Tag Archives: appalto

Zen and the art of website procurement: why bureaucrats should get their hands dirty with technology

In the past few years I worked for several public sector agencies. Much of my work consists of thinking up and delivering projects that happen mostly through Internet channels. This is a good time to take a step back and muse on what I learned. As always, the most valuable lessons come from mistakes made – so it’s a good thing I made a lot of them.

  • Software-as-service is a bad idea, though there are exceptions. My team and I made this mistake with Kublai, as we decided to deploy our platform on Ning. That allowed us to be up and running in half an hour, no small advantage; but we paid for it by sequestering our own database, procured and paid for by the Italian government, and handing it over to an American private company forever. A year later, Ning changed its CEO and business model: it moved its platform from the open source to the full copyright domain, disabled APIs and blocked migration tools. Just to do a network analysis, Ruggero Rossi had to write a web crawler – a bit like picking the lock to the door of our own home. It could have been worse: we were using a free service (that was before Ning rolled out pricing plans). If the company had simply shut down business, formatted the hard drives and walked away we could not have stopped them, since we were not in any contractual agreement. They would not even answer our emails. I am never going to even consider again rolling out a public sector project in which my agency does not have root access to the server hosting the database.

  • Using proprietary software is not a good idea either, again with some exceptions. It is expensive and it amounts to a open-ended commitment to your supplier. If a large software house develops custom software for you and then sells you the license, no one, except that same supplier, is ever going to be able to tweak that code. You risk finding yourself disempowered and stuck in a situation in which changing the color of the background or the font is expensive (as in billable hours expensive) and involves a lot of administrative friction. Furthermore, it is politically questionable: proprietary software is not reusable for free by other administrations, and that is not good – especially in a time of budget cuts and of (justified) skepticism vis-a-vis the effectiveness of administrations in spending taxpayer money.

  • That leaves free/open source software. I have been using WordPress in public sector projects since 2007; for the Edgeryders platform, more or less finished as of this week, my team ventured into Drupal. Working with open source software can be hard and frustrating. Features that are supposed to work simply installing a module or a plug-in turn out to have horrible bugs in practice; everything takes longer that you think; most of the work is not developing, but debugging. Meanwhile, the rest of the projects activities are stalled. It feels horrible. I think experience can mitigate the problem, but never really solve it. Free software is by definition organic and gritty: it works by hacks and duct tape as well as by elegant, rational solutions.

Despite all the problems, my experience of Drupal procurement is going to be positive in the end, as with WordPress before. The reason is this: these platforms allow, and even require, a hybrid figure of “power admin” to emerge, somebody who is less skilled than a developer but more so than a normal user. This happens because the admin interfaces of WordPress and Drupal are intuitive and very powerful; Drupal, especially, allows fine-grained control over your website. You can query the database, format the return of the query and send it to a page, a block or even an email message; you can tell the website to execute instructions of the kind IF [condition] THEN [action], not quite programming but on the border. Furthermore – and here I am thinking about my standing love affair with WordPress – when the admin interface is not enough, it is easy to find online resources and tutorials to get your hands into non-core parts of the code. I am technically incompetent, but still I have been able to teach myself to tweak the CSS in a blog’s style sheet, and even the PHP code for very simple tasks, like assigning different headers to different page or inserting a line of Javascript. That required a small-ish investment, to which the proliferation of “For Dummies” books in my library is testimony. This gives you an incredibly important freedom: that of developing in a quick-and-dirty fashion, launching, and then just keep tweaking as your project evolves. Trust me, you will feel the need from day one.

Here’s the trick: the hackerish power admin role is perfect for a public servant that needs to procure software. Getting to know the architecture of these platforms well and to take full advantage of their scope for customization does not make you developer, but it does mean being able to have a constructive conversation with your developers, get real on what can and can’t be done, how long it takes and how much it costs. Furthermore, a power admin can rethink her goals in terms of the software, and so come up with highly sophisticated terms of service for the procurement effort. For example, on Edgeryders we need to constantly reinvolve users in the conversation: this is done through email notifications and the recent activity feed. In Drupal, these functionalities are carried out by certain non-core modules. If the public servant knows this, she can procure not “a website that feels buzzing”, but “a website in which the activity stream module logs activities that are not logged out-of-the-box”, that is much clearer

When I got into motorcycle riding, I read the obligatory Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The lesson of that book is the following: the act of driving a motorbike is not really separable from that of doing its maintenance. “Romantic” bikers, who do not enjoy getting their hands dirty, don’t accept this, and delegate to professional mechanics even the simplest maintenance operation. But they pay the price of disempowerment, when their machines stop by the roadside and won’t get started again, and they don’t have a clue what’s wrong and how to fix it. This system failure can be disastrous in public policy: in the projects I manage technology typically accounts for less than 10% of the budget, yet if the technology is not there the entire project grinds to a halt.

Summing up, high quality procurement is impossible until you know what you are buying. In my experience the free/open source software community is up for sharing its knowledge; corporates producing proprietary software much less so. If, like me, you find yourself in the position of procuring a simple technological solution for the public sector, I recommend you turn to this community, arm yourself with patience and get your hands dirty with the technology the developers intend to use. Install and configure sandbox sites, add functionalities, tweak their look and feel. Spend time with hackers, show that you are eager to learn, an grill them with questions. Above all, don’t yield to the temptation of going “this is not my job, just make it work and send me the invoice”. It doesn’t work like that. This is very time consuming, but you will save that time, with interests, once you are in production. I know it’s not a perfect system, but it is still better than available alternatives. Truth be told, I think it would be really useful if somebody started a course of website procurement for public servants. Anybody out there is interested? I would certainly sign up.

Thanks Freddy Mascheretti, Ivan Vaghi, Paolo Mainardi and Claudio Beatrice for their patience and suggestions

Against competitive tendering

Let’s play a game. You think of an Italian company that’s good at deploying urban games to improve cities while having fun; and I’ll guess who ou are thinking about. Ready? Ok, my turn: if you are Italian, you are thinking about Focus, owner of CriticalCity Upload (disclosure: I serve on its advisory board).

Easy win. If you ask around to anyone in Italy who knows anything about that, the name CriticalCity is immediately mentioned: they won seven awards in Italy and abroad, recruited a community of 250 players for their playable beta, and featured on most innovation specialized media in the country, from Wired to Nòva.

Despite all the recognition, a year ago the CriticalCity group managed to lose a tender of the Puglia Region to build a game that would activate the creative community gathered around the Pugliese policies in favour of the young, and in particularly around Bollenti Spiriti,, one of the most advanced initiatives in Italy in this space. The winner was a consortium that included Consorzio Nova (supposedly they do social innovation, but the website is under construction), communication and marketing agency Tom Comunicazione, and an e-learning company, Grifo Multimedia. Not much experience in the gaming area; that they won means they had a proposal that evaluators found very convincing.

After getting over the disappointment, the CriticalCity team went to work and, in may 2010, secured a grant from a Fondazione Cariplo and that allowed to launch the current version of their game, CriticalCity Upload. Then things moved quickly:

  • they launched on October 15th 2010 – five months after being awarded the grant
  • in the first two month, with zero communication spending, they rallied 800 players, verified one by one (i.e. zero spambots)
  • over the same period, players executed 1,516 missions
  • Upload costs € 150,000 for the first year – 70% of which funded by their grant, 30% by third parties
  • under the hood there is a solid gameplay engine, developed into code in collaboration with Californian early mover game company Playtime

On the other hand, the winners of the Puglia tender:

  • launched their game, Firstlaif, in november 2010, a full year after winning the tender
  • Firstlaif is obviously modelled after CriticalCity. Compare Firstlaif’s presentation video with CriticalCity’s (in the beta version of late 2007). Compare the concepts: Firstlaif changes the labels, but is really using the same concept. The word “ripoff” comes to mind.
  • after one month, Firstlaif totalled 16 completed missions (source)
  • over the same period, with communication “being limited to a banner in a local nespaper”, it attracted over one thousand registered users (source: as above). This figure chould probably be taken with a pinch of salt: at the time of taking my notes (31/12/2010, 10:45 CET+8) the whole first “community” page was occupied by users with names like pwyfvc63, ibhw1dzk, afbty6ic2f etc. These are not people, but spambots, i.e. programs that infiltrate social websites to advertise viagra, penis enhancement solutions, no-prescription drugs and all of the “worst of the Internet” repertoire. I looked at the first 100 users, and only 6 had a realistic-looking name.
  • it cost the regional administration € 335,000 (source: official documents).
  • All in all, it is clear that the regional administration failed to choose the right people for the job. I have no reason to believe that the officials in charge are incompetent or dishonest. Rather, I think the problem is technological and legal: public authorities are locked by the law in a spceific technology to make procurement choice, and that technology is the competitive tender. It is a public procedure whereby a buyer, meaning to purchase a certain good or service, writes down and publishes the specifications of what it wants, the maximum price it is willing to pay and the criteria according to which it will assess competing proposals. At a fixed date, an expert committee compares proposals and chooses the winner. This procedure is designed to be efficient (it allows comparison of alternatives), merit-based (it operates on clear criteria for what is desirable) and impartial (all proposals follow the same procedure, and everything is out in the open).

    Despite these advantages, competitive tendering is not a universal solution. Assessing public projects, especially ex ante is famously difficult. This gives rise to a structural information asymmetry, which is most severe for immaterial projects and policies: by definition, the supplier knows more on what she is selling than the purchaser, and the latter might find it difficult to figure out just how advantageous a proposal is. Here’s the thing: competitive tendering is a state-of-the-art procedure, but of the nineteenth century. It still works well for choosing supplier of well defined goods and services you can but from several suppliers competing with each other: it’s great for buying toilet paper, but sucks as a tool for making strategic decisions.

    When we need to figure out who, in the world, knows a lot about something and could help us dealing with it we do a very simple thing: we ask our friends and Google. If you, like me, have a pretty good social network it is often enough to share a question on Facebook or Twitter ( “hi all, do we know a good graph theorist who understands different metrices of node centrality in a network?”) to receive some lead within minutes, or hours at the most. These leads are generally links to publications or CVs of people with that specialization. If they look promising, we can write to them and they can accept to work for us, or recommend other people with the right set of skills. And what about accountability? Well, accountability should be geared towards results, not procedure: and transparency of those results helps good suppliers or collaborators to build reputation.

    Competitive belongs to the arsenal of Weberian bureaucracy, itself an extraordinary innovation that, however, is now growing obsolete. I would suggest (actually I did that in my book Wikicrazia) to rethink the organizational form of government administration: in times of dwindling resources it makes sense to equip yourself with the best available tools for making decisions. CriticalCIty Upload is obviously better than Firstlaif, and any tool that leads to choosing the latter over the former is simply not good enough.

Contro le gare d’appalto

Facciamo un gioco: voi pensate a un’azienda italiana in grado di realizzare giochi urbani per migliorare le città divertendo, e io indovino a quale state pensando. Pronti? Bene: state pensando a Focus, che ha inventato CriticalCity Upload (disclosure: faccio parte del suo advisory board).

Ok, era facile. Se fate circolare la domanda nelle reti sociali che si occupano di creatività in Italia, il nome CriticalCity salta fuori immediatamente: ha vinto sette premi in Italia e all’estero; messo insieme una comunità di 250 giocatori già nella primissima versione (2008); ottenuto una rassegna stampa sterminata (da Wired a Nòva 24Ore). Anche Google pesca il sito di CriticalCity al quarto posto (ai primi tre ci sono la voce “giochi urbani” di Wikipedia, che comunque cita CriticalCity; un sito che vende videogames; e un produttore di scivoli e altalene).

Nonostante il curriculum, un anno fa il gruppo di CriticalCity è riuscita a perdere una gara indetta dalla Regione Puglia per costruire un gioco per animare la comunità dei creativi resa visibile dalle politiche giovanili pugliesi, e in particolare da Bollenti Spiriti, un’iniziativa molto avanzata per l’Italia. Ha vinto invece una cordata costituita da Consorzio Nova (credo si occupi di innovazione sociale, ma il sito è in costruzione al momento in cui scrivo), un’agenzia di pubblicità e marketing, Tom Comunicazione, e un’azienda che fa e-learning, Grifo Multimedia. Non molto a che vedere con il mondo dei giochi: significa che avevano una proposta valutata come molto forte, con idee chiare.

Archiviata la delusione, i ragazzi si sono rimboccati le maniche, e a maggio 2010) Focus ha ottenuto un finanziamento da Fondazione Cariplo, grazie al quale ha lanciato l’attuale versione del gioco, CriticalCity Upload.

  • il lancio di CCU è avvenuto a ottobre 2010, dopo cinque mesi dall’approvazione del contributo
  • nei primi due mesi, a fronte di una spesa di zero euro in comunicazione, ottocento utenti verificati uno per uno, di cui zero spambot, si sono iscritti a CCU.
  • nello stesso periodo, questi utenti giocatori hanno svolto 1516 missioni
  • Upload è costato, per il primo anno, circa 150.000 euro, finanziati per il 70% da Fondazione Cariplo, e al 30% da clienti terzi
  • sotto il cofano c’è un motore di gioco sviluppato insieme alla californiana Playtime, che ha inventato questo tipo di gioco urbano nei primi anni duemila.
  • hanno lanciato il loro gioco, Firstlaif, a novembre 2010, dopo un anno dalla vittoria.
  • Firstlaif trae un’ispirazione molto evidente da CriticalCity. Confrontate il video di presentazione di Firstlaif con quello di CC prima versione (fine 2007); confrontate le piattaforme in generale: alle istruzioni di CC corrispondono le sfide di Firstlaif, alle esecuzioni le missioni, ai nodi le officine.
  • dopo un mese, sulla piattaforma erano state realizzate 16 missioni (fonte)
  • sempre nel primo mese di attività, a fronte di una comunicazione “limitata a un bannerino sulla Repubblica Bari”, si sono registrati alla piattaforma oltre mille utenti (fonte: l’articolo di prima). Questa cifra va probabilmente presa con un bel paio di pinze: al momento in cui scrivo (31/12/2010, 10:45 CET+8) l’intera prima pagina è occupata da utenti con nomi come pwyfvc63, ibhw1dzk, afbty6ic2f eccetera. Queste non sono persone, ma spambot, cioè programmi che infiltrano le reti sociali con l’obiettivo di mettere messaggi pubblicitari su viagra, allungamento del pene, farmaci senza ricetta e tutto il solito repertorio della peggiore Internet. Mi sono passato i primi 100 utenti e quelli con dei nomi realistici sono in tutto sei.
  • è costato alla Regione Puglia 335.000 euro (fonte: accesso agli atti da parte di Focus)
  • Insomma, è chiaro che la Regione ha fatto una scelta infelice. Non ho motivo di pensare che i funzionari responsabili siano stupidi o malintenzionati (al contrario, conosco alcune persone dello staff di Bollenti Spiriti e ne ho grande stima, come ho detto qui). Credo che il problema sia piuttosto tecnologico-legale: gli enti pubblici sono obbligati a usare una tecnologia specifica per scegliere i propri fornitori (anche quelli di giochi urbani), e questa tecnologia è la gara. Si tratta di una procedura di evidenza pubblica in cui un soggetto, volendo comprare un certo bene o servizio, descrive in un documento le caratteristiche di ciò che vuole comprare, il prezzo massimo che è disposto a pagare e i criteri in base al quale valuterà le proposte pervenute. Alla scadenza del bando, una commissione indipendente di esperti valuta le offerte e sceglie quella vincitrice. Questa procedura è pensata per essere efficiente (permette il confronto tra più proposte), meritocratica (stabilisce dei criteri chiari su cui è possibile misurare le proposte concorrenti) e imparziale (tutto è alla luce del sole, e tutte le proposte seguono lo stesso iter).

    Nonostante questi pregi, le gare non risolvono tutti i problemi. La valutazione dei progetti pubblici (in particolare quella ex ante) è una cosa molto difficile. Questo crea un’asimmetria informativa strutturale che affligge soprattutto i progetti immateriali: per definizione, il fornitore è molto più preparato dell’amministrazione cliente sull’oggetto della fornitura, e quindi non è affatto semplice capire quando un contratto è vantaggioso e quando non lo è. Il fatto è che la gara, in quanto procedura, rappresenta lo stato dell’arte, ma quello del diciannovesimo secolo. Funziona bene per forniture di beni e servizi ben definiti, serviti da fornitori in concorrenza tra loro, e che avvengono in un contesto statico. Banalizzando, va benissimo per comprare la carta igienica, ma lascia a desiderare se vuoi fare investimenti strategici. L’appalto per il famigerato portale Italia.it, il progetto pubblico fallimentare per antonomasia, è stato assegnato con una regolare gara.

    Quando noi abbiamo bisogno di capire chi, nel mondo, è esperto di una certa cosa e potrebbe probabilmente darci una mano nel trattarla facciamo una cosa molto semplice: chiediamo agli amici, e a Google. Per chi, come me, ha coltivato una discreta rete di relazioni basta spesso scrivere su Twitter o Facebook una domanda, anche molto specifica (“ciao a tutti, conoscete un bravo matematico dei grafi che capisca di misure alternative di centralità dei nodi in una rete?”) per ricevere qualche pista da seguire nel giro di pochi minuti, o al massimo poche ore. Le piste consistono in genere di links, che portano ad una pubblicazione o al curriculum di persone con quella specializzazione. Se sembrano promettenti, gli si può scrivere, e loro possono offrirsi direttamente di risolvere il nostro problema o indicarci colleghi più adatti di loro. Questo modo di procedere usa reti di competenze per filtrare l’informazione; il fatto che lo usiamo tutti i giorni è un buon indicatore della sua efficacia. Non credo che manchi sul piano dell’accountability; l’accountability dovrebbe essere verso il risultato, non la procedura. La trasparenza di quei risultati aiuta i migliori fornitori a costruire reputazione, attraverso la quale riceveranno, in futuro, più incarichi.

    La gara pubblica fa parte dell’arsenale della burocrazia weberiana, essa stessa una straordinaria innovazione che, però, è arrivata all’obsolescenza. Proporrei (di fatto l’ho già proposto, in Wikicrazia) di ripensare le forme dell’amministrazione pubblica: in tempi di risorse limitate mi sembra abbia senso dotarsi dei migliori strumenti di scelta disponibili. CriticalCity Upload è semplicemente migliore di Firstlaif, e uno strumento che porta a scegliere la seconda sulla prima non è un buono strumento.