Tom Feeney: Florida’s policy for state tech contracts should be reformed

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The information technology field in Florida and across the country has been expanding rapidly with innovative technologies and services hitting the market all the time.

Our banks, large retailers and, most importantly, our state government depend on this ever-growing field. And while we will be addressing many issues this legislative session, we need to keep up with the evolving IT sector and focus on improving the state’s effective use of information technology.

Unfortunately, Florida has not kept pace with changing IT policies and practices in the state government arena. For example, the Center for Digital Government, in its 2014 Digital States Survey, ranked Florida as one of worst in the nation — only Alaska scored worse — giving our state a “C” grade.

But there is good news. Florida has already made strides with the recent creation of the Agency for State Technology (AST). This is in line with other states that have instituted successful IT policies.

To continue on this path, Florida needs to reform our state government IT sector, starting with the policies that drive all state term contracts for IT and related services, including management consulting. Unfortunately, Florida’s term contracts restrict competition and access to the most modern products and services. Our contracts need to be opening the door for innovation and allowing the best products and services to be available.

Florida IT contract periods are too long. While they are in effect, no new vendors and services are allowed. This stymies competition and innovation.

For example, one contract was recently rebid to replace the previous one that was expiring. There were more than 60 firms on the previous contract that could provide the same or similar services, but as a result of the rebid, there are now only 11. That’s because a new minimum scoring threshold was implemented that vendors had to meet to be considered for the new contract. As a result, some of the industry’s most recognizable  and capable firms were eliminated from the new contract and will have to wait until the contract expires to try again – a minimum of 3 years.

Who is hurt by this reduction in competition?  Florida taxpayers.  A smaller selection pool limits access to the industry’s best options for the agencies. Ultimately, government costs go up and efficiency declines. Smaller vendor pools also dampen innovation. And, it certainly seems out of step with the notion of attracting high-tech firms and new jobs to our state.

Perhaps this is why the Legislature has given the new AST some say-so in these matters by creating a statute that requires the AST to collaborate with the Department of Management Service. They will work together to establish best practices for the procurement of IT products and conduct solicitations for state contracts.

The AST has the knowledge to make the necessary reforms to policies regarding best practices for IT and should be the impetus for new policies for IT state contracts, taking into consideration how fast IT products and services change.

In the end, we should not be placing a roadblock between Florida agencies and innovative technology and vendors.

We should not be limiting competition to a pre-determined pool of vendors. In fact, we should remove the roadblocks and encourage the innovation and competition that thrive on the IT highway.

Tom Feeney is the president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida.