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Nobody Loves Government Procurement, but How Can It Be Fixed?

Mixed panel of vendors and municipal technologists discuss problems with procurement, potential fixes and what everyone stands to gain from getting it right.

ATLANTA — Four gov tech professionals spoke during the MetroLab Annual Summit at Georgia Tech Dec. 13. Some were from the private sector and some were public servants, but they all had their own criticisms about government procurement process.

Ben Levine, MetroLab Network’s executive director, started the discussion where most panels end by asking for audience questions. As most anyone who has attended a public event would attest, calls for questions usually result in a brief pause. Not this one. The panel was Procuring Tech & Innovation, and one got the sense that the audience – a group made up of almost entirely gov tech stakeholders — was thrilled to have a chance to shout their issues about government procurement.

Who owns the work when it’s done? How do you scale across cities in the same metro area? What defines successful pilots and how do you convert them later into something you can use? And so on.

While the 45-minute panel, of course, could not solve all of those complex questions, discussion did stem from the concerns. Sandra Baer, chief marketing officer for CIVIQ Smartscapes, started off by asking for a show of hands from everyone who thinks government procurement processes are broken.

“I’m not so sure they’re broken,” Baer said as nearly every hand went up, “but I’m certain they’re outdated.”

Procurement being outdated was largely the idea that shaped subsequent discussion. While government procurement processes might work for buying traditional products, or even with tech products that offer clearly defined and specific outcomes, innovation carries a heavy risk factor and an inherent likelihood of failure. With that in mind, long-standing procurement desperately need an update.

Kate Garman, current smart city coordinator for Seattle and former innovation policy advisor for Kansas City, Mo., said she’s seen the unique problems of two different cities, as well as a common group of solutions they’ve had to use to try and solve them.

“Cities have to strike a really careful balance in inviting innovation, because these new innovative ideas probably aren’t really proven,” Garman said. “Even if it’s from a big company that says it has a new solution, it’s probably not well-tested. Cities are having to investigate these questions in pilots.”

To this end, it benefits projects to fail fast, so cities can learn from them, move on and procure another solution. Julia Richman, chief innovation and analytics officer of Boulder, Colo., said her jurisdiction has been having incremental conversations about procurement changes, one of which has been centered around how the city should own its source data, even if it’s collected by vendors.

While the central thrust of the MetroLab Network and its summit is collaborations between academia and government, this panel naturally raised questions about public-private partnerships, often referred to as P3s. Garman said there was a major need for an honest conversation about P3s, including issues such as who owns the data. Government protecting assets during the procurement process can, she said, lead to tensions at times with vendors.

When it comes to coordinating with academia, however, this tension is largely absent, given that academics are generally interested in furthering research careers, rather than creating marketable products that can be brought to scale.

The fourth panelist, Cam McLay, a senior advisor with PwC, was police chief of Pittsburgh until leaving for the private sector in December 2016. He described data as vital to police departments in order to determine what’s actually happening on the streets and whether police are making the city a better and safer place, otherwise the departments function as closed systems without feedback loops, totally unable to hold themselves accountable.

A lawman since 1979, McLay talked about his long-time unfamiliarity with the value of data.  

“It was only sitting in the context in the role of a chief executive of a law enforcement agency in a major city that I came to understand how important data was to me,” McLay said. “I needed meaningful data to understand what was true.”

Pittsburgh, which struggles with funding as many cities do, didn’t have the resources needed to get McLay the data he needed. However, academic collaboration proved to be another avenue. In fact, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University came to him, saying, as he remembers it, “Chief, we don’t want your money. We just want your problems.”

These were experts willing to collect the information for free so they could incorporate the data into their work. So, while academic relationships likely won’t rebuild government procurement processes from the ground up, they can provide valuable opportunities to learn more about what works and what doesn’t, which city governments can then reference before deciding to procure related products.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.