OpenGov Voices: Lessons learned from Mexico’s procurement process

A smiling Oscar Montiel.
Oscar Montiel of Codeando México.

When it comes to information technologies, most governments are usually unable to solve their technological problems in-house, and often rely on service providers who don’t understand the complex challenges facing public agencies. As a result, a huge amount of money around the globe goes to tools that are a nightmare for both civil servants and average citizens. Also, this money is usually spent on licenses and maintenance fees, which makes IT projects almost impossible to sustain.

The Codeando México team is trying to tackle this challenge through connecting government agencies with more innovative and sustainable solutions. In 2014, we teamed up with the National Digital Strategy coordinator within the Mexican president’s office to launch the Retos Públicos (Public Challenges) program, an experiment that aims to change the way Mexico’s federal government designs and procures software.

A screenshot of Retos Publicos.
A screenshot of Retos Públicos.

The idea is simple: Any government agency can identify a problem or a tool that will make its job more effective, then set an amount for the awarded contract. Regardless of their previous experience in government tendering, any small or medium enterprises (SMEs) can submit a proposal through our platform for an open source solution, designed specifically to tackle the challenge identified by the agency. The proposals get evaluated by a group of experts in technology, user experience and other relevant issues, and five finalists are selected to develop a demo for the agency. Finally, all finalists present their ideas to the agency, which then chooses the winning solution.

So far, eight of Mexico’s 18 federal ministries have published their calls for bids through Retos Públicos, engaging with the thousand users who already visited our platform. The nine calls for bids received 45 submitted solutions, and thanks to Retos Públicos, Mexico has nine new digital tools built on open source solutions. These include a smartphone application to alert citizens on natural disasters and a platform for reporting corruption in government offices.

TheRetos Públicos team sitting around a table at work.
The Retos Públicos team hard at work.

In the meantime, Centro de Investigación y Desarrollo Económico is busy conducting research on Mexico’s procurement regime to make recommendations for the necessary changes in the legal framework. In the upcoming period, we want to take Retos Públicos to the subnational level, where IT procurements are usually accompanied by poor access to information practices and a total lack of accountability. Through providing an easy-to-use channel for local governments and SMEs with our platform, Mexico might be able to turn its opaque tendering system into a more open and fair regime. We will analyze our experience with local governments, too, to make necessary conclusions on the legal system and to find better ways to democratize how municipalities spend taxpayer money. At the same time, local civic hackers will get a chance to reuse and even improve the tools developed by other communities facing similar challenges.

For the team of Codeando México, Retos Públicos has been more than just a tool to improve the quality of government technology. The platform raises awareness around the importance of opening up government tenders to small and medium enterprises, and provides strong evidence that government openness is good for every market actor. At the same time, we have been using Retos Públicos to build a strong community demanding further changes in Mexico. Through this new platform, we’ve met great startups from all around the country; students who decided they don’t want to keep building websites to sell consumer products; amazing developers who saw in Retos a good way to start their own business; and average citizens who were and still are motivated to drive the kind of change they would like to see happening in the Mexican government.

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