Lean and Agile Procurement: Making the Most of Taxpayer Investment


Lisa Nisenson is Co-founder of GreaterPlaces, a startup devoted to great urban and community design, based in the Washington DC tech hub 1776.  She is a 20+ year civic activist from Arlington and works at the national, state and local levels to help communities create greater places. Follow her @greaterplaces.

Innovators in the Smart Growth and New Urbanist world are successfully chipping away entrenched standards that, for far too long, have dictated inefficient, unsightly community design. But standards are only part of the battle. At some point, community design is installed as a purchased commodity that needs an equally innovative procurement path.  Unfortunately, current procurement rules have created an environment where:

  • Local governments aren’t doing a good job at solving problems (much less introducing innovation) thanks to procurement – RfPs require a local government to both write a Statement of Work (the problem) and specifications (the answer) in the same document.  Managers and lawyers err on the side of prescriptive details, or worse, using older, vetted RfP language.  This sends signals that the fix is in for a certain firm or product, so vendors with good ideas don’ bother to apply. As not to appear biased, fact finding occurs in house rather than among outside professionals needed to address problems. 
  • Workarounds - At a smaller, yet still toxic scale, professional staff shape work orders around available funds or the simplest procurement route to get something done, even if it’s not a good fit and the strings attached to funding sources work against a good product.
  • Accretion of rules begin to favor larger firms over time – Requirement such as large insurance requirements and extensive documentation limit who can apply.  Small innovative firms are priced out of the application process.

Fortunately, there is a global movement afoot to innovate procurement.  Here are a couple of examples: 

Open data – The Sunlight Foundation promotes open government which includes accessible information and transparent processes.  Last year, the Foundation launched a Procurement Initiative and released guidelines.  A startup, SmartProcure, also provides access to local, state, and federal government procurement data.

Procurement and Community Design – Community design encompasses a range of activities: from street and urban design to solving quality-of-life challenges like blight and public safety. The most innovative procurement initiative is the Barcelona-based firm CityMart (@CityMartTeam).  CityMart helps cities with “Open Pre-procurement.”  One pre-procurement method is to issue a “Call for Solutions” in order to nail the right problem statement.  Once perfected, CityMart and vendors fine tune and launch solutions. Working with cities, CityMart and participating cities post a story on CityMart’s Storify page.  Currently, CityMart is helping Barcelona with its Barcelona Open Challenge.  The Challenge lists six areas for innovation with a 1 million Euro prize package:

If you want to sum up the Challenge, this is a pretty good sentence:

“Traditional procurement typically precludes small or international providers or new business models. With this initiative, Barcelona is offering companies the best support possible by becoming a significant, open-minded and importantly, prompt-paying client..”

Note the Economic Development Administration launched a competition-based initiative within the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2).  Launched earlier this year, there are competitions in Las Vegas NV, Greensboro, NC and Hartford CT.

In Philadelphia, FastFWD (@FastFWD) is an innovation hub (or refinery) focused on innovating services and local governance.  Earlier this year, FastFWD and a bevy of startups tackled public safety.  In the planning realm, this list includes vacant lots and overall safety. 

Avoiding Procurement Altogether - Citizinvestor (@Citizinvestor) is a crowdfunding and civic engagement platform for local government projects. Government entities post public projects where citizens can make a tax-deductible donation.  Project include bike racks, farmer’s markets and even prizes for an open data Hackaton (Tampa Florida).

Here in the U.S., smaller hacks like FastFWD are great, but will only be add-ons unless they can disrupt deep rooted process.  What other aspects of procurement problems and solutions are out there?

For more on procurement, read this Code for America HuffPost article here, and Boosting Innovation by Rethinking Government Procurement in Government Technology.