Funneling Tech Purchases

Texas focuses on cross-agency operations and innovation opportunities – and saves money.
June 2010
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

Last year, the Texas Forest Service needed aerial imagery to assess tree loss caused by Hurricane Ike. At the same time, the Texas General Land Office was shopping for aerial images to spot dangerous obstacles and debris on public beaches in Galveston. Normally each agency would have purchased its own images--even though those images covered essentially the same area. And they would have paid top dollar because they needed the data quickly.

This time things were different. The agencies coordinated their activities through a new master contract that includes a pool of more than 20 pre-qualified geographic information systems (GIS) companies. With just a little tweaking of their requirements, the agencies were able to share a single set of images, saving about half the cost of purchasing separately. What's more, the use of preapproved vendors shaved valuable time from the buying process without impacting the price.

The GIS master contract--and a handful of similar purchasing programs--is the work of the Texas Council on Competitive Government, a group of top-level state leaders that's using the procurement process to force healthy changes in how the state government works. "We re-engineer government services through contracts," says Dustin Lanier, staff director of the council. "We tend to focus our energies on cross-agency operations and innovation opportunities that no single agency would really be able to hit."

State government is littered with similarly named performance and efficiency committees. But the 17-year-old Texas council seems to have both staying power and enough clout to implement changes that often get hung up by turf battles and institutional inertia. The seven-member panel includes the governor, lieutenant governor, state comptroller, speaker of the house and commissioners from key state agencies. It's also exempt from state procurement laws that tend to discourage public officials from trying something new.

In essence, the council looks for products or services used by multiple state and local government agencies, and then tries to find better ways to buy them. The GIS master contract is a perfect example. Agencies all over Texas buy geospatial images and data to map everything from flood plains to voting districts. The council developed some basic parameters so that data acquired by one agency is likelier to be reusable by others. Then it negotiated with companies to create a master contract that offers imagery, geospatial data and related services at competitive rates. Once the details were nailed down, the council designated the Texas Water Development Board to manage the contract.

Lanier said funneling GIS purchasing activity through the master contract encourages agencies to coordinate purchases. A contract administrator reviews all of the incoming requests and can match up those that have similar requirements before getting bids from qualified vendors. "The contract administrator isn't just hitting the send button," Lanier says. "He knows what else is coming in, so he can talk to agencies about combining their requests, helping them get the same information at half the cost, or twice as much for the same cost."

Unlike individual state agencies, the council also can have much broader dialog with potential vendors about what works and doesn't work in a particular implementation. "We stick to the standard procurement process as much as possible," Lanier says. "I think the biggest difference is we do much more research up front on how to scope the project. We call vendors in and ask them where they've seen success or failure."

So far, that approach has saved agencies $1.27 million on geospatial data purchases. In addition, the council's master contracts for digital imaging and statewide fuel cards saved $4.2 million and $4.6 million, respectively, in fiscal 2009. Those results offer a powerful argument for innovative thinking on how governments purchase common products and services--especially in the technology arena, which has seen its share of procurement fiascos. Who doesn't need to save a few million bucks these days?