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City of Austin Website Controversy

March 25th, 2009 6 comments

Disclaimer: the comments of this post represent my own, personal point of view, not the point of view of my employer.

I woke up this morning to discover the twitterversy surrounding the City of Austin’s decision to potentially hire a firm from California to redesign the city’s website. A flurry of tweets later a twitnagture page was created to document the collective outrage of Austin’s interactive community. For the record I signed the petition.

Updated: there is now also a Facebook group for this.

Admittedly, on the surface it seems ludicrous to hire a firm from Sanat Clara, California, Cignex Technologies,  to design the public face for the city. Given the economic situation shouldn’t we keep the business here in Austin? Wouldn’t it be less expensive to work with a local firm?

According to the report, there were 3 bids from the 200+ firms that an RFP was sent to. Of the 3, the lowest bid was from Cignex. It was lower by more than 600,000.

All that aside, this decision is tone deaf. At worst, it is a slap in the face of one of the country’s major interactive hubs.

Lost in the controversy are a few of issues:

Conflict of interest: By working with a firm from California, Austin has avoided the inevitable issues of influence peddling and conflict of interest in selecting a vendor. With at least 10 – 20 major interactive firms here in Austin, any number of which likely have contacts on the city council, working with an outside firm helps to avoid the issue.

Who is making the noise? I can’t help but notice that the people making the noise on this topic are often from firms that would stand to benefit from working with a local firm, or at least friends and colleagues. I am definitely of two minds about this. Having been faced with the decision to lay off team members myself, I applaud their efforts to garner ever dollar for their firms available in order to sustain their businesses. But, I think that they should admit that there is at least a little self interest in their outrage. Also if they were so interested in the work, why didnt they respond to the RFP?

Tone: Outrage is exactly the tone that is being used. Many of those making noise on this topic of colleagues, peers or people I admire, so I hesitate to even raise the issue, but I have to ask, with all the issues facing our city, state, country, and world, is this really the most important issue to focus on? And if it is, is the tone justified?

Ok, enough noise in the echo chamber. I have a modest proposal to resolve this issue.

My proposal:

Let’s team up with a city in California & implement a small trade agreement. For the sake of my example, let’s use San Jose, but certainly and city will do.  Austin and San Jose should agree to engage of firm from the other city to design and implement their web sites using identical (or at least comparable) budgets.

The benefits of this proposal are three fold:

1) Financial: the net dollars would be kept in the community. Sure some budget money flows out of Austin, but a similar amount flows back into Austin.

2) Avoids conflict of interest: by selecting from a pool of potential interactive firms in our partner city, we avoid the potentially nasty conflict of interest issues that arise from hiring a local firm.

3) Ego & reputation: Our fair city’s reputation as an interactive leader can be maintained, by providing a simple explanation for why we hired a firm from another city to paint our face.

This proposal was put together quickly. Undoubtedly, this solution has flaws. First and foremost, getting 2 cities to needs website updates at the same time and having a comparable budget seems challenging. This solution is also no doubt open to influence & manipulation as well. However, I believe that both of these issues should be solvable.

What can be done to improve it?

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