Tech solution success means rethinking city procurement steps

Wed, 2014-03-19 06:00 -- Doug Cooley

Cities and other government agencies working to incorporate smart city technologies into their operations sometimes fail to get the outcomes they’re looking for.

Part of the reason for this is the old school procurement regimen that agencies abide by.  Yes, traditional procurement mechanisms such as the “request for proposal” (RFP) do a good job of ensuring accountability in purchasing decisions. Yet the rigidity of the procurement rules often tends to thwart execution of technology solutions that, by nature, require some flexibility.

“One of the biggest factors preventing successful government procurements today may be the rapid evolution of technology,” writes Justine Brown in the Govtech.com article  Bringing Innovation to Procurement. “Purchasing in government is frequently cited as an example of a slow, inflexible and expensive bureaucratic process. But that becomes doubly true when purchasing technology.”

But Brown reports that reforms are underway. Moreover, it's smaller, less encumbered jurisdictions such as cities that are leading the pack when it comes to procuring new technology. The article calls out a handful of examples, including these innovative initiatives:

  • A Philadelphia program called FastFWD now enables entrepreneurs to work with the city to develop creative solutions that run as pilot programs before the city commits to launching a full-scale project. This initiative not only helps reduce procurement risk, but also works around the limitations of the city’s RFP process, which often produces poor solutions due to a poor understanding of vendor capabilities.  
  • Orange County, Michigan has acquired public sector technology services by adopting a government-to-government cloud computing model. It's G2G Cloud Solutions program enables the county to position its applications in the cloud and make them available to other government agencies. “The initiative … creates an opportunity for those local governments to use technology that may otherwise not be within their reach, eliminating infrastructure requirements or upfront costs, and providing a centrally managed information system that reduces redundancy,” Brown writes. The county is now looking at launching the G2G Marketplace, which lets government agencies quickly procure technologies from companies with well-vetted solutions. 

The article floats several ideas about how public agencies can work better with technology vendors. One is to rethink the “bulletproof” terms and conditions that agencies use. Public jurisdictions often stick project risks -- such as indemnification, limitations of liability, and warranty provisions -- largely with vendors. As these conditions often fall outside industry standards, vendors are inclined to not compete for public contracts.

Another idea is to bring in third-party companies to help agencies handle the procurement business.  Aware of the rapid evolution in technology, these consultants can ensure agencies that their requirements and specifications reflect what’s happening in the current marketplace. “These companies can educate agencies and bring them up to date on current trends before they get too far down the road,” says Brown.

As the article suggests, procurement practices can clearly impact the success or failure of implementing smart city technology solutions. City leadership is wise to take a hard look at the practices in place in their jurisdictions when laying out a smart city roadmap.  The Council's free Smart Cities Readiness Guide also highlights the importance of employing  efficient and up-to-date procurements and “e-procurement” systems.