County competes in software business
Commercial products dominate government information technology so much now that few organizations still develop their own software. But sometimes no commercial product can fill a need.
Bob Hanson faced that situation about four years ago. Sarasota County, Fla., needed a system to aid in strategic planning, business planning, performance measurement and financial management. Hanson, the county's chief information officer, oversaw the development of a system called GovMax, which the county provides to other governments as a hosted solution.
"The product fills a space that was largely occupied by spreadsheets if it was done at all," he said.
Few commercial alternatives exist even now, he said. If a viable commercial alternative were available, Hanson said, he would consider switching to it. But he has not found one yet.
"That whole niche of performance-based budgeting and financial management is underserved," Hanson said. "The reality is that there's nothing out there that's really aimed at the public sector. Most companies that would say they have it covered would be bolting a private-sector solution onto the public sector."
Despite Hanson's satisfaction with the county's homegrown software, some industry experts say that technology development is a task better left to industry.
"Commercially available software should fit most needs," said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.
Government organizations also usually have enough to do without adding software development to the list, Allen said. It "raises questions over whether the core missions of the agency are being met while people develop systems out of whole cloth," he said. "Is this the best use of public-sector time?"
Chip Mather, a partner at Acquisition Solutions, said commercial products cover most needs, but government organizations still do their own development or outsource it to meet unusual needs.
There used to be more software development "in earlier times, when the market had not developed as many solutions as there are now," Mather said.
Hanson said 13 other government organizations use GovMax under license from Sarasota, including the states of Virginia and Washington. Sarasota hosts the system and charges other organizations a fee based on the number of users.
Hanson said he chose to make the system available because it's more efficient to share a solution that works rather than require individual organizations to create or procure their own.
"When I first got to the public sector six years ago, I was surprised that everybody was struggling with the same issues," he said. "Everybody was redoing everything over and over again. If anybody should be sharing resources, it should be the public sector, which is theoretically noncompetitive."