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Turning the RFP Upside Down

A Philadelphia program is showing promise for engaging entrepreneurs in solving urban problems.

Public-sector procurement typically means issuing requests for proposals (RFPs) that describe exactly what government wants vendors to do. The process generally includes long timelines, mind-numbing rules and almost no flexibility. Too often, the winner is whichever company is best at navigating the contracting-compliance maze. And vendors have an interest in limiting the number of potential contractors, with less competition translating to higher costs and lower quality for taxpayers.

But what if the approach prescribed in an RFP isn't the best way to solve the underlying problem? A Philadelphia program called FastFWD recognizes that government doesn't have all the answers and invites collaboration from entrepreneurs.

The first cycle of FastFWD, which focused on improving public safety, attracted 82 applications from around the world late last year. Earlier this year, 10 companies were selected to participate in a 12-week accelerator program aimed at refining their ideas. The finalists each got a $10,000 stipend. Even more importantly, they got access to municipal officials, which allowed them to tailor their ideas to the needs of Philadelphia's residents.

Three of the companies were ultimately selected and given city contracts ranging from $30,000 to $35,000: Jail Education Solutions, a firm that aims to reduce recidivism and increase employment opportunities for inmates through tablet technology that enables self-driven education; Textizen, a texting platform that helps case managers connect people coming out of prison to job and training opportunities; and Village Defense, a text/phone call/email alert system that allows residents to report incidents anonymously. It would be hard to imagine any of these companies emerging from a traditional procurement process.

FastFWD is a partnership between the city of Philadelphia, a social-enterprise accelerator called GoodCompany Ventures and the University of Pennsylvania business school's Wharton Social Impact Initiative. It is a result of $1 million the city won last year from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge to create such a pathway for new players to bid on city work.

Aug. 1 was the application deadline for the next cycle of FastFWD, which is focused on promoting community stability. The program may not be appropriate for routine purchases like office supplies, but as it moves forward, one challenge will be grow the FastFWD from a "boutique" run out of the mayor's office to a new model that changes the way agencies across city government approaches more complex procurements. That certainly would be a way to turn the traditional approach to government contracting on its head.

This article was originally published by Governing.