Dr. Shalini Vajjhala

Founder & CEO, re:focus partners + Co-founder @_The_Atlas Marketplace + nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. Former EPA…but current resilience renegade. PhD in Engineering & Public Policy and B.Arch in Architecture from Carnegie Mellon University.

This is the final article in a five part series about how procurement can be an entry point for innovation in local government, rather than an obstacle to it. A freely and publicly available procurement toolkit – piloted by seven U.S. cities – accompanies this article series. (Read about the toolkit in the first article in this series here.) This work is the result of a collaborative initiative of re:focus partners and The Atlas Marketplace, funded with the generous support of the Kresge Foundation.

10 Insights on Local Government Procurement

Over the coming years, local governments of every size will have a once-in-a-generation chance to shift toward cleaner, greener technologies and create more resilient communities. Some will unfortunately be forced to do so reactively after a major disaster, but others will have the opportunity to make proactive changes.

In either case, in order to make this leap, local government officials must be able to design, procure, and build entirely new systems and solutions, even while existing procurement processes are more likely to steer decision-makers to the same outdated ‘pieces-and-parts’ approach.

The process of developing this article series and its associated procurement toolkit (and piloting the toolkit with seven U.S. cities!) surfaced several important insights that we think all local governments should consider.

1. Don’t bury the lede

Traditional RFPs in local government are notoriously long, boring, and confusing for potential bidders to navigate. Often the real meat is buried behind dozens of pages of boilerplate text. The best local government procurements all state their goals up front and outline clear and fairly simple steps for bidders to follow to submit a response.

2. Know what you don’t want

Saying what you don’t want is as important as saying what you do. Boston’s Smart City Playbook clearly outlines what is off the table, for example.

3. Take a wide-angle view

RFIs, Competitions, and Performance Contracts all have the advantage of being results-focused, but solution-agnostic. Local government should focus on solutions that meet the main goal(s), but stay open to even bigger wins and welcome submissions and solutions that create additional benefits.

4. Walk in a bidder’s shoes

Bidders want to know why they should work with your local government. Tell them. Make it compelling for them to put in the up-front time and resources to develop a proposal. Making sure that your ask is attractive to a wide-range of diverse bidders is well worth the up-front effort.

Feedback to local government participants at a June 2018 workshop at the Kresge Foundation.
Local government participants received candid feedback from leaders in the water industry on their procurement ideas at a May 2018 workshop at the Kresge Foundation.

5. Look beyond your budget

Most traditional procurement efforts are only initiated when funds or resources are available. If funds are limited, they also tend to favor lowest up-front cost solutions over outcomes that may have better long-term or life-cycle value. Framing the problem and procurement terms to include alternative finance goals can help draw forward solutions that have built-in business models for implementation.

“The toolkit really encouraged us to think strategically about the role public-private-partnerships could have in improving water services for our residents.” –Brenda Scott Henry, Director, Environmental Affairs & Green Urbanism

6. Create a welcome mat

Responding to a traditional RFP takes time, resources, deep knowledge of city policies and procedures, and significant capacity. Therefore, large firms with long histories of working with cities are at a distinct advantage. Every city has their “usual suspects” of design and engineering firms that tend to respond to any RFP they release. Local government should open the door for new and non-traditional bidders, by providing easy to navigate background information on your city’s current policies and programs, recent efforts, and available assets to level the playing field for new firms that have not yet worked with your city.

7. Show your work

Every bidder wants to work with a local government that is an engaged and committed public partner. Transparency is key to building trust. Providing access to open data, planning sessions, and bidding conferences can help bidders better understand your needs and develop higher-quality, more tailored local solutions.

8. Take down unnecessary hurdles

Public procurement rules were designed to protect taxpayer dollars from getting spent unwisely, but sometimes layers of protective rules can become so burdensome that they no longer serve the public interest. Find any rules or procedures that are regularly causing delays or bottle-necks and look for ways to remove unnecessary hurdles.

9. Get the word out

Announce, advertise, and distribute information as early and widely as legally possible. Developing great solutions takes time, and being able to start thinking and crafting an idea well in advance of when a formal procurement is issued improves the quality and diversity of bids.

10. Swing for the fences

It’s easy to lose sight of the end goal when working through all the details of a local government procurement process. Make sure your problem framing and your procurement terms stay on track to get you closer to your ideal outcome rather than settling for some interim milestone.


There’s a huge difference between asking: “How can my utility get the best value on a new pumping station?” and “What options do we have for reducing flooding in our city?” Both questions can be the starting point for building resilience. They each frame an important problem, but the former presumes a narrow end outcome that limits possible solutions. The latter creates space for game-changing innovations in design, financing, and service delivery.

This subtle shift in how we think about procurement can make the difference between locking into old technologies and systems and bringing new ideas, new partners, and new resources to the table to make progress on some of our nation’s most critical infrastructure, climate, equity, and resilience challenges. And that’s why every local government should look at procurement as a cornerstone of resilience.

Can’t wait to dive right into the procurement toolkit? It’s already freely & publicly available. Enter your email address below and we’ll be in touch ASAP with a personal access link!
Access the procurement toolkit for free

This free toolkit can help your city attract new ideas, partners and resources to address its biggest challenges. 7 U.S. cities have already piloted the toolkit with great success.

Rest assured: we will never share your contact information.

Request Received!

Check your email for the ✨magic✨ button to your toolkit – the email will be from admin@the-atlas.com

Access Granted!

Because you’ve visited with this browser before, here’s direct access to your toolkit!

Remember you can always refer to the email we sent you for the ✨magic✨ button to your toolkit.

Access the procurement toolkit for free

This free toolkit can help your city attract new ideas, partners and resources to address its biggest challenges. 7 U.S. cities have already piloted the toolkit with great success.

Rest assured: we will never share your contact information.

Request Received!

Check your email for the ✨magic✨ button to your toolkit – the email will be from admin@the-atlas.com

Access Granted!

Because you’ve visited with this browser before, here’s direct access to your toolkit!

Remember you can always refer to the email we sent you for the ✨magic✨ button to your toolkit.