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Playbook for buying local government websites

Here are the key plays to execute your government website search and procurement process with confidence.

Appoint a leader

As with any successful project, there must be one person that is given sufficient authority and support and ultimately held responsible for its implementation. This person, typically known as a product owner, assesses organizational business needs, establishes vision, thoroughly researches the options based on the given budget and leads from procurement to launch.

As 18F notes of the product owner:

“They’ll be responsible for establishing and carrying the long-term vision of the project, implementing a strategy, and guiding its progress, as informed by user research. … The product owner removes obstacles and helps the team work as quickly as they can. They make decisions independently and have sufficient authority to make changes large and small to the product without additional review from superiors.”

And, as the U.S. Digital Service notes:

“All stakeholders agree that the product owner has the authority to assign tasks and make decisions about features and technical implementation details.”

Empowering one person as product owner, led by guiding purpose and values, eliminates confusion as to who is responsible for making decisions with the entire organization in mind, and who will be held accountable for the success (or failure) of the project.

Establish purpose

Rather than focus on compiling a vendor list or itemizing technology preferences, first establish purpose and guiding principles to reference when/if the team needs grounding or reminding of the holistic end objectives.

For purpose, this includes focus on meeting mission-critical community needs:

  • Service delivery: How people access your services online.
  • Community engagement: Meeting your community wherever and whenever, interacting when it’s most convenient for them.
  • Product need: What exact tools and services are you looking for.

Create guiding values

To complement purpose, establish values for how you will approach your relationship with vendor partners. These will be a point of reference for strategic, tactical and technical decisions.

For example, San Rafael, Calif., approaches its vendor partnerships with these values:

  • Authentic and responsive engagement
  • Transparency
  • Accessibility (user-centered design, mobile-friendly, ADA compliant)
  • Continuous improvement and learning

Get buy-in

The key component to any successful digital project is buy-in, so that the initiative can get financial and moral support. Be sure to include and get alignment with all internal stakeholders:

  • Leadership (city managers)
  • Elected officials (mayors, council members)
  • Communications, media, public relations
  • Departments/agencies
  • IT

Clarify roles/responsibilities

Each member of the government team and hierarchy has specific roles and responsibilities. It’s important to clarify these upfront so that everyone within the organization understands how they can effectively contribute to a successful digital project launch.

Product owner
  • Navigates procurement process
  • Makes final product decisions
  • Serves as vendor primary point of contact
  • Assembles project team
  • Assigns tasks to team
  • Keeps stakeholders informed on progress/decisions
Leadership
(city managers)
  • Selects product owner
  • Empowers/supports product owner
  • Provides resource support (financial/personnel) to the project
Elected officials
(mayors, council members)
  • Provide resource support (financial) to the project
  • Provide input on project goals/objectives and success metrics
  • Empower/support product owner
Communications, media, public relations
  • Content development/strategy
  • Branding / positioning
Departments/agencies
  • Content
  • Service delivery insight
  • Integration insight
IT
  • Establishes governance
  • Executes technical needs (DNS, etc.)

 

Understand emerging technology trends

Familiarizing yourself and key team members with the modern technology landscape will empower you to make intelligent, sustainable, scalable decisions that best serve your communities.

Key terms/concepts:

  • Platform
  • Software-as-a-service
  • Application programming interface

Familiarize yourself with Digital Government Platform Standards

Digital Government Platform Standards provide baseline compliance guidance for meeting continuous technology, security, mobility, accessibility and data portability requirements, as well as ultimate procurement flexibility.

Standards are often mistaken with features. They are closely related but there is an important distinction between the two: Digital Government Platform Standards defines how the features will operate. For example, websites must be mobile responsive is a standard which then dictates that all features are also all mobile responsive. Therefore, your events, payments, webforms features are all mobile responsive by default to the standard.

Digital Government Platform Standards

Standard Compliance
Free trial Yes
Continuous feedback loop Yes
Ubiquitous platform updates Yes
Recurring release schedule Yes
Encryption 100% HTTPS
Accessibility Level AA
Mobility Adaptive/responsive
API Yes
Subscription-based pricing Yes

 

Diversify your technology services

A challenge we often see with how some local governments manage digital services is that they rely on one company to do everything.

An example of one company doing most or all of this includes:

  • Websites (and content management systems)
  • Meetings (particularly meetings management)
  • Customer relationship management (311)
  • Newsletters
  • Permitting
  • Chat bot
  • Accessibility add-ons
  • Custom design/development services
  • The kitchen sink

While there are cases where selecting one vendor to provide you the kitchen sink may be justified, it’s important that local governments explore all of their technology options and diversify when appropriate. If you don’t, there are long term implications that could severely impact your ability to serve your community in the ways you thought were possible.

Publish a request for information

A request for information helps change the framework of the purchase to focus on the intent of the services provided, rather than the purchasing process itself. Governments should provide needs, goals, standards, timeline and, if available, budget that act as a guideline for vendors to deliver detailed information on how they would deliver their services within those broad parameters. It is then up to the vendor to provide a clear and informative path to achieve government’s goals in time and on budget.

RFIs:

  • Increase your understanding of available options
  • Avoid predetermined processes
  • List suggested features, rather than heavily-specified requirements
  • Separate standards from features

Get a demo

A product demonstration gives you an opportunity to ask questions and have the presenter provide tailored information to your needs and understanding. By being an active part of the conversation with questions and personal insights, you learn more about the vendor than what’s presented in polished marketing material.

Test-drive your options

The only way to fully understand whether a government website service  provider meets your mission-critical needs is to actually use that product. Most software-as-a-service companies provide free trials for a limited time, so make sure you take advantage of this benefit.

If a vendor is unable to offer a free trial, their process most likely entails a custom, bespoke approach. While this is certainly an option, many local governments with finite resources should opt for software-as-a-service, as there are long-term benefits related to ongoing product enhancements, bug fixes and security updates.

Feel great about your decision

Modern technology, particularly software-as-a-service, has created an incredible opportunity for governments to cost-effectively better serve their communities in ways previously available only to larger organizations with infinite resources.

New, innovative companies are emerging that now offer fresh, invigorated approaches to government technology. This new energy will show up in the product design and customer support for the duration of your relationship with your selected provider.

So, when making your final decision, you should feel extremely confident you made the right decision, with the right partner, who will continuously inspire you to proudly serve your community.

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