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Is the Federal Government Ready For Free Trials?

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Technology has evolved to the point where it is now possible (and easy) to trial software, or Software-as-a-Service and evaluate its usefulness before you buy.  Historically, the federal government has invested in costly and time consuming development contracts, only to find that, at times, their expensive investment doesn’t really fit the bill.

But SaaS is turning this situation on its head as agencies are now able to try it before they buy it.  So why aren’t they?

In the private sector, when a large organization wants to procure IT, they scour the marketplace for what they are looking for, identify possible sources, conduct trials, determine which product best meets their needs. Only after they have tried it out, do they then buy the best.  However, in government, it is so much more complicated.

First, there is a myth that agencies can’t do trials, or if they do, it must be a paid trial.  A paid trial requires a formal procurement, which takes time and money.  So before an agency can even test out a new product, they already have to invest thousands of dollars, for what they could otherwise try out for free.  So even for the most innovative agencies, there are real or perceived barriers to the trial process.

Second, there is the myth that a trial will taint the procurement process, or it might even botch the procurement of the software they trial.  The objective here is to have full and fair competition.  Yet in the interest of fairness, the government often sacrifices full knowledge of the products they buy.

So how can agencies get over these hurdles and try-before-you-buy?  Some agencies have set up innovation centers or ‘product playgrounds’ where vendors can come in and show their wares.  This works because it is open to all vendors and avoids the appearance of favoritism or conflict of interest.

Other agencies may decide to conduct small paid ‘pilots’ of several products and use this experience to inform their acquisition plan/statement of work.

However an agency proceeds, the important thing is they have an opportunity to know exactly what they are buying and determine for themselves, in their own environment, whether a product will truly meet their needs.


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