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‘The promise of technology and data transparency … is very exciting and will bring about change.’ But there’s a lot of work to do.
OAKLAND, Calif. — It’s not a secret that the procurement process is problematic across all levels of government in the United States. That’s certainly true in local jurisdictions.
Procurement has especially been a source of frustration in tech circles, where it might not be surprising for vendors to find a root canal more pleasant than dealing with cumbersome and antiquated municipal RFP processes usually designed for purchasing physical products than IT services.
While procurement problems persist, there’s some hope, too. Some of the leading minds in local government procurement reform gathered at the 2015 Code for America Summit at the Oakland Convention Center in a Wednesday session to discuss the some success stories in different parts of the county, in addition to the lingering and persistent challenges.
“I feel like we’re creating some critical mass,” said Bob Sofman, the executive vice president for government sector at SmartProcure, who moderated a panel discussion on procurement. “The promise of technology and data transparency … is very exciting and will bring about change.”
Older, complicated and rigid procurement models can be very unfriendly to smaller vendors and other businesses not equipped to navigate the red tape. And that can mean that civic tech startups and companies with smaller footprints are often shut out from bidding on municipal projects that larger companies and tech services firms are usually better resourced to deal with.
With current practices, governments have “effectively locked out a lot of businesses,” said Adam Becker, a former White House presidential innovation fellow who is the co-founder and chief technology officer for Atlanta-based Department of Better Technology.
In the city of Los Angeles, Juan Vasquez, who works on the Mayor’s Operations Innovation Team, said that the city’s “vendors don’t reflect the diversity of the city.” It’s an ongoing issue the nation’s second-largest city is working on, Vasquez said.
Part of the problem in Los Angeles and in so many other city governments around the nation is that municipal RFPs are often not designed to appeal to smaller companies who might be otherwise interested or well suited for the work. They can be daunting to read through. There are numerous forms that need to be filled out and if you’re bidding on multiple contracts, have to fill out the same types of forms multiple times.
Ashley Meyers, a former Code for America development and engagement manager who now works as a civic innovation fellow in the city of San Francisco, stressed the “individual cities have to sell themselves as customers.”
So “instead of publishing [a] pdf on some arcane website,” Meyer said, cities might want to consider breaking out of the standard form and frame the project in a different form. “You need a blog post that tells a compelling story,” she said.
But that just scratches the surface. In a subsequent workshop she hosted regarding the RFP process, Meyers detailed the need for cities to accommodate tech procurement contracts in a totally different way.
Instead of the standard “waterfall” approach for software development contracts, where there’s a rigid sequential process framework, city governments should be more willing to break from convention and try to use a more responsive “agile” approach, which allows time to experiment and make changes during the course of development.
While the private sector has been more willing to experiment with agile contracting, procurement rules often make it more difficult to adopt such an approach in municipal contracts.
Local government employees who deal with vendors certainly know the limitations of their own procurement process. Since those employees don’t have “a magic wand” to easily change the process, Becker said that it’s important to be honest about the drawbacks.
“If there are parts of the process that are ugly and you don’t have the power to change it, be up front about it,” Becker said. “It can establish goodwill” with vendors who want to work with a municipal government.
Meyers said that with procurement, there can be “a vicious cycle” where vendors have been “burned badly” in previous experiences, which makes them less willing to travel down that road again.
Sometimes, the problems can be far more simplistic to fix.
Shelly Ni, a Code for America fellow in Pittsburgh, recounted a small business fair where there was a steady stream of small business owners who traveled downtown on a weeknight to ask fairly basic questions about how they could work with the city. A major problem that was discovered: Basic procurement information wasn’t available online. (Now it is.)
While procurement can be a daunting challenge for vendors, it can also be a huge, complex bureaucratic maze for municipal employees to navigate, too. In many cases, procurement information is decentralized, so one department might not know that another department is trying to procure the same product or service.
In the Wednesday session, Ni discussed the difficulties city employees had trying to track procurement information. There was no easily searchable repository, so, as Ni detailed, if you wanted to figure out all of the city’s procurement contracts regarding paper purchases, you better have hoped that the vendor’s name had the word “paper” in it.
As part of her work in Pittsburgh, Ni and her colleagues created a tool called Scout, which allows users to not just search contracting information but also get automated email notifications when there are update to those contracts. That platform works with another tool called Conductor, a centralized contract management hub, which allows for an easier way to track contracts in the procurement process, log contracting actions and update contract metadata.
Ni said that 2015 has been the “Year of Procurement” in the Pittsburgh city government. But in so many ways, procurement reform will be an ongoing struggle there and in so many other cities.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct Ashley Meyer's title when she worked for Code for America.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty.