What I Learned ‘Buying’ Our New City Digital Services

Posted on August 3, 2016

internet rainbows

Update: San Rafael Launches Public Test of Future City Website

Procuring technology is hard enough with endless vendor sales pitches, too many options and confusing pricing schemes. Then, on top of that, throw in some outdated procurement practices.

Last winter, I got the green light to spearhead the creation of a new city website as well as implementing constituent relationship management (CRM) software. Jim Schutz, San Rafael City Manager, suggested we hire a consultant to assist with the procurement process, and I jumped at the chance because:

  • I thought that on my own I might forget to cross a t or dot an i when it came to the procurement effort itself;
  • That kind of investment would legitimize the effort;
  • I maintain a deeply held belief that the internet is made out of magic so I felt I needed some expert technical support.

So we hired a consultant to help. The consultant developed a project management plan – a plan that had worked with other cities to procure new websites. I started by issuing a Request for Information (RFI) rather than Request for Proposals (RFP). We had done this for technology procurements in the past and I liked the flexibility that it provided.

I wanted the vendor community to tell us what was most important rather than have City staff (who are not website experts) come up with a long list of requirements we thought we needed, but still wanted to allow for a healthy competitive bidding opportunity.

The consultant interviewed staff from our departments and asked what they wanted in a new site. I sat through these interviews and watched as many of our staff fumbled through the questions not really knowing what they wanted or needed, much less what a new site might be able to provide.

Looking back, I think I started the procurement out the wrong way by asking the departments about their technical requirements for a new website. I should have asked them about their operations, frustrations and goals.

Ultimately the questions we asked did not provide enough information. Instead, I developed a set of values to guide the process. By moving away from a long list of desired functions and attributes, this allowed us to focus instead on the type of vendor with which we wanted to partner.

The vendors and their products needed to:

  • Help us reach our goals related to transparency as well as authentic and responsive engagement with the community.
  • Make information accessible through user-centered design principles and good search functionality.
  • Be forward thinking and demonstrate the value of continuous improvement and learning.

One of the requests in the RFI asked vendors to discuss their plans for the future. We asked that they explain the future they foresee in terms of city websites and government CRM and how the company plans to change, adapt, and continually improve the user experience.

We got a handful of responses from common vendors in the municipal website space. They were experienced and had decades-worth of clients. Their responses about their future plans were disappointing.

Here’s an actual quote:

“Unfortunately, we can’t discuss any upcoming plans here. But rest assured that we are always working on new CMS functionality and evaluating design trends. Furthermore, we have some powerful value-added services and some very exciting new professional services in the works. As always, our clients will be the first to know.”

I sought out more companies and started setting up demos.

I established a team of staff and we sat through vendor demos. We asked the vendors how their product and company aligns with our values; how they will ensure that users find answers to questions quickly; and how their company plans to change and adapt.

We looked beyond their years of experience making city websites, searching for a vendor who displayed the desire to learn and grow with us; to push us to the places we need to go. And, the interface had to be easy to use and intuitive.

Eventually we ended up with a recommendation to the City Manager to select two vendors: ProudCity to help us build a new website and Seneca Systems for the CRM product Romulus.

Both of these vendors exceeded my expectations when it came to their plans for the future. And, instead of saying “well, we don’t exactly have a module for that, but we do have a module for this and it’s just $15,000 per year in addition to your base price” they said “cool, let’s build that.”

I don’t really know what the heck SaaS REALLY is, my explanation of open-source is juvenile, and I fumble my way through concepts like “user-centered design” and “search engine optimization” enough to make people cross-eyed and nod.

What I do know is that we’re about to embark on a journey with two forward thinking companies and we’re going to make something awesome. We found two vendors that align with our goals and it’s going to make a real difference in the lives of our staff and in the community.

Through this process, we also discovered that we need to change the way we procure technology. So, now we are also embarking on a new journey: updating our process so we can more easily procure the technology of now and the future. Our staff requires 21st century tools because the community deserves 21st century service.

We’ll be launching our beta site in September and I’ll be blogging about our progress and learnings along the way. Follow our journey on our site!

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