Try It Before You Buy It: North Carolina Seeks a Better Way Forward for IT Procurement

This post, written by David Wyld, originally appeared on Public Spend Forum. 

What is the first thing that hits you when you step into an Apple Store? Yes, the truth is that the very first thing may be that all-too-helpful—and happy—Apple employee asking you what you might be interested in today? But looking at the big picture, what hits you is that you are looking at tens—perhaps even hundreds of people—with their hands on all sorts of Apple devices. They are there trying out all the latest and greatest Apple hardware (displayed elegantly, of course), but also they are testing the latest Apple software and apps for themselves.

So, if we have come to regard the Apple Store as the benchmark for how tech retailing should be done, why is government procurement done in the exact opposite fashion? All too often, important, large-scale IT procurements of both hardware and software are made without any notion—any possibility even—of a “hands-on approach.” And all too often, when government agencies do end up with their hands on the eventual IT purchase, the computer is out of date and in all likelihood, the software is as well. Or at best, it is duplicative of other offering(s) the agency bought in the past.

The North Carolina Inflection Point

The State of North Carolina undertook a review of its IT procurement earlier this year, and when the results were released in April, they were startling to the state’s leaders. In all, the audit revealed that 84 state projects were collectively $356 million over budget, and in fact, they were almost twice as high as the original cost estimates. Moreover, the average completion time for the projects was running more than a year—389 days—behind the projected timelines for them to be completed.

With these numbers in hand, the state took an important first step to dramatically change the way in which IT procurements would be made in the future, opening an Innovation Center in Raleigh. The Innovation Center, housed in an existing space inside the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources Building, and staffed with existing state workers, comes at very little cost to the state. However, the goal of the center is nothing less than a 180-degree shift in how the state buys information technology. As North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory framed the matter: “This collaborative approach allows us to share facilities, test the latest technology and it does not require any more taxpayer dollars. This new IT lab will allow us to try before we buy and make sure the technology works.”

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