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Purchasing Gov 2.0 services – nothing like buying a pen.

I have been getting increasingly alarmed at reports of central purchasing initiatives for Gov 2.0 where contracts are signed at a whole of government level.

Central purchasing seems like ever such a good idea to drive down costs. If the Government buys all its pens from one source then the pens are cheaper – is the theory.

Would this work for Gov 2.0 services?  Of course not.  Pens pretty much all do the same thing.  Web 2.0 services do not.

Web 2.0 is very far from being a mature field and central purchasing implies standardisation.  Standardisation is the enemy of innovation and in a world that is evolving as fast as web 2.0 services for government any exclusive centralised standard contract risks locking out new innovations.

I do not want to suggest that standards should not be applied.  Accessibility standards, for example, are an important part of the framework within which all web 2.0 sites should operate.  However, there is a difference between standards and standardisation.

One of the great things about our sector is that we are constantly challenged by new tools, tricks and start ups. To stand still is to atrophy.  Because of this we, and most of our competitors, are constantly reinventing, challenging and improving our offerings and services based on client feedback and ideas of how to facilitate better engagement. This is why I love what I do.  This is also why we work to make our tools compatible with others on the market so clients can use the best available technologies and services for their projects.  For example EngagementHQ’s API allows data transfer to other platforms. Many of our clients integrate specialist services from other providers into their consultations and we encourage this.

Ideally when planning an engagement project the Government Department in question will consider the subject matter, the audience and their feedback needs and will then choose the best methodologies and tools to engage.  A site designed for collaborative budgeting will look different for a site for engaging youth which may in turn look very different to a community discussion about new legislation.

It would be a real pity if the ability of public servants to shop around and use the best tools available was removed by a system that views online engagement as a standardised function – like an ink based writing implement.

Photo Credit: Robert Howie

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  1. Hi Matt,

    I have a mixed view on this.

    Firstly I do agree that procuring Gov 2.0 services is nothing like buying pens.

    When buying pens there are defined suppliers who will respond to your tender, for Gov 2.0 services, as many are open source and/or free to use, the only tender responses are from organisations who wish to sell a proprietary and sometimes quite expensive service which purports to achieve the same goal as a WordPress, Ning or Ideascale. Thus a tender process is likely to give agencies, in many cases, a poor value-for-money outcome.

    However where a government centrally investigates, endorses and takes steps to overcome barriers to use of Gov 2.0 services on a non-mandated basis (agencies can still pick and choose) – such as AGIMO’s GovSpace and GovDex services for blogging and collaboration via wikis – this can be very useful.

    Often government Departments are on a particular technology track or their IT teams are geared towards large and critical IT systems. The requirements of maintaining huge and complex technical solutions mean they aren’t configured to address short lead time low cost solutions on an agile basis.

    This means they are less able to roll out a server and host a wordpress or mediawiki instance within short timeframes (say 3 days) as the processes they need to follow to procure the server, address security requirements, address legal issues, etc add months to the timing.

    Central government instances where all this work is precompleted (aka Govspace and Govdex) make it much faster to get a solution up and running at minimal overhead, and can spread the cost over a large number of instances, rather than having each agency pay for all of its own due diligence and establishment efforts.

    The US government’s service is similar in scope. By handling all the procedural and security requirements it lowers the barrier for government adoption of Gov 2.0 tools without proscribing which tools agencies can use.

    Competing products can (and possibly should!) be offered through such a service – as does. This allows agencies to still select the services that are right for them, or go out and independently procure services if they choose, while cutting down the time, resource and cost overheads of a selection and establishment process.



    • Matthew Crozier says:

      Hi Craig

      Thanks for the insightful comment.

      Firstly your point about free software platforms not competing in a tender process is an interesting one. On the face of it I am inclined to agree so far as the tender is about software. What we sell is a service – sure it uses a proprietary platform but the moderation, branding, support, hosting, advice and experience are the key sales points – all services not features. The truth is that these ‘free’ products will often form a part of tenders from service providers so long as the scope of the tender allows this.

      I think for this to happen tenders need to be largely non technical in nature – rather than feature specific. Perhaps it is clearer if I describe this in terms of an online community engagement tender being put out there by the communications professionals in collaboration with the IT teams. This means the tender will land in the laps of the communication agencies who can then look at which technologies they want to apply to a situation – in a range from a free service to a tailored solution. In turn this will ensure that there is a seamless and meaningful coalition between online and offline activities and outcomes.

      I am hoping you can explain more to me about Govdex – my impression was that it offers a centrally procured and hosted service comprising a mix of products from the software company Atlassian and some in house platforms. Whilst I am sure these products are excellent, this is the type of arrangement that seems to me to discourage innovation and to discourage staff in individual agencies from choosing from among the wide range of solutions available these days.

      This system uses JIRA for stakeholder tracking but what of Darzin, Staketracker, Consultation Manager, and UEngage all of which offer competing systems which are favoured by different projects in different circumstances. They are all Stakeholder tracking systems but they are all very different – why limit to or ordain just one of them?

      I may have this all wrong – probably have – perhaps you could set me straight. I understand that this is not a mandatory service and that agencies are free to go elsewhere but I am sure I am not the only provider who has been told ‘we really like your user interface but have been told to use Govdex because its the Government system’. Risk averse managers will often go with what feels safe regardless of price.

      I also have no problem in competing products being offered through a central apps service (this makes sense in terms of vetting for standards and performance and could help us suppliers too) so long as the barriers to registration are low, transparent and designed to be manageable for a start up. Businesses should not have to have been around for years or to enter a venture capital agreement to afford to join in.

      I look forward to chatting more about this, thanks for joining in.



  2. richard crozier says:

    I like your argument Matt.

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