Procurement innovation for cities may sound like an oxymoron, but the topic has gotten national attention in recent years. The processes that cities use to buy everything from office chairs to water treatment plants are increasingly being recognized as a barrier to upgrading aging and failing infrastructure systems and achieving broader climate, equity, and system resilience goals.
With the generous support of the Kresge Foundation, re:focus partners and The Atlas Marketplace brought together a cohort of seven cities with eight private sector implementing partner organizations to apply three innovative “big city” procurement tools to tackle major infrastructure challenges in smaller cities.
The goal: Help small and medium-sized cities access new ideas, new partners, and new resources for their greatest infrastructure needs by piloting a set of procurement tools already being used with success in big cities.
The outcome: An interactive toolkit that helps city and utility officials make critical early stage procurement decisions, including which “big city” procurement tool is most relevant and how to apply it to build resilience.
The toolkit focuses on ways cities and utilities can use current procurement systems to enable better outcomes. The toolkit is already publicly available for free…just access it via the form on the sidebar or at the bottom of this article.
In a few short months, the seven pilot cities made extraordinary steps toward reimagining how procurement can enable them to access new ideas, new partners, and new resources to deal with their most pressing water system needs . The challenges they tackled ranged from sea level rise to shrinking service areas, deferred maintenance, and lead drinking water fixtures on private property.
Going from a dire need to a practical near-term solution is not easy. The toolkit has three key components to help cities make this leap:
“Using the toolkit helped us zero-in on the problems we are trying to solve, rather than prejudging the solutions we thought we needed. As a result, CCMUA is drawing from a more diverse set of ideas and partners as we continue to address our top priorities, including water quality and resilience.” Andy Kricun, Executive Director & Chief Engineer, Camden County MUA
It’s easy for experts to get caught up in the details of a problem and assume that more specificity is better in any procurement. Not so. Being too prescriptive can limit innovation and discourage solutions that generate wider benefits. This procurement toolkit takes a different approach to problem framing, and focuses on zooming out (using the Ansari X-Prize for commercial space flight as an example) to identify target outcomes and then work backward to define what elements of the problem are most critical to solve.
Often the easiest path through conventional procurement processes is to use Requests for Proposals (RFPs) and Requests for Quotations (RFQs). The benefit of these traditional approaches is that the language and legal framework are tried and tested. This is not a trivial thing in difficult-to-navigate bureaucracies. However, the downside is that many opportunities to improve outcomes are lost right at the beginning of the process. The toolkit focuses on matching cities and utilities to one of three specific “big city” procurement tools—Requests for Ideas (RFIs), design competitions, and performance contracts—and assigning a degree of difficulty that is the best fit for the problem at hand and the resources available.
“The toolkit helped us be strategic about our internal capacity to experiment with new procurement tools and understand what resources we need to be successful. It was really valuable to think through how to take advantage of Imperial Beach’s small size to attract new ideas and partners in our future solicitations.” Chris Helmer, Environmental and Natural Resources Director, City of Imperial Beach
This is where many conventional procurement processes start: setting specifications. The toolkit offers clear guidance on what kinds of choices and specification decisions are likely to enable the most effective outcomes, and which ones are likely to discourage high-quality responses and innovative ideas or generate difficult-to-assess and hard-to-implement solutions.
This article kicks off the first in a 5-part series that will cover how procurement can be an entry point for innovation in cities, rather than an obstacle to it. This article series has been adapted from a published report, which can be accessed here.
The next installment will explore why resilience depends on procurement and will be posted on November 1. Thanks for following along! In the meantime, don’t hesitate to join the conversation on Twitter.
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.
Check your email for the ✨magic✨ button to your toolkit – the email will be from firstname.lastname@example.org
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.