The New York-based procurement platform sends RFPs to a database of more than 100,000 vendors, most of which are new to the gov tech market, in an effort to ramp up the government's options.
BidSpark, the second of Citymart’s products after one that helps governments design better requests for proposal, shares a client’s RFPs with a pool of more than 100,000 vendors, according to Citymart founder and CEO Sascha Haselmayer. He estimated 90 percent of them are not contracting with government today, so BidSpark proposes to bring these new players into the fold, thereby encouraging innovation and making bids more competitive.
“What we’re finding is that every single mayor or city manager in the U.S. wants to diversify the vendor pool,” he said. “They want more small businesses, they want more diverse and creative business partners.”
Haselmayer likened procurement to recruitment — finding the best teams in a user-specified geographic area who would like to work on any given project. He said procurement platforms aren’t new, but they come with several barriers for both governments and businesses: A handful of companies make these platforms, but learning to use them takes time; they often involve steep paywalls or subscription fees; none are comprehensive.
Haselmayer found there was no aggregated data on procurement, no database where an interested vendor could browse all RFPs nationwide, and most local businesses aren’t registered on any procurement platform. Those that are registered, he said, tend to be older businesses that might not have innovative solutions to new problems, and the old project-classification system doesn’t include designations for some of the latest IT projects.
“When you have Tulsa publishing an RFP for the future mobility strategy and implementation, those are needs that rely on future projections, technology, community engagement,” he said. “Those aren’t necessarily served by the traditional vendor base of government.”
Haselmayer also noticed how many cities were paying for exclusive, innovative solutions which were not getting co-opted by neighboring cities that could have used them.
He launched BidSpark in 2018 as an answer to this disconnect, built on data from 32,000 solutions Citymart had compiled through its first product, Opportunity Builder.
“We found we had a product [BidSpark] that really democratizes the access to these better outcomes. What else excited us is that it didn’t require any time, effort or skills on the part of the government purchaser,” he said. “That means we’re immediately connecting cities to the other part of the marketplace.”
Haselmayer said another problem with RFPs is that they’re not easy to read, sometimes requiring interested vendors to comb through 50 pages of background before getting to the actual description of what the city wants. BidSpark replaces this with a clear, concise summary of relevant information, and keeps track of conference calls, due dates and other calendar items in RFPs. It also introduces an anonymous rating system for businesses to rate offers they receive based on variables such as clarity, how advanced the project was, and whether the time frames and terms and conditions were adequate.
Having just used BidSpark for the city of Tulsa’s RFP for an urban mobility innovation strategy, James Wagner, the city’s chief of performance, strategy and innovation, said the platform’s key contribution was getting the word out to nontraditional vendors. He said BidSpark contacted more than 3,000 vendors with Tulsa’s project, 250 of which accessed and looked at the RFP, and seven of which responded.
If that sounds like a small number, Wagner said, it’s because the project was complex, and each of those seven proposals involved a team as opposed to a single firm.
“Normally, the exposure to this would have had to be done through the networks of people that work here at the city rather than through the procurement system,” he said. “I don’t know how many we would have gotten for something like this, but I would imagine it wouldn’t have been as broad of a reach as we received.”
Wagner added that he would use BidSpark again, if the project warrants.
“If it’s something that’s going to be locally sourced, I don’t think [BidSpark] would be as helpful, but for something like this where you’re looking for people all over the globe to engage, I think it’s something that is really helpful,” he said. “It just depends on the nature of what we’re buying.”
Haselmayer said BidSpark cast a wide net in its first five months, and Citymart conducted a cohort analysis of the first 10 cities to use it. He said he’s optimistic that if BidSpark can bring the cost savings, higher engagement and newer solutions that it promises, the procurement business could shed its sour reputation among governments and vendors alike.
“What we’re seeing is that there are tens of thousands of urban innovators … and they simply haven’t found the path to discover government as a potential client,” he said. “There’s a very good chance that the reputation of working with government isn’t a plus. There’s a very good chance these vendors have never thought about working with government, that they wouldn’t know where to look for opportunities, and that their investors would not encourage them to. We’re saying you need to make an effort to go out and build the market you want to work with, and that’s going to determine a lot of the quality and success of the public services you deliver.”