Abby Eccher, Performance and Innovation Project Manager at the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas joined Code for KC for a Learn Night on July 15, 2019. Abby discussed the process she uses to procure and implement software solutions and how she is modernizing it.
Eccher began by explaining her approach to problem solving, which is the design thinking process. This process is a coherent, universal methodology to approach a problem and entails inspiration, ideation, and implementation.
The performance and innovation project manager position requires Eccher to work mostly with software. In the local government setting, software and technology problems are typically treated the same way as construction projects from a procurement and implementation perspective. This is where design thinking becomes so useful. There are varying degrees of complexity to the problems that require software solutions, and there are only so many resources available to a local government in a constantly changing world.
Software projects begin with a request for proposals (RFP). RFPs help the requesting agency understand the variety of solutions that are available on the market and really narrow down exactly what it is they are looking to onboard and what will still be needed several years down the road. This points to a paradox in the process. That is, often RFPs are trying to explain what the agency wants while simultaneously trying to gather information that will ultimately inform the description of what they want. The decision making involved in this process on the government side is difficult, particularly when there is limited information about a given category of software.
Eccher’s job is to inform her users, who are government workers serving the community at large, how to know what they want while conveying that they are asking for guidance on what they need. In a traditional RFP process, acquisition can take years of time, meaning that users are frustrated and confused, working with unfamiliar teams to work through the various proposals. Once a software is chosen and purchased, users must go through the process of learning to work with it. Developers have to fit the software into the Unified Government’s uses, and there is inevitably a learning curve while this is taking place.
Eccher argues that many of the problems and hiccups that accompany the implementation process could be solved upfront. This can be one by thinking more about reframing the problem the desired software solution is being procured to solve. This reframing should not include every possible solution. Instead, what is not wanted could be highlighted, along with what is currently being used and why it is no longer working. This presents opportunities beyond just looking at software. Workflows can be more closely examined to be sure that there is a reason practices are as they are outside of the fact that it is how they’ve always been.
This reframing transforms RFP documents into starting with a use case. Now, vendors are put into a helping rather than an adversarial role.
Data analyst Jud Knapp then a possible solution to the vacant lots problem in Kansas City, Kansas. He began by explaining that there is an infrastructure problem in the city, and property taxes are increasing in order to rectify it. This encouraged him to look into the amount of tax revenue each house in the city generates, and how many new houses the city would need to make up the difference and not need to inflate property taxes. That number turned out to be 10,000 houses.
But there is a reason that there is such a large difference between the number of existing homes and the number needed for existing property tax rates to pay for necessary infrastructure updates. There is a reason that a house hasn’t been built in Strawberry Hill in the last five years. That reason is the gap between the cost of building a house and the profit of selling it, which is about $35,400, which the builder loses.
How can the local government help itself by reducing the cost of building a home, thereby encouraging new construction and adding to its own tax base? Make it simpler. Knapp mapped the whole process of building a new house, including identifying a lot, finding a builder, making plans, and filing all of the required documents. Then he simplified the process, compiling a list of people who’ve built in the county in the last five years, a set of pre-approved housing plans, and automating that filing process. This means that people wanting to build a house would just have to pick up the plan and start building. If the Unified Government were to implement this process, it would reduce that loss for builders by about $20,000.
One of those documents that would be filed automatically is a Neighborhood Revitalization Act tax rebate application. This is a program through which people building new homes on vacant lots qualify for a specific percentage tax rebate for a set number of years depending on where the lot is located and its assessed value. This program is still being developed