Former 18F staffers create ‘State Software Collaborative’

Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith want states to stop "reinventing the wheel" with each new technology procurement and instead work together to create software they can share.
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To help state governments save time and money replacing legacy IT systems with modern technology, two former employees of 18F, the General Services Administration’s digital services division, on Wednesday announced a new initiative they’re calling the “State Software Collaborative.” Organizers said the group would allow similar agencies in different states to procure, develop and maintain software solutions together.

The project, which will be run out of Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, is the brainchild of Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith, who both recently left 18F. Carnahan, a former Missouri Secretary of State and daughter of former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, said the collaborative will attempt to prevent state agencies from “reinventing the wheel” every time they have to procure software to solve a problem that another state has already solved. All states have basically the same types of interactions with the public, she told StateScoop, so they should work together.

“Our theory is that up to 80 percent of what states do is the same,” Carnahan said. “And there will be some customization for changes in policy among states, but most of it is quite similar.”

States that join the collaborative will see their agencies grouped together with agencies from other states that share a similar need, like a new unemployment or health care exchange system. Participating agencies will ultimately collaborate on either procuring or developing a software solution that’s 80 percent complete, and each state will have the option to customize the software to their own needs. The open-source nature of the resulting software, Carnahan said, will reduce “switching costs” for states that are unsatisfied with a specific vendor and want to quickly and affordably try out a new tool. That way, she said, states can avoid trapping themselves into long-term contracts and can share best practices with one another.


“Too often, what you see is governments outsourcing their mission to vendors, and then they can’t control things when they need to change it in an effective way,” Carnahan said. “It’s not like you’re buying a bridge that costs a lot of money in the beginning and then you just patch it up for 30 years. It’s more like buying a puppy, which is a lot less expensive to get into, but then you have to raise it.”

Participating states, she said, will also receive coaching from Carnahan and Jaquith on procurement techniques for budgeting, following an development strategy based on agile methodology and documenting their own successes and failures along the way. The goal is to normalize this kind of collaboration on digital infrastructure, Carnahan said, especially as states are forced to move more services online due to coronavirus-related public health measures.

“There’s a need to be able to respond to public needs at a time of crisis, so it feels like things have come together at the right time to begin to talk about how states can get together and respond better,” Carnahan said. “People aren’t going to be showing up in an office, and they want to, in a mobile-friendly way, receive those same state services.”

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