Jun 03 2020

Group Aims to Help States Streamline Software Projects

The State Software Collaborative wants to help state governments get common solutions and simplify software procurement, development and maintenance.

State governments across the country are facing many common challenges right now, with unemployment claims still at historic levels and legacy systems facing strain. States also need to keep track of coronavirus cases and analyze reams of data about the virus

A new group recently formed to help states increase software efficiency and streamline solutions. In early May, the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University launched the State Software Collaborative to allow similar state government agencies to procure, develop and maintain common software they need to fulfill their missions. 

As StateScoop reports, the group is the creation of Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith, who both recently left 18F, the U.S. General Services Administration’s digital services division.

“Our theory is that up to 80 percent of what states do is the same,” Carnahan tells StateScoop. “And there will be some customization for changes in policy among states, but most of it is quite similar.” 

The collaborative says that in response to the coronavirus pandemic, it has seen that
“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.”

States Get Aid to Simplify Software Development

According to a mission statement of the State Software Collaborative, “states all provide the same general services to the public, but they rarely hold the legal rights to the software underlying those services. The result is that when a state manages to build software that works well, they cannot easily share that software with other states.”

While there is some software sharing between states on an ad hoc basis, governance structures are difficult to set up and are reinvented for each piece of software, the group argues. Often, software providers “share” software, simply selling it to other agencies as “commercial, off-the-shelf” software that still requires extensive customization. 

However, the collaborative argues, this leads to states not owning the software needed to carry out their missions, forces them to commit to a customized system that can’t be easily or automatically updated and eliminates state governments’ ability to benefit from competition among vendors for better price and service terms. 

“States’ over-complex procurement processes result in insurmountable barriers for new software providers and insufficient competition,” the group states. “To date, the federal government, which funds a substantial portion of state technology modernization efforts, has been slow to intervene or create better incentives.” To solve these problems, the collaborative aims to “knit together a collection of state agencies based on common needs to help them collaboratively procure, develop, and maintain the software that they all depend on,” which, the group argues, will “prevent 50 states from buying 50 versions of near-identical, overpriced software, and instead allows them to procure high-quality, fair-priced software just once, and share it amongst themselves.”

However, the software will not simply be copied from agency to agency. Due to states’ varying requirements, the group notes, “the resulting software is unlikely to be ready for immediate use in all involved states, but instead be something more like 80% complete, leaving room for the customization necessary to serve each state’s needs within each state’s technical environment.” 

MORE FROM STATETECH: How will state government IT evolve following the pandemic?

The collaborative will help states by teaching legislative staff about how to budget and provide oversight for major software procurements; coaching agencies through using modern procurement practices; and teaching states how to use agile software development, user-centered design, product thinking and agile contracting. 

“Too often, what you see is governments outsourcing their mission to vendors, and then they can’t control things when they need to change it in an effective way,” Carnahan tells StateScoop. “It’s not like you’re buying a bridge that costs a lot of money in the beginning and then you just patch it up for 30 years. It’s more like buying a puppy, which is a lot less expensive to get into, but then you have to raise it.” Ultimately, the collaborative’s goal is to normalize these kind of interstate partnerships on digital infrastructure, Carnahan says. 

“There’s a need to be able to respond to public needs at a time of crisis, so it feels like things have come together at the right time to begin to talk about how states can get together and respond better,” Carnahan tells StateScoop. “People aren’t going to be showing up in an office, and they want to, in a mobile-friendly way, receive those same state services.”

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