The cult of code-writers, and no-bid contracts

    Last week I wrote about a city of Philadelphia software design project that imploded, at considerable cost to taxpayers. The city paid a firm called Perficient, Inc. $227,000 to build a system to implement a new lobbyists’ disclosure law, and finally abandoned the effort when the company apparently couldn’t deliver a product that worked.

    I got a nasty comment on the post from a software designer named Megan, which, in case you missed it, read:

    Crashed project as lame as this article. 

    “Could you hire a van-full of 29 year-old geeks and get this done in a few weekends?” Really? This is how you think usable software gets developed and released? Huh. Well, maybe this same lack of respect for the software profession was present when the city selected this company–I mean anyone can do it, right? I agree, $227k is a lot for pay for no usable result (What no specs, wire frames, workflows, prototypes, or research to keep things on track?), so I’m not defending the company. But I don’t see how dismissively name-calling professionals who are actually capable of producing these systems is warranted.I found this article poorly written and needlessly insulting to my profession of 20 years. So hey, can we gather a van-full of 29 year-old word nerds to fix it?

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    This is one of those cases in which I wonder whether the commenter actually read the post she was commenting on.

    Maybe I wasn’t clear when I wrote it – you can judge- but when I posed the question of whether a van full of computer geeks could handle the job, I wasn’t saying I thought they could. I was paraphrasing the question a City Councilman had asked in a hearing, and something I’ve heard from others.
    And I noted in the post that the city’s IT chief, who’s done a bunch of these projects over the years, didn’t think the lobbyists’ disclosure software was so simple.

    My own belief, based on how often such projects run aground, both in government and the private sector, and how often designers come up with something that’s workable but detested by users, is that software design is by no means simple or easy (in case it’s not clear, Megan, I agree with you).
    And it’s one more reason I’ve never been convinced that government should use straight competitive bidding for professional service contracts (In Philadelphia, as the commenter below notes, competitive bidding is the rule for many contracts, including supplies and materials, but not professional services).
    In theory maybe, you could design job specifications, bidder qualifications and contract monitoring so precise and comprehensive that you could award these contracts to the lowest qualified bidder.
    In real life, it’s different.
    If your life or freedom or financial future was on the line in a legal case, would you hire the cheapest “qualified” lawyer? No. You’d want somebody you trust.

    It’s not always easy to tell whom you can trust or who can really handle the job, but I think you have to give public officials some discretion in picking firms to handle tricky professional assignments.
    I don’t mean these deals should be shuffled to a friend or political supporter in secret.
    Contract opportunities should be advertised. There should be pre-qualification of firms, and real competition among those qualified to submit proposals. There should limits on, and disclosure of any political contributions by firms competing for business (which is already required in Philadelphia). And there should be transparency – a public explanation for the decision to make a contract award.
    But I think you have to give public officials some latitude to exercise judgment in these decisions, as along they explain it. In the end, they and the elected officials they work for are accountable to voters.

    When I wrote the original story, I learned on Twitter that a young programmer named Casey Thomas and four friends had taken the data provided in paper filings by lobbyists and their clients to the Ethics Board and created a website called Lobbying.Ph where the information is listed. It works. You can check it out here.
    One person tweeted that Thomas and his mates were the “vanload of geeks” that did what the city’s expensive contractor couldn’t. But Thomas acknowledged that his site was a more modest undertaking.
    The city’s contractor, Perficient, Inc. was supposed to design a system that would allow lobbyists and clients secure access to submit electronic filings, let the Ethics Board manage the information, and create a searchable data base  for the public. That’s obviously more complicated than taking data and posting it in a table.
    But I salute Casey Thomas and his friends for the pro-bono, public-spirited effort, and I’ve already used his site to get information I needed (I couldn’t get the data up on the Ethics Board website today).
    There are many non-profits that take government information and package it in helpful ways. One of my favorites is Open Secrets, run by the Center for Responsive Politics. It takes data candidates and political committees (including Super PACs) file with the Federal Election Commission, and presents it in ways that are enormously informative.
    But I don’t think this stuff is easy.

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