Note: The other night, I ran into Friend of Pinch Jennifer Yocom at one of the many high-stepping social events I attend. I had just gotten a snootful of Dave Selden's excellent first blast on the City of Portland's plans to crowdsource at least part of the upcoming redesign of its Web site, and I'm afraid I buttonholed poor Ms. Yocom and subjected her to a Cabernet-scented blast of my own on the subject. At any rate, the next day (that would be today) I received an e-mail from the Mayor's Communications Director, Mr. Roy Kauffman. (Mr. Kaufmann published the text of that letter in the comment stream following Mr. Selden's post above, so I assume others received it as well and I will not trouble to reprint it here.) What follows is my response.
Many thanks for your note. I do appreciate hearing directly from Mayor Adams' office about this; I supported Sam as a councilman and as a mayoral candidate; moreover, I continue to support him as mayor, this little hiccup aside.
I have of course reviewed the contest rules and FAQ, and as a fellow who has earned his bread as a brand and Web development practitioner for over a decade, I must tell you in all candor that the City's solution to the problem of redeveloping PortlandOnline is troublesome at best.
Breaking the process of developing an important (and as of now, inadequate) Web entity such as PortlandOnline into four discrete RFPs to be serviced by four discrete suppliers -- even if the user interface design was not additionally parted out to a contest -- reveals the cumbersome nature of the City's purchasing process in relation to creative (for the purposes of this note, I'll use "creative" to mean the generative side of Web development, which includes but is not limited to accessibility, information architecture, CMS consulting, messaging and user interface design).
The City, of course, tries to be as objective as it can in determining suppliers, grading proposals on an ostensibly objective numerical scale with respect to many laudable aspects of doing business.
But creative is not objective. It is not a manufacturing or simple procurement process. And parting it out like the City has done in this case, with the "fun" or "artistic" part tossed off to an open contest with no compensation, shows that the City has no earthly idea how important an integrated approach to delivering information to its citizens is.
Crowdsourcing may be superficially democratic. But it is bad business. Asking a developer (or layman) to come up with a good or even workable solution based upon a thin brief, a FAQ and no contact with research or the parties involved in the project is naïve. You'll get something that looks like a Web site, certainly. You may even get something looks better than what you have. But you won't have a solution to your problem.
User interface is among the last steps in a successful Web development project, not the first. How the site looks should be a function of how it works. And right now, PortlandOnline doesn't work very well. Oh, you can pay your water bill, and now you can pay your parking tickets and that's fine. But doing it is a pain. Finding the proper phone number to call the police takes ten minutes of clicking around. The URL structure is inaccessible and contains ten-year-old scripting cruft.
How do you solve the problem? By taking it seriously. By assembling a team of people who trust one another, and who can work hand-in-glove with one another over the long process of development. For example, accessibility is also a UI problem. Social media is also an architecture problem. All of this has to happen under the rubric of message, for which I notice you are not offering an RFP.
PortlandOnline doesn't serve the citizenry, and wouldn't even if it looked nicer. I don't mean to tell you your business, and I know that the City's purchasing process and this contest are meant to be exercises in democracy, but the mediocrity of the result will not serve the public and will devalue your work as elected officials.
The private sector doesn't crowdsource or balkanize RFPs like this for a reason: the results don't tend to be good. It's hard enough to get a workable result with a coherent, disciplined team. I would suspect that if the City went about redeveloping PortlandOnline without the contest and the clumsy proposal process and presented the public with a simple, well-considered, well-architected site, the public wouldn't notice the absence of this kind of direct-democracy kabuki at all. And I don't think it would care.
You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the value (or lack thereof) that I perceive Mayor Adams' office places on creative. That's because I'm more interested in results. If Mayor Adams doesn't see the true economic (never mind cultural) value of the Portland's creative community, well, then: he's just another politician. John McCain, for example, holds a similar opinion. That also doesn't matter to me so much; I can make a living without dealing with such people.
But as a citizen, I am frankly embarrassed and frustrated by PortlandOnline. And I don't see that the City is taking serious steps to address it.
Apologies for the length of this note; one good outcome of this exercise has been to exercise our community a bit. I'm going to copy my business partner, Eric Hillerns, on this. As vice-president of the local chapter of AIGA (our professional organization), he has taken a leadership role in opening this issue to a broader audience. I hope that we can include the Mayor's office in this dialogue.