GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Buyers beware
Few purchasing decisions are as fraught with challenges as buying software. Complex software — such as financial information systems, computer aided dispatch, records management and maintenance management programs — can send even the most experienced purchasing employees into a state of temporary misery.
Many purchasing agents may be unaware of the risks involved in upgrading and purchasing new software. For example, most licensing agreements do not protect government agencies from intellectual property infringement lawsuits, and many maintenance agreements disclaim all important legal warranties. Failing to spot those types of risks may expose a government agency to legal damages. Before local government officials buy new software, they should consider the following tips.
- Always negotiate technology agreements
Local agencies should not sign standard software license agreements without negotiating their terms. Most of the agreements are not written with government agencies in mind and often disclaim warranties, limit damages and require local agencies to assume liability and legal fees if the software fails. If computer aided dispatch and records management systems for public safety crash during an emergency, the legal ramifications could be catastrophic. Also, remember that maintenance agreements may be negotiable. Often, vendors will be flexible, particularly if they are competing for a sale.
- Pool purchases with other agencies to cut costs
Take advantage of state “piggyback” or cooperative purchasing programs to save money on off-the-shelf software and hardware. In some states, the programs allow local agencies to avoid competitive bidding while still saving money. In California, public entities and special districts can cooperate with the state to obtain preferred pricing on software and save up to 40 percent off retail.
- Buy technology that is “scalable.”
Scalable refers to how well a software system can adapt to increased demands. Think about how the technology will be used several years into the future and make sure it is suitable for growth or future applications. Check that license fees for each user are reasonable.
- Plan to provide training
Hardware and software by themselves are useless without proper training. If employees do not use the technology to its fullest potential, the agency could waste money and may not improve efficiency as intended. For highly specialized software, key staff should be trained by the vendor or its preferred training consultant. Make sure to request training manuals and negotiate for ongoing training for new software releases or hardware enhancements.
- Get recommendations
Do not be sold on a product from the vendor’s sales pitch alone. Ask for references, particularly from government agencies that have purchased the product. Schedule tests and ask those agencies how the product and support teams are working.
By reviewing those tips before buying software, local government officials not only will gain value from the new purchase but also peace of mind, knowing they have investigated the purchase thoroughly. Armed with those principles, a city or county also can minimize or avoid risks inherent in buying technology.
The author is a principal for Oakland, Calif.-based Meyers Nave and leads the law firm’s Public Agency Technology Practice.