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 second article in a five part series about how procurement can be an entry point to resilience in cities, 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.

Resilience Depends on Better Procurement

Many cities across the United States are home to legacy infrastructure systems. These older water, transportation, and communications systems are not only poorly suited to current needs, but they are also nearing (or well past) the end of their usable lives after decades of underinvestment and deferred maintenance.

The motivation for investing in resilience could not be greater. The news is filled with high-profile natural disasters and infrastructure failures—from massive water main breaks to catastrophic road and bridge collapses. Many mayors have also committed to transformational goals, such as the Mayor’s Climate Pledge. But local government resources for transformation are limited at best.

A collapsed road in Minnesota caused by a flood.
A collapsed road in Minnesota caused by flooding. PC: Harvard Political Review, http://harvardpolitics.com/united-states/drip-drop-americas-crumbling-water-infrastructure/

A Tug-of-War in Cities

City and utility managers are caught in a tug-of-war. On one side are high-priority incremental repairs to keep critical services up-and-running. On the other side is all the up-front planning required to invest in long-term capital projects. Both are costly. Both are necessary. In the coming years,  more cities and utilities will inevitably be confronted with a stark choice: keep making short-term fixes or find the resources to make major upgrades and replacements.

“Flooding is such a huge, complex problem. Using this procurement toolkit, we were able to break that big problem into more manageable chunks, and then figure out which procurement tools were most relevant.” -Wynter Benda, Chief Deputy City Manager, City of Norfolk

As grim as this decision can be from a budget perspective, it is also an opportunity. Cities across the US have a once-in-a-generation chance to shift toward cleaner, greener technologies and build more resilient communities. The simultaneous benefits are undeniable: fewer catastrophic failures and future decades of improved infrastructure performance and environmental, social, and health outcomes.

The Procurement Connection

Local procurement processes have the potential to either enable this resilience transition or stymie it completely. Most existing procurement processes make it easiest for government agencies to buy what they already have, provided by companies they’ve already worked with before.

A "pieces and parts" approach to procurement
A “pieces and parts” approach to procurement can stymie cities’ progress towards resilience, sustainability and equity goals. PC: Dilbert, via Jon on Tech.

This bias toward the familiar can keep decision-makers trapped in a “pieces-and-parts” replacement approach. This is true, even when solutions to enable more cost-effective upgrades, replacements, or wholesale transformation are readily available. Picture the difference between replacing failing water mains and transitioning to city-wide green infrastructure solutions. The process for buying pipes and repair services is a well-trodden path, but figuring out how to buy and maintain thousands of street trees or miles of porous pavement is often uncharted territory.

The connection between resilience and procurement
The connection between resilience and procurement was a main topic of discussion among 7 U.S. cities and leaders in the water industry at a workshop at the Kresge Foundation in May 2018.

The unfortunate consequence of this type of procurement “lock-in” is two-fold. Every day cities miss opportunities to leapfrog to smarter, more sustainable, and more resilient infrastructure. And innovative companies and urban solutions simultaneously struggle to scale. This is a solvable problem, but pouring money into developing new technologies or better plans doesn’t necessarily lead to project implementation or better outcomes.

Requirements for effective procurement

Investing in better procurement processes up front can enable better outcomes

Knowing when and how to shift from the incremental to the transformational is an enormous challenge for cities of every size. Bigger cities often have more resources and expertise to dedicate to long-term planning for these transitions. But even smaller cities with fewer resources need the tools to design, procure, and build entirely new types of infrastructure solutions to make progress on big picture goals, including improving water and resource-efficiency, building resilience to climate change, and advancing social equity.

“The collaborative environment & focus on problem-solving helped us connect with new partners that we’re hopeful will help us address some of the challenges Gary’s legacy water system presents.” –Joseph van Dyk, Executive Director, Dept. of Planning & Redevelopment, City of Gary

Cities must be able to buy things differently in order to buy different things. 

In recent years, several cities and counties have begun to experiment with how procurement can enable better outcomes. One of the most compelling examples in the water sector is the Prince George’s County Clean Water Partnership. This 30-year public-private partnership between the County and the operating engineering firm, Corvias, was launched in 2015 as a performance-based contract.  The primary goals of the contract were to significantly improve stormwater management across the county (to meet EPA regulatory compliance requirements) and build a more equitable and diverse local workforce for project implementation. At the outset of the program, the performance objectives were to deliver green stormwater retrofits on 2,000 impervious acres at a cost of no greater than $100 million within a 3-year term. See the graphic below for the program’s results as of September 2018.

Resilience milestones achieved in Prince George’s County’s Clean Water Partnership as of September 2018, enabled by procurement innovation.
Milestones from Prince George’s County’s Clean Water Partnership as of September 2018. It is a shining example of how procurement can be an entry point to building resilience, rather than an obstacle to it.

The Clean Water Partnership is a shining example of how procurement innovation can allow local governments to tap into new ideas, new partners, and new resources. The results speak for themselves: Prince George’s County met or exceeded all of its economic, social, and environmental objectives on time and under budget.

The overarching lesson from this example is that investing in better procurement processes up front can enable better outcomes for taxpayers, residents, and businesses alike in cities across the United States.

Next up…

Part three of this article series will highlight a set of new procurement tools that cities of all sizes can use to jumpstart progress on their resilience, sustainability and equity goals. It will be published on Monday, November 5th. In the meantime, join the conversation on Twitter!


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.

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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.