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Taming the beast of government contracting: our insights on procurement, tech innovation, and human-centered government

"Reforming public procurement can sometimes feel like taming a wild beast. So, if procurement were an animal, which one do you think it would it be?" In our 2022 Code for America Summit session, we asked the audience to draw their answers—with some very fun results (including octopuses, elephants & sloths).

Government contracting, safety net programs, and civic technology do not have a reputation for being human-centered or impact-driven. And trying to bring the three together effectively can often feel like taming an unwieldy creature. We have all heard the horror stories of failed service delivery projects that hurt underserved communities the most—from outdated unemployment websites across the country struggling to keep up with pandemic demand, to city contracts with unethical vendors leaving people experiencing homelessness without shelter, food, or job assistance.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. At the 2022 Code for America Summit, we met many champions who are using technology, innovation, and procurement to help government serve everyone, including their most vulnerable residents, with dignity.

What did some of these transformational projects have in common? As Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka stated in the opening plenary to the Summit, collaboration is key: “Product people, tech people, policy people and procurement people—all of those people have to come together to make human-centered government work.” Bringing diverse stakeholders together is how we will crack open the traditional silos that keep our systems inefficient and ineffective. In OCP’s Summit session, Janell Schafer of Colorado Digital Service shared how her department has worked across state agencies and roles to improve child welfare, federal grant management, pandemic response, behavioral and mental health, and universal Pre-K programs.

So, once you’ve assembled your team of cross-sector collaborators and living experts, the next step in breaking up status quo contracting is to focus on outcomes, versus creating prescriptive requirements that dictate solutions in a vacuum. Inclusive, iterative processes that take an ecosystem approach and are designed around user-needs mean that governments don’t get stuck with products and services that don’t actually meet people where they are. As Janell stated in her talk: “If you don’t want to build monoliths, don’t procure for them.” Several other Summit sessions brought a similar perspective, including inspiring discussions led by CivStart, U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), and U.S. Digital Services (USDS) on how to improve accessibility and outcomes through procurement.

Finally, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. The role of impact-oriented KPIs and data came up throughout the conference, as well. In our session, Fabián López Xochipa of the Mexico City Digital Public Innovation Agency shared how data and participation helped his team procure one of the largest bike share systems in the world, Ecobici. They published a Request for Information, sought resident and vendor input, and publicly documented their process for the first time. This enabled everyone to make data-driven decisions and promote competition. In fact, other departments have begun replicating Ecobici’s open contracting strategies.

Throughout these conversations at the Summit, we also spotted some gaps that we want to work together to help close:

Sustainability! Marginalized communities are more likely to experience the negative effects of climate change, and this can exacerbate the demand for functional social safety net programs. There was little talk about this at Code for America, but this will be the fight of the next decade. Global procurement activities alone account for 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions. But where procurement has historically been the problem, open contracting reforms can be the solution. That’s why we’re supporting green procurement projects in cities like Des Moines, Iowa, sharing useful guidance on buying sustainably with open data, and lifting up the efforts of organizations like Ceres and the World Wildlife Foundation who are increasing transparency, reducing corruption, and protecting our natural resources through better procurement.

Elevating federal and state procurement from compliance to creativity. Built on opaque, compliance-driven bureaucracy, our current systems are undermining our ability to deliver on public policy goals and are instead increasing social inequities. We’re excited by the recently announced plans for the USDS to improve equity in their market research, and we need to bring this approachability to all federal and state procurement. We need more open and streamlined data, websites, legislation, and tracking across all levels of government, and we need it now.

While the conference showed us that many more advocates are seeing the value in new procurement approaches, we get stuck when it comes to taking collective action across the system. So, we’re partnering with organizations like POGO to advocate for and implement change, such as better planning and pre-bid engagement (particularly with small and medium-sized enterprises or women, minority, or vendor owned businesses), more meaningful and thorough award descriptions, and more robust and accurate subcontracting data. While our efforts in the U.S. are still growing, we’ve seen countries around the world successfully apply these principles to increase vendor diversity and equitable outcomes.

We look forward to what’s to come, and we want to hear from you! If you have your own great ideas, sticky problems, or just want to meet other amazing practitioners who joined us at the Summit (and beyond), get in touch directly and check out our LinkedIn group on inclusive and sustainable procurement in the U.S. Together, we can tame the beast. Join us.

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