June 2, 2009

Pursuing Government RFPs: A How-To Guide for Open Source

As they make software and hardware purchases, governments are creatures of habit.

They form long relationships with IT vendors and stick with them so they can keep their IT systems running with minimal interruptions.

And while new technologies might be intriguing, governments often shy away from major IT changes because they have little willingness to take even the slightest risks of introducing a glitch into their infrastructures. So they stay with the companies and technologies they know as they undergo their traditional Request for Proposal (RFP) contract bidding and acquisition procedures.

But as the US economy continues to tread water, even local, state, and federal government agencies are looking for new ways to save money and cut their embattled budgets, while maintaining services to residents. So could this be the right time for open source software projects and vendors to make some real inroads into filling niches in the government IT space and jumping into the government RFP processes in earnest?

Yes, say several industry experts, but it’s going to take some education on the part of the open source community to find out how to do it successfully.

“[Government] is a very risk-averse climate,” said John Punzak, national sales director for state and local governments and educational markets with Linux and open source vendor Red Hat Inc. of Raleigh, N.C. Yes, government IT workers may already know and use open source applications in their own homes or projects, but officially in the past they haven’t been used in the workplace due to concerns from supervisors about support and other risks, he said.

“What I see right now is a turn in the market, and I’m not trying to overstate what’s happening,” Punzak said. “It’s the spring of 2009, and the realization has finally set in, that this is not going to be a short downturn for our governments. It’s a long-term downturn and so that’s opening the door for us in terms of opportunities to be invited in where we haven’t even had a hall pass before.”

What’s happening, he said, is that governments are more and more changing their bid requirements in their RFPs, to not necessarily require proprietary products to fit their IT needs. Instead, more RFPs are specifying open source as an acceptable option, in addition to traditional proprietary products.

“We’re at a transition point right now,” Punzak said. “Work in the government space, it doesn’t turn on a dime. Suddenly, because of the [budget crunches], open source is worth the risk, the perceived risk,” of considering its use for government systems. In the past, “they haven’t needed to consider open source--the money’s been there” to buy the more expensive products from longtime vendors. “They liked to use the off-the-shelf software.”

The realization for more governments today, he said, is that there really isn’t much of a risk from using open source software from established vendors like Red Hat, JBoss, and dozens of others that offer full support and ongoing service.

Red Hat has seen such openings for new sales increase recently, Punzak said. “Now we’re seeing more solution-based opportunities,” where Red Hat can respond to government RFPs and qualify its products just as proprietary vendors can do. “We can now do a stack filled with open source” that will fulfill the needs of friendlier RFP requirements, he said.

For innovative open source developers or communities that aren’t connected to a large, successful vendor like Red Hat, it’s a tougher road to get government agencies to adopt their products, he said, but not necessarily an impossible one.

One answer is for small open source projects or companies to hook up with an IT integrator or partner who can use their products as part of an overall response to a government RFP, he said. By linking up with larger partners and integrators who already have connections and relationships in the government space, smaller open source companies and projects can get in on the action, he said.

“Target a particular government agency or two to be your early adopters,” Punzak said. “Go out and pursue a government client, hopefully a name-brand one. Do a lot of pro bono work to get the reference. You don’t do anything without that first reference or the tenth reference.”

Eventually, open source projects can find ways into the RFP system, he said. “Then you’re off to the races.”

Several years ago, Red Hat created its Red Hat Exchange, a marketplace where they feature a small number of open source products that get the company’s seal of approval,” Punzak said. All the products in the Exchange, including Alfresco enterprise content management, Zimbra e-mail and collaboration, and EnterpriseDB database, are sold and supported through Red Hat, using Red Hat’s first-tier support to enhance customer confidence.

Other important tools used by Red Hat and other vendors to stay abreast of the RFP marketplace are bid review and acquisition services such as FedSources and the Center for Digital Government’s Navigator, which find and track government contract requests and aggregate them for companies that want to pursue them.

A myriad of open source government and educational portals already exist, where open source code and tools are shared among government and educational users, Punzak said. The National Consortium for Offender Management Systems is a consortium of 14 state governments working together to share code for their prison management systems, while the SAKAI project for universities and the MOODLE project for grades K-12 are aimed at educational users.

Caryn Fox, a director with McLean, Va.-based FedSources, which provides consulting services for government contracts, said that it would behoove open source developers and companies to learn how the government contract procurement and bidding processes work. Most of government buys through the US General Services Administration (GSA) schedules, which is a marketplace where government agencies go to buy products and services, she said. The GSA schedule includes fixed pricing and business recommendations for government buyers for what they need, she said. The US Department of Defense has similar schedules, as do some other agencies.

“Tactically, the first thing is to get on a GSA-scheduled contract,” Fox said. “You have to apply for this, and once you are on, you have the world of government” as a potential customer. “It’s almost like getting a government thumbs-up.”

Fox said the idea of working with a larger partner, especially one that’s already involved in government sales, is critical. “In government sales, it’s all about relationships,” she said. “Government agencies will look at you to see if you’ve had experience working with government before. Government is looking for partners for life. If you can show that you’re viable, that you’re in it for the long haul, that’s really attractive for government buyers.”

In the past, many government RFPs specifically sought certain software from specific vendors, she said.

But that is changing more and more, based on a scan of the government contracts listed in the FedSources database.

Nowadays, “contracts are looking for capabilities versus specific platforms,” she said. Some of that is likely due to changes in the federal government since the election of President Barack Obama, she said, who has talked about using more open source software in government.

“When’s the last time we heard a president talking about software?” Fox asked. “I think the door is wide open for open source companies. I think it is.”

Chris Arisian, vice president of the Americas for open source database vendor Ingres Corp. in Redwood City, Calif., said the traditional RFP process used by proprietary vendors has been tough for open source projects and companies because it can be costly and time consuming to put together and submit such bids. “It’s probably why not a lot of open source companies have done this,” he said.

“Some open source companies nowadays are having more wherewithal to do this,” especially with help from RFP aggregators such as the Center for Digital Government. Other groups that provide similar help are epipeline Inc. and INPUT. “Companies can subscribe and be proactively made aware of them,” Arisian said. “It allows an open source company to get an overview that they wouldn’t have otherwise” on what’s available in government contracts.

Arisian also supported the idea of open source projects and companies working with a partner to bring their work to government users. “System integrators often aggregate the technology [that’s needed] and build an RFP,” he said. “A significant RFP probably doesn’t involve just one technology anyway.”

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