Letting the Little Guy In: How Ohio Expanded Its IT Expertise

The state revamped its procurement system so that it's not missing out on smaller, innovative firms anymore. The new process is already catching fire in other states.
by | March 2017

Tod Newcombe

Tod is a Governing columnist and the senior editor of our sister publication, Government Technology.

Ohio CIO Stu Davis (David Kidd)

The state of Ohio wanted analytics. Demand from agencies had steadily increased for better ways to sift through large chunks of data, which could help public officials predict everything from the next crime wave or food poisoning outbreak to places where fraud might occur in a benefits program. The state had identified 14 different areas of government operations, from auditing to workforce programs, that could benefit from analytics.

But Ohio had an IT procurement problem. A lot of the really good analytic tools and the people who know how to build them weren’t bidding on government IT projects. What was the barrier that kept them from reaching city hall or the state Capitol? A clunky, complex procurement system.

Stu Davis, Ohio’s chief information officer, had seen this problem play out time and again. As the guy with authority over what technology the state’s 26 agencies can buy, he decided to fix it. Two years ago, Davis began working to change the state’s procurement rules. He and his team looked to see who was practicing data analytics in the state. They were stunned to find that there were more than 100 small, innovative firms that they had never heard of before. “We didn’t know how to engage with them,” he says, “and they didn’t know how to engage with us because of our procurement process.”

Ohio’s situation isn’t unique. State and local agencies want to buy new technology, such as analytics, but the only firms that can sell it are the handful of big ones that have the money and resources to navigate government’s arcane procurement rules.

To help attract the smaller guys, Davis got the state to streamline the procurement process by creating a request for proposal that prequalifies companies to provide analytics according to a range of disciplines, such as fraud, auditing, risk management, public safety and so on. The prequalifying RFP speeds up the entire bidding process, meaning high-impact data analytic projects could be operating without the usual six- to nine-month lag time it takes to qualify a vendor.

The state also reduced the onerous paperwork that can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million, depending on the size of the project. “We got rid of some of the mandatory roadblocks, such as a requirement that a vendor has to have worked for a state of similar size before they can work for us,” says Davis.

While it’s still too early to tell if the changes to Ohio’s procurement rules will make a difference, the work has already generated a lot of interest from other states. Davis has received several calls from CIOs and even small firms to learn about the changes. “I’m pretty jazzed about the process,” he says. “We’re going to be able to tap into the brainpower that smaller firms have, and we’re going to be in a position to come up with some really innovative approaches to solve some of the problems we’ve had in the state for years.”

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