Civic News
Federal government / Municipal government / Technology

Could this age-old governing principle help states level up technology?

New contracting mechanisms are allowing states to tap the federal government for digital systems and expertise. It's cooperative federalism meets digital services, says Fearless Chief Growth Officer Greg Godbout.

The Capitol Building. (Photo by Pixabay from Pexels; image has been cropped)
When it came to improving how it served small businesses, New Jersey’s state government needed digital expertise. After all, it wanted to modernize processes for managing filings and permitting, and that requires tech.

So, officials got in touch with contacts who were specialists in digital services, and that led them to Fearless, a Baltimore-based software firm that focuses on federal government modernization. Now, Fearless is set to build a website that enables business owners to manage filings, from back-end to user interface.

It’s the type of agreement to produce work that takes place often between firms, whether inside or outside of government. But in this case, the mechanism that allowed it to happen points to a new trend in how governments at different levels can adopt technology.

New Jersey didn’t call Fearless directly. Rather, like so many business deals, it was the result of a connection. But in this case, the facilitator was the federal government, and it’s changing processes for improving technology. The state was able to engage the company through a federal tech department called the U.S. General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS). Fearless recently entered a long-term contract, known as a blanket purchase agreement, with TTS. It’s designed so that TTS doesn’t have to follow a full procurement process for every tech upgrade. But this agreement can also be applied to states.

New Jersey was able to use GSA’s shared acquisition services to find a company with the expertise it needed. Effectively, the state is leveraging the federal government’s existing expertise to apply to its own systems.

It’s the kind of move that Fearless Chief Growth Officer Greg Godbout is seeing happen more, and it has implications beyond one state.

Greg Godbout. (Courtesy photo)

The cofounder and first executive director of federal digital services lab 18F, Godbout has seen lots of civic tech development take place inside the U.S. government that brought a user-centered approach to the digital products used by agencies and citizens. But in many cases, this approach hasn’t yet made its way to many states. Doing so would require standing up teams to build entirely new processes and systems, and effectively becoming an expert in a marketplace for software services where they don’t currently operate. At the same time, states are often cash-strapped, especially when compared to the federal budget.

The federal government has already done lots of the digital services work, so such agreements allow the states to connect with that expertise, without having to build a whole new infrastructure themselves.

“We have an acquisition vehicle that has an agreement with a marketplace of companies that have already been groomed to deliver public sector digital services in the way you want to buy it,” Godbout said, “so we’re going to save you step of developing that marketplace for yourself and you can leverage and use that marketplace to buy from.”

It gets a time-honored government principle: cooperative federalism. That term sounds like something Alexander Hamilton wrote, but at the end of the day it describes the federal and state government sharing power and working together. While serving as CTO of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Godbout saw this play out with environmental regulations. The federal government set regulations, but the states had to enforce them. This had the potential for conflict, so it led to a system where states would contribute to creating the regulations. It was a process that involved inviting people to provide feedback, and listening. It reminded Godbout of the kind of human-centered design that’s at the center of creating software products.

And this idea of cooperative federalism is merging with digital services. Federal funds can help to build platforms. Then, states and other governments can use what they’ve built, whether that’s through APIs, buying directly into a platform or offering grant money that allows states to access it. It helps to save on the overhead associated with such projects, and makes it so that states don’t have to repeat a process that the federal government has already gone through.

It lets states stay focused on their mission, rather than getting into the tech business. And when state and local governments don’t have access to tools in areas like cybersecurity or service delivery that they need, it provides a cost-effective way to get them.

“If there is a service at the federal level that will help you move forward faster, then outsource it to the federal level and use that service so you can pursue the things that you want to focus on,” Godbout said.

Companies: Fearless / U.S. Government

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