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Developer Wants to Crowdsource Government RFP

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imagesLast night at the Austin Tech Happy Hour, I ran into William Hurley, who showed me his plan to create a new web site for the City of Austin with help from crowdsourcing experts IdeaScale, and input from citizens and open-source developers, and $10,000 all at 10 percent of the cost the city thought it would pay. The catch is that Austin already has a plan with a California firm to build the city’s web site, which involves spending up to an estimated $704,088.

Member of Austin’s tech scene, including its numerous web design shops, were angered by the news of a non-local firm getting the contract, and packed a city meeting to pressure the city council to halt the plan. The contract was subsequently postponed for a month to give the city time to reevaluate its options. With the web site contract in limbo, Hurley contacted the folks at IdeaScale and on Monday will place the request for proposal (RFP) for the City of Austin web site online. His goal is to let the community and developers build out the site to the RFP’s specs.

I have some concerns about that approach, notably whether or not the detailed specifications included in an RFP can be effectively crowdsourced. But there’s a deeper issue here about whether or not such work, provided for free, hurts the industry that was protesting the loss of the contract in the first place.

17 Responses to “Developer Wants to Crowdsource Government RFP”

  1. I dont think this is an issue in terms of outsourcing – at the end of the day, with the economy as it is, being frugal is a necessity – even for councils and government organizations. Although the crowdsourcing thing just seems to be a recipe for disaster.

  2. @Jack: Well, Austin outsourcing web development to another city/region/state/country is a bit like Iowa buying corn from California. It doesn’t really make sense economically. Dell and HP both import their hardware from Asia, for the most part, so there isn’t quite the same comparison there, but I’m sure many contracts went to california firms on just such a rationale over the years. If the work can be done locally *and* less expensively, its hard to argue against doing it given that it is local tax dollars being spent. If doing the work locally is more expensive, or the result of some self-dealing, then that’s a big problem – but I don’t believe that is the case here!

    @Lee: I don’t believe Mr. Hurley is intending to pay people 10% – but rather expecting the work to be about 10% as much as was estimated if crowdsourcing is used to prioritize and build it (or maybe expecting to get some pro bono work as well?). Still, I would second the comment that if a more conservative discount (50%) makes the deal more “realistic” to the city, then he should entertain doing the deal, and if in fact a lot of budget is left over at the end he can tell everyone “i told you so!” :)

    Love the initiative and creativity on this, hope it has a positive effect on the outcome, regardless of the final machinery behind it.

  3. Stacey,

    Your concern about the RFP process is justified, but not for the reason you stated (too complex to manage). Most RFPs from government resources are not worth the paper they’re printed on. They tend to NOT be detailed, to offer very generalized outlines of what needs to be done. Since the non-detailed specifications can be interpreted in any number of ways, companies that bid on the project are frequently at a huge disadvantage since – depending on how the “RFP” is interpreted they can be nailed for huge amounts of work that was never actually specified but can be interpreted as being required.

    The bid process in many government entities is filled with favoritism and cronyism. An “RFP” is frequently created as a collaboration between whomever the entity is targeting to get the business, and the entity stakeholders who want them to get it. As a result the process is anything but competitive, since the “in” team will know ahead of time exactly what they need to do to satisfy the judges, and anyone else can be eliminated because they failed to read someone’s mind or interpreted the vague requirements in a way that implied a higher risk of failure or a higher amount of work. I think you overestimate the quality of the RFPs that are generated and underestimate how much “who you know” influences the outcome.

    I have 2 different opinions on W Hurley’s efforts:

    1) It’s great that he pulled this back in from the California firm. Government entities should look local for the talent they need. Pouring money from taxpayers back into the local economy is the best way to keep the money circulating locally and helping the local economy. It’s the same reason I shop at the local public market instead of the grocery store whenever possible.

    2) I wonder the impact that W Hurley’s ideas will have on local web development companies that (by law) have to offer certain wage rates, insurances, withholdings, etc. If you create a website for 10% of what it really costs to develop it, you are – by definition – probably paying your folks 10% of what they should be earning. Some may say “well that’s great at least they have work”, and while I agree with the general sentiment – the folks that run web companies that are struggling to survive are the ones that will be hurt by this. These are the same folks that – in the long run if they DO survive – have the best chance of picking up those out of work designers, developers and technologists. But they have to survive to make that happen.

    I’d much rather see Mr Hurley put his efforts into the following goals:

    A) Bring the development back “in city” to his local municipallity

    B) Have a more realistically priced goal (still a discount, but not such a drastic one) and distribute the work amongst already active and established development companies in his area. If they need to hire to fulfill the contract all the better. Most companies would jump at the chance to grow, and even if they just stay even they’ll be less likely to have to let people go in the future.

    Note I do NOT live in the area in question, and would not benefit from this take on things. I do own a business though.

  4. If organizations and government agencies took advantage of sites like the RFP Database at to gain more publicity for their Requests for Proposals they would spend less money on advertising their project and at the same time yield more proposals from companies interested in bidding on their projects.

    Simply having a larger selection of valid proposals would contribute to the success of the final project.

  5. I totally support this idea that Whurley has come up with… for what it is worth, years ago I assembled the team that built the largest (# of page views and # of pages) website in the State of Texas system on Plone. Its been modified a bunch since we deployed, but you can see it here:

    By opening up and crowdsourcing both the RFP and the new site- there is a way to truly engage Austin and do something fundamentally different than what has happened before. Yes, there will need to be centralized organization- good bones for the RFP (and later the site!) to be built around… but Austin totally has the right talent to do so…

    Way to go Whurley, its cool that you are getting momentum behind this project, please do let me know how I can be of help.

    Kevin Koym

  6. Jack Wong

    So those of us in California should stop buying Dell computers and start buying HPs or Macs to keep the money and the corporate jobs local ?

    If the goal is to deliver the site for 10% of the bids – that by all accounts would be significantly below market value of the provided services. It is certainly good for the city but you have not directly improved the lively hoods of the people who lost their jobs in your area by getting them to essentially volunteer their time for 10% of the market cost.

    Your faith that the money that the city would saved would be put to efficient use is laudable. Perhaps you may have something if you could get the city to reserve 50% of the money it saved into some specified programs for retraining or computers for schools etc.

    Finally, while one time development may be easier crowdsourced – who will get the call on a friday night when the site has a problem an year from now ? Support is just as important as initial deployment and unless you are signing up contractually to deliver support to the city in the future, you may wish to reserve a significant amount of money for those activities.

    Part of the premium paid to a commercial vendor is for risk mitigation and assured delivery.

  7. Check the facts on this, I believe the $700,000-plus bid by the California does not cover full implementation of the new website, but is to develop the plan to deliver the final product. I’m not sure we even know what the final cost would be at this point. Again, check those facts with the City, please. I’ll do some inquiry and get back.

    • Excellent point Mike. And for the record, the 10% is matching this current phase of the project. Future phases may increase that number but it will still remain significantly lower than whatever the lowest big is “per phase”.

      In the end, the percentage may go up (or down) but we can only estimate based on what information has been made public on a phase by phase basis.

  8. Hi, Stacy,

    Thanks for helping bring this conversation out into the open. I do, however, need to clarify a few details:

    1) Our goal is to deliver the website for 10% (not $10,000) of whatever the city’s lowest bid is through the crowd source model. Though now you have me thinking…

    2) This isn’t about the local industry that provides these services; it’s about the hundreds of people from that industry that have been laid off or displaced from their jobs that are trying to service during this very tough economic time. So the money from the city would be dispersed among developers, graphic artists, technical writers, etc. who live in Austin.

    This is a very simple proposal, but I’ll be putting more details on the website over the weekend for the Monday launch. I’ll let people make up their minds from there. I do want to invite you to come to the website on Monday and enter your concerns. Having discussions out in the open, completely transparent, is the only way something like this can be pulled off. I will add a new section based on your article where everyone will be invited to add their feedback on this approach so that they can be addressed by the group.

    Thanks so much for touching off this discussion. I look forward to seeing where this will take us. Remember, this project is about WE. This city is very innovative, and if we all work together I think we’ll be surprised at what we can accomplish.


  9. hortron

    If the city can get a legally binding contract that will assure them the website will be delivered, implemented, and maintained that’s really all that matters. So someone in this group will have to put themselves on the line for being responsible. That kind of commitment is generally ratified by payment. Will anyone step up?

    • Hi Horton,

      I think I already have :)

      In short yes, I would be willing to deliver. I’ve done tons of large scale projects like this and have zero issues with commitment. The site will be out on Monday, and I’m dedicated to showing the world the innovation I know Austin is capable of. If you want to learn more about some of the projects I’ve done, please visit my site at or check out on of the other efforts I’m co-managing here:

      Now, the question I have for you is…how would you like to be involved?