Creating a State Software Collaborative

May 6, 2020 | By Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith

Only 13% of major government software projects succeed, and the successful and failed ones alike cost 5–10 times more than they should. When those projects fail, so too do the public policy initiatives that depend on them: unemployment insurance, small business loans, paid family and medical leave, SNAP, Medicaid, etc.

As we’ve seen in the response to the COVID-19 crisis even if lawmakers move quickly to pass legislation to get money to laid-off workers, small businesses, and hospitals, those policies can’t be implemented effectively when the technology tools used to apply for, distribute, and track funds can’t be easily modified or don’t work.

This is an egregious state of affairs. But we know it doesn’t have to be this way. At a time when technology allows us to order a new pair of shoes on our phone and have them delivered the next day, it’s increasingly clear that technology isn’t the problem, but instead how government currently procures technology and uses it to deliver service to the public.

Today, in an effort to begin solving this problem, we are starting the State Software Collaborative at the Beeck Center, in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation.

States need to take back control of the systems they rely on to fulfill their mission. Our goal is to help them do that, through a combination of teaching legislative staff about best practices to budget and provide oversight for major software projects, coaching agencies through using modern procurement practices, and teaching states how to center all of that work in modern software development practices (Agile software development, user-centered design, product thinking, DevOps, etc.)

By knitting together states’ agencies based on common needs, we can help states collaboratively procure, develop, and maintain the software they depend on, so instead of 50 states buying 50 versions of near-identical, overpriced software, they can procure high-quality, fair-priced software just once, and share it among themselves.

States’ needs differ substantially — because of different policies, laws, cultural norms, and technical environments — so it would be a mistake to expect as-is reuse of monolithic software projects. We expect the resulting software to be something like 80% complete, leaving room for the customization necessary to serve each state. We’ll coach states through procuring and managing scrum teams to complete the final 20%, documenting emergent best practices for other states to follow.

State governments have the subject-matter expertise, the funding, the technical knowledge, and the digital infrastructure that is necessary to deliver high-quality, technology-intermediated services to the public. They just need a little help bringing together that expertise from across states and establishing the processes and governance structure to execute on that promise, and that’s where the State Software Collaborative comes in.

We come to this project not as an academic exercise, but as practitioners with decades of experience in this subject. Robin is deeply familiar with government procurement processes from her time as Missouri’s Secretary of State and knows that states are the linchpin to our nation’s COVID-19 response, but as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, too often that work is made harder by old, hard to update and maintain legacy technology systems.

For the past four years we have helped state and local governments through our work at 18F, a tech consultancy inside the federal government General Services Administration, developing and promoting best practices for government procurement of custom software. At a time when states are on the front lines of the government’s COVID-19 response, they must take back control of systems they rely on to fulfill their mission.

The current crisis has shown how important it is for states to both learn from each other and work together in procuring critical supplies. We’ll continue to build on that collaborative spirit and states get the tools they need to support the country as we recover.

Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith joined the Beeck Center as fellows in Spring 2020. They will support the State Software Collaborative project as part of the Data + Digital portfolio. Follow Robin on Twitter at @robincarnahan and Waldo at @waldojaquith.

Photos by Mackenzie Weber & Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash.

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