Smaller RFPs, more agility and smartass kids

Smaller RFPs, more agility and smartass kids


A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to attend Foo Camp, a hacker ''Unconference'' run by New Zealand's best web-connected guy and gifted banjo player, Nat Torkington.

Following the model established by O'Reilly Media, Foo Camp is described as the ''wiki of conferences'', where the program is developed by the attendees at the event using large butcher paper schedules taped to the wall.

The schedules can be rewritten or overwritten by attendees to optimise the schedule, or completely ignored if you come up with a better idea.

Attendance is free, it's invite only, and participants ranged from senior Google-meisters to serial entrepreneurs, local bloggers, and edgy software designers.

Nat's smart enough to know that some of the best conversations happen late at night over a few beers, so the hours can tend towards the Catholic.

One of the more interesting, albeit depressing conversations I joined involved a group of disturbingly smart software and web designers standing around a chilly bin.

All had been invited, directly or indirectly, to pitch for the technology advisory bit of the Government's mixed ownership plan to float holdings in the four energy sector state-owned enterprises.

Without exception, all had chosen not to submit a proposal because of the sheer size of the request for proposal (RFP) document, and what they felt was its pejorative flavour.

The thinking was that at 88 pages long, and the way it asked for proposals to be presented, the RFP may have scared away the best vendors.

This style of RFP is far from uncommon in the marketplace.

All too often the complexity of an RFP, along with any cognitive bias of the issuer diminishes the chance of a great result.

Recently the Hamilton City Council was under fire for its ''gold-plated'' website revamp, part of its $12.8m IT project described by a former staffer as being $6m overcooked.

Other examples include web RFPs by Wellington City Council and the Ministry of Fisheries, both of which suffered from being made to comply with the State Services Commission 2011 Guidelines.

However, it's not as simple as blaming the process on pedantic officials and in-house technology advisers wishing to mitigate risk.

There's a solid history of large technology providers and consultants who have really taken the mickey.

The most famous of these was the ill-fated $75 million INCIS project which ballooned out to $110 million and saw provider IBM roundly castigated, but there have been plenty of others _ perhaps not as large but just as ill-conceived.

A couple of years ago I had first-hand experience of this when asked to participate in the selection panel for a government agency wanting to digitise a manual process.

The challenge itself wasn't that hard, perhaps four days' worth of development and a few days testing for a couple of halfway decent software engineers. Perhaps 100 hours' work all up.

None of the price tags attached to the pitches came in at less than $100,000, and one was close to $250,000.

This effectively means the agency would be paying the equivalent of $2500 an hour, a dizzying figure when you consider the going rate for paying a contract developer is around $100 an hour.

Even worse, the provider was a multinational so rather than trickling down in the local economy, the money would be heading offshore.

The situation was thrown into sharp relief in the UK last year, during an unusually forthright exchange between Martin Rice, CEO of software company Erudine, and the British Public Administration Select Committee.

Rice confirmed a perception that the big IT companies were exploiting an unskilled customer base in Government and suggested the industry owed citizens an apology for 10-20 years of ripoffs.

He noted an example where four people built the equivalent of a multi-million dollar job website for the British Department of Work and Pensions in just two days, but was ignored for political reasons.

The current local hunger for overly prescriptive RFPs is a reaction to an entirely rational fear by agencies that they will be ripped off because of information asymmetry.

However one of the repercussions of this is that the cluey local providers are being scared off, and taxpayers are paying for a sub-optimal result.

Right now the Government is teetering at the precipice of some very big technology spends. IRD has confirmed it will cost over $1 billion to replace its mainframe.

Meanwhile the creation of the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment will involve a broad range of technologies and websites being mushed together.

All my experience is that overly prescriptive RFPs won't deliver the desired result here.

What will deliver the result is a crystal-clear picture of the end state and a bunch of young, gifted and streetsmart advisors to help ensure the agencies make the right decisions and see behind the smokescreens to ascertain the quality of the proposals and how fit they are for purpose.

Just as important is the ability to pragmatically assess the work required and run a spreadsheet over the budgets.

It's likely these young men and women have been doing this for the last 5 or 10 years, because they either run their own businesses or work in an entrepreneurial culture.

The business history of today is being written by smartass web wonder kids.

Let's hope the Government makes more use of them, and less use of 88-page RFPs.

Mike ''MOD'' O'Donnell is an author, professional director and eCommerce manager.

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