of the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program. It’s a small step towards getting the door open — towards making it easier for new businesses to sell to government. RFP-EZ simplifies both the process for small companies to bid on government jobs and the process for government officials to post their requests. Hopefully it will increase government’s access to technology, increase competition in the federal space, and lower prices.
This is a huge opportunity for web developers and other commercial technology providers. Government is the largest buyer on the planet, and your potential to work on stuff that matters is unparalleled when you’re working with the platform of government. When government and private industry work together to solve problems, amazing things can happen. RFP-EZ is a step in that direction.
If you’re a startup or consulting firm who has a desire to make a difference, and a desire for revenue, I’d encourage you to check out what RFP-EZ has to offer. There are a few projects awaiting bids now, and from what I hear, more on their way. (This is still an experiment, and successful outcomes will lead to more jobs being posted.) If you’ve got a solution to the problems that are posted, take a step towards working on stuff that matters at scale.
I have another reason for urging innovative companies to participate. This project is an experiment. Take a look at the Federal Register notice about the project. It’s a pilot that has a clear start and end date. They’re using the pilot to gather data, learn from it, and iterate. They’ve given themselves room to succeed and permission to fail. I’d like to see government do more of both. Your participation will encourage that response.