Indiana to alter Web site: Small IT firms aren’t thrilled with contract requirements

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For the first time in more than a decade, Indiana is shopping for a Web portal manager. Indiana Office of Technology CIO Karl Browning is attempting to make the state’s award-winning Internet gateway even better.

The hunt will also test Gov. Mitch Daniels’ “Buy Indiana” initiative, which aims to give local companies a leg up in competition for state contracts. The larger players in Indiana’s IT community say they’re pleased with the new process. But some smaller firms complain it’s still too daunting for them to respond effectively.

“This is a prime example that could have been split into two [contracts], one for architecture and hardware, another for programming and software,” said Mark Sapusek, CEO of Wabash-based Visionary Enterprises LLC.

“Even within software, you could have one [contract] for project development, and another for maintenance and support. … It makes it hard for a small business to compete.”

Established in 1995, the Web site known as accessIndiana-is the primary nexus for public interaction with state government. On an average month, it sees 34 million “hits.” Since inception, the site has been managed by Indiana Interactive, a subsidiary of Kansas-based National Information Consortium Inc.

Indiana Interactive now faces competition. A request for proposals to provide accessIndiana’s hosting, Web design and applications development closed March 13. According to the RFP, Indiana is searching for a single company to develop accessIndiana as well as administer its transactions and infrastructure.

Five companies responded to the RFP: Indiana Interactive, Indianapolis-based Quest Information Systems Inc., Carmelbased Xsimple, Colorado-based Ciber Inc. and Visionary Enterprises. Visionary has just seven employees, but says it would go on a hiring spree if it lands the contract.

The state had planned to solicit bids last year, Browning said. But the Office of Technology reconsidered after Browning saw the first version of the RFP, which he said essentially sought a vendor to maintain the status quo.

Browning said he’d like to have refined the RFP even more, but couldn’t wait longer because the current contract has run out of extensions. The new contract’s term will be four years, plus four one-year renewal options.

“That’s a long time to live under contract,” Browning said. “If we’re going to be getting in bed for another decade, we ought to see if we’re going where we want to be.”

It may be difficult for anyone to improve much on accessIndiana’s record. Over the last decade, Indiana Interactive has built it into a showcase state Web portal, earning dozens of awards. Last year, for example, it placed third in California-based Center for Digital Government’s “Best of the Web” competition. The year before, accessIndiana took second in the same competition.

Today, users take it for granted. But accessIndiana is far more than a simple billboard. It has more than 300,000 pages of information, most available free. It provides links to everything from the General Assembly to the Hoosier Lottery. It also offers an easy way for residents to avoid long lines when they must interact with state agencies. More than 44 percent of its business is done after hours, when state offices are closed.

In January alone, Hoosiers renewed 40,109 license plates through accessIndiana. Other users tapped it to obtain hunting and fishing licenses, to reserve campgrounds, to renew professional licenses, or to check the criminal histories of potential employees.

The Web portal raises $8 million to $9 million a year from online transaction fees. Out of that revenue, the state pays accessIndiana’s operating costs and Indiana Interactive.

Browning’s ambition is to make the portal even more user-friendly. He’s looking for a vendor that will bring new ideas and use a “customer-centric” approach. The current version of accessIndiana, he said, assumes a significant amount of user knowledge about state government. That’s one way Browning believes it could be improved.

For example, people who want to open small businesses have to know that the Secretary of State’s Office is responsible for new company registrations, while the Department of Workforce Development handles the unemployment system and the Indiana Economic Development Corp. awards business incentives. An improved accessIndiana would streamline and simplify those searches.

The same approach could be applied to other state functions, too, Browning said. When a user makes a campground registration in a state park, the portal could automatically ask whether the customer wants a fishing license, for example.

Quest Information CEO Steve McNear has similar ideas in mind. He pointed out that Amazon.comsuggests additional titles when its customers purchase books or music. And by guiding users to handle multiple transactions in one sitting, Indiana would drive down administrative costs.

“Our goal is to make the system more citizen-centric than agency-centric. The phrase we use is ‘single window government,'” McNear said. “You could lead the citizen through a series of suggestions that could help them and the state at the same time.”

With 115 employees, Quest is already one of Indiana’s larger IT companies. Its bid included a partner, Virginia-based CGI Group Inc., which has 25,000 employees.

Visionary Enterprises is minuscule by comparison. Sapusek said his firm spent months of late nights finishing its response by the state’s deadline.

If it doesn’t land the overall contract, all may not be lost. He said Visionary is in the process of changing its ownership so it can become certified as a woman-owned business and perhaps earn a piece of the accessIndiana contract as its mandatory minority partner.

But other local firms didn’t even bother to respond to the RFP. Smaller IT companies often specialize, making it difficult for them to bid on broad state contracts. Ron Brumbarger, CEO of Carmel-based BitWise Solutions, said expansive RFPs also drive cost up for the state, since so few firms compete for the work.

“We looked at it. There are few firms in Indiana that are going to be well-suited for that model,” Brumbarger said. “Imagine trying to outsource all of state government. That’s an extreme analogy, but it’s kind of what you’re talking about.”

But Howard Bates, CEO of Carmel-based Haverstick Government Solutions, said the state’s approach is fair. Haverstick didn’t bid on the accessIndiana contract, Bates said, mainly because it is already juggling several state projects.

“I think the state of Indiana really does everything it can to encourage companies like Haverstick and a lot of our local peers in the community to participate,” he said. “We can’t do everything. We try to pick and choose the things we can do well for the state.”

The bottom line, Browning said, is that he doesn’t have the staff or resources to consider subdividing enormous projects like accessIndiana.

“We did entertain the idea of splitting it into smaller pieces,” he said. “The more we looked at what that entailed, we decided if we could find a single vendor, we’d be better served.”

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