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Lessons for local government technology from a school district’s failed COVID response

Written by Catherine Geanuracos, the CEO and Co-founder of CityGrows. She has previously served as a Commissioner of Innovation for the City of Los Angeles and is a Co-founder of Hack for LA.

When the stay-at-home order was issued, Fairfax County Public Schools spent a month busily upgrading their systems to support students and teachers with live group remote education. Unfortunately, the rollout did not go well.

Many students and teachers couldn’t log in to the system, and when they were able to, the audio and video didn’t work properly. Online chats were full of offensive, anonymous comments. After two more failed attempts to roll out the software, students and teachers were left scrambling to connect via Google Classroom, email, and phone calls. The District’s head of Information Technology was fired, and the contract with the software company was scaled back.

Among other problems, this was a perfect storm of missed updates and an imperfect chain of command not holding up in a crisis. Local governments have transitioned as quickly as possible to the unexpected quarantine conditions of COVID-19, but quarantine conditions have also exposed the limitations in many government agencies’ digital infrastructure. While many governments are trying to respond to our “new normal” by procuring new technology solutions, it’s important we learn from what hasn’t worked before and procure and deploy technology in new ways..

Here are three key lessons to help local government IT teams lead the way to better software solutions.

Lesson 1: Self-hosted software is obsolete

All but the largest local governments should move to cloud-based, SaaS (software as a service) products. And even big governments probably should.

Do you have computers in your office that are still running Windows 8, or do you know someone who never restarts their MacBook and so it stays 2 versions of Mac OS out of date? This is the same problem that brought down the Fairfax system. And it’s simply not a problem for SaaS (software as a service).

Locally hosted technology (software that lives on your local servers) needs to be maintained and updated manually. When required updates are missed or forgotten, the software won’t work properly. It’s common for governments to decide to keep using completely obsolete software (e.g. the manufacturer won’t even support it anymore) because they have hyper-customized it, and are pressured by other priorities and cannot spare the time to transfer to a more modern system. That’s true even when the technical debt (the amount of money they could save by switching) is significant.

The company who makes the locally-hosted software product may send governments many emails about required updates. But just like with the Windows 8 or an old Mac OS, the people getting the emails may not understand the importance of making these updates — not just for functionality, but in order to avoid critical security vulnerabilities. It is often unclear whose job it is exactly to install those updates.

Along with many of the CivStart startup SaaS companies, local governments can expect direct customer service relationships with our team at CityGrows, often with the founders of these companies (like me) who care deeply about their civic responsibility. SaaS products don’t live on your local machine or server. They’re “in the cloud” and that means it’s never any local person’s job to maintain and update the software. We update our code several times each week to improve our capabilities, and our government users never have to worry about it. In fact, if you’re one of our users, you probably don’t even know it’s happening until we send out a new feature update! It shouldn’t be any public employee’s job to worry about whether you’re on version 6.1.4 or 6.1.3.

Lesson 2: Self-hosted, custom software is overpriced

Do your own research about what’s out there. Smaller, newer, and more innovative companies may miss the RFP process and may be less risky than you imagine.

Governments across the country (and around the world) are overpaying for self-hosted, obsolete systems — systems for building permits, for business licensing, and more. Many government leaders are smart to be skeptical of publicly traded companies’ promises — whose primary responsibility is to maximize profits for shareholders and executives, not to act in the public interest. Software firms will sometimes make money by charging even more for “extra” features like mobile access, or take advantage of the public trust through tactics like the “bait and switch” game where they offer low prices to start and then ratchet up costs.

How can governments avoid overpaying? To start, do your own research to find out what is available to solve your problem, look for smaller startup companies offering innovative new solutions at reasonable prices, and when possible, make changes incrementally through pilot projects and small implementations, rather than through all-encompassing gigantic contracts. We recently responded to a local government who had hired a consultant to evaluate building permit companies - all of the ones she included on her list cost more than 20x what CityGrows costs. Her consulting contract cost them more than they’ll pay for our software. New, low-cost solutions are there if you look for them. But lean teams like ours don’t have the time or staff to respond to super complex RFPs.

We know government leaders take seriously their responsibility to the public trust, and so small startups like ours can seem like unreasonable risks next to the regular players of consultants and large companies who can navigate the traditional RFP processes. One option? Search for case studies where governments of your size and type had success. There are several new platforms that are attempting to offer unbiased, government-specific information about technologies (like Govlaunch, The Atlas, and Marketplace.City).

Finally, local governments should rely on groups like CivStart, a nonprofit accelerator with a network of public and private-sector advisors who vet and develop companies on your behalf. If you have a specific problem you are looking to solve, they can probably help.

Lesson 3: Hyper-customization isn’t worth it and limits your options

Gain the benefits of scaled solutions that meet specific needs over the frustrations of all-encompassing solutions that need major customization.

Local governments often have incredibly talented IT staff, but the set of knowledge that now falls under the category of “Information Technology” is so wide that it touches practically every aspect of government activities. Rather than having IT staff figure out an online permitting solution, it’s much better to have the permitting experts in a local government get together and build, test, and refine their own permitting tools. The IT staff’s expertise can be leveraged to evaluate the solutions and help make implementation seamless.

Big all-encompassing software systems are often configured and custom-built for a single government in a particular way on their local servers. They are often integrated with other clunky legacy systems, at the cost of many hours of programmer time and many many dollars from the public treasury. To be sure, even these big all-encompassing systems are often now hosted on a cloud server (like Amazon Web Services), but they are also usually hyper-customized and accessible and useful only to that single-user (the one government). All that comes with some major pitfalls.

Governments are large and complex organizations, so they often customize software based on input, requests, and other existing systems. That can improve some aspects of using the system, but as counter-intuitive as it may seem, it is becoming increasingly clear that this attempt to create all-encompassing solutions that are custom-made for specific needs is the opposite way governments should go about procuring technology.

Customization means frustration. It makes it nearly impossible to switch in an off-the shelf commercial Software as a Service (SaaS) product, which may lock you into sub-par service without competition. It also dramatically increases the cost. While there are some government functions that truly need hyper-customized software, most implementations don’t. The deeper these big, custom solutions are integrated with your systems, the more expensive they are to maintain, the more likely they are to cause problems, and the harder they are to replace when they do.

So what is the alternative? Leveraging the scale of smaller, specific, and innovative solutions that meet your specific needs. Rather than a big, customized, frustrating technology solution, you can use many small solutions that meet your specific needs and already work well together. Behind the scenes, these small and specific solutions are working with numerous other governments, benefiting all the other governments from what they learn in the process.

Governments can move in this direction by embracing a new approach: low- or no-cost test implementation, pilot projects and challenge-based procurement models for their technology needs. In this mindset, governments leverage their own expertise to lay out the problems and opportunities in front of them in specific details without getting bogged down in over-specifying a solution. Through pilot projects, governments can enhance their services, gather internal and resident feedback about the implementation, and potentially become leaders in major innovations in the process. With products like CityGrows, you can use our software for free for a minimum of 30 days. That’s more than long enough to set up a workflow, test it with other staff and the public, and decide if you want to expand your use of our system.

In this time of crisis, government leaders are being forced to do so much more with even more limited resources. COVID-19 has shown us all the ways in which the status quo is not working anymore, and we’ve been proud to help governments across the country stand up digital services in real time to respond to the challenge. We’ve helped the City of LA launch instant sidewalk dining permitting, and small governments create COVID-19 small business grant program applications. Fairfax County School District is just one example that can serve to open the door to a new model for any local governments that are paying attention. Local government leaders are facing enormous challenges, to be sure, but they also have the opportunity to lead the way through this crisis to a brighter future for their residents. We couldn’t be prouder to be helping governments across the country meet this challenge with our low-cost workflow automation software.

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