Philly's 'Dispatch' Makes Small Procurement Easy

A new open source tool being built for Philadelphia could solve many of government's procurement worries.

by / May 12, 2016
Philadelphia City Hall

Traditional government procurement is esoteric and the results are bad for everyone. Fewer vendors in the selection pool leads to higher costs for government, inferior project results and fewer opportunities for startups that don’t have the knowledge and experience to participate. But one startup seeks to remedy this problem.

Philadelphia contracted with the Department of Better Technology to develop an open source procurement tool for projects under $32,000. The tool, called Dispatch, will give vendors a cleaner interface, clear instructions on how the process works and new functionality that could solve many of government’s procurement woes.

Dispatch is being created to replace an existing portal with similar functionality — located at BigIdeasPHL.com — that was developed in-house by the city’s open source team several years ago. While Big Ideas PHL allows vendors to browse small contracts offered by the city, the new Dispatch tool also will include such features as notifying users when new contracts become available and letting users submit proposals online using the same portal.

The tool will be run under the city’s recently created Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, led by Rebecca Rhynhart. The new office coincided with a reorganization that dismantled the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM). Andrew Buss, Philadelphia’s director of innovation and management, explained that the city is still committed to pushing new ideas forward, and this procurement tool is an example of that.

“The goal is to really make city government more efficient, whether it’s doing something around city processes that makes the city more efficient or perhaps it's making better use of technology so it’s more accessible and usable for the general public,” Buss said. “So the goal of this really rests within the mission of that organization now.”

Dispatch will help the city generate more competition for small contracts, Buss said, adding that he expects the new portal will be popular simply because the old one was.

“Traditionally, the way we in the city have done these under-$32,000 opportunities is just to go out and get three quotes,” he said. “[Dispatch] is a way of making the process more transparent, while at the same time increasing the number of vendors that would see the opportunity and hopefully reply.”

Getting government agencies to adopt new tools and processes is frequently a challenge, but Buss said he hopes the benefit of attracting a wider pool of vendors will be enough to gain buy-in. And under the direction of the more highly integrated Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, the tool should gain more reach than it would have through MONUM, Buss added.

Dispatch is now in beta, but the code is "solid," said Adam Becker, project lead at the Department of Better Technology, adding that it’s almost ready for launch in Philly.

The project, Becker explained, is the spiritual child of three existing procurement tools: the city’s existing portal, Big Ideas PHL; RFP-EZ, a tool his company developed for the federal government during the 2012 Presidential Innovation Fellowship; and a notification tool Code For America developed for the Pittsburgh Procurement Suite called Beacon.
 
“All three sites had this thing in common where they’re taking these existing RFP listings that traditionally are housed in enterprise systems and really inaccessible unless you know exactly where they are,” Becker said. “The sites that exist today to house RFPs are not at all built around user needs; they’re built around enterprise systems that the city has. And the ERPs that the city stores all their contracting data in — and making that public and publishing that to vendors who may be interested in working with the city —  is just an afterthought. As a result of that, it’s a very small pool of vendors that ends up finding out about these opportunities.”

Reduced vendor pools create all kinds of problems for government, Becker explained. It creates an artificial market where the prices are inflated. It can leave out local technology companies that the government may be interested in supporting. And it can cause agencies to miss demographic targets for procurement mandated by law.

Like most of the Department of Better Technology’s projects, Dispatch is open source. Becker said the company makes its code available because it believes in the fundamental value of letting people see what it’s doing — but for government it’s doubly important.

“The big thing there is that if taxpayer dollars are going toward building software for government, that software should be in the government domain,” Becker said. “We shouldn’t be paying taxpayer dollars in order to help companies develop proprietary software that then has to be paid for again and again by other government agencies.”

Dispatch can be easily modified, rebranded and integrated into other cities’ systems, Becker said, and that’s what the company hopes will happen once Philadelphia’s tool launches in the near future.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.