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Philadelphia, Portland and Code For America work on building a better RFP

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, September 4 2014

While Healthcare.gov is now often used as short-hand for government procurement challenges and questions are being raised about New York City's contracting process for a project to reinvent pay phones as Wi-Fi hot-spots, cities such as Philadelphia and Portland, along with Code for America, are among those working with city officials and companies to redefine and reinvent the Request for Proposals process.

A tablet education tool for prison inmates, a texting tool, a mobile transit ticket platform and a city web design project are just some of the tools that have resulted from those efforts.

Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, the movement toward a new form of RFP has manifested itself as Fast FWD, an initiative that is spearheaded by the Philadelphia Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Mayor's Office of Grants for the city's participation in the 2013 Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge.

As part of the twelve-week accelerator FastFWD program, the city invited a cohort of entrepreneurs to develop solutions for identified city needs. The program aimed to make it easier for entrepreneurs to do business with the city and also to help city officials develop new mechanisms for engaging with start-ups, as Story Bellows, co-director of the office, told techPresident in a recent interview. The first cohort of entrepreneurs, who completed the fellowship this spring, worked on projects related to public safety and community stability.

"We recognize that a lot of the procurement contracting processes that are in place...make it really difficult for new companies [to offer] innovative solutions that can be purchased and tested," Bellows said. The Fast FWD program has been focused on creating a process that allows entrepreneurs and their businesses to get pre-qualified for city work and be eligible for pilot funding after its completion, she said. The goal, she explained, is to ensure that "the city is taking advantage of the solutions that they are creating" and that the entrepreneurs "run experiments to develop their business and service solutions, and meet the needs of the city."

The Bloomberg Challenge funding allows the city to partner with GoodCompany Group, a social enterprise accelerator, to help the entrepreneurs perfect their business models, she said. In addition, the successful participants can apply for funding for their pilot projects from the Mayor Michael Nutter's Fund for Philadelphia through a new $100,000 Mayor's Innovation fund. The Mayor's Office of Grants ran an internal city competition to determine which project to submit to Bloomberg, and some of the proposed projects also received funding from the Innovation Fund, Bellows noted.

As the city aims to implement new approaches to the RFP process more broadly in city departments, the entrepreneurs and their projects are a "pool of guinea pigs for the new models of RFPs that we're talking about developing," said Bellows. Rather than city officials having to guess at the issues and challenges young companies face in responding to RFPs, "[entrepreneurs] working with us day-to-day ensures that we are solving the right challenges," she said.

"We could do a much better job of communicating opportunities than we now do on a day-to-day basis," Bellows said. There were more than 80 applications for Fast Fwd opportunities, she noted. "We don't get 80 responses to city contracting opportunities," she said. Using every communication channel "is not hard to do, but is not standard operating procedure, we don't think of these opportunities as marketing campaigns; we should think of them that way."

Bellows said a variety of different departments focused on law, procurement, finance and IT were working on developing a toolkit that would include a standard RFP example that would allow for pilot projects and leave room for terms and conditions that may undergo change. The next challenge, according to Bellows, is building "policies and procedures into the DNA of the city operating procedures" throughout the city bureaucracy, rather than just certain departments."

Another issue to address would be adjusting RFPs that may require extensive documentation such as three years of audited financials or references from three other cities of similar size, Bellows said. "We can't demand that to run an experiment that they've never tried before, it doesn't make sense when you're asking for something innovative," she said, adding that other future challenges would involve insurance, liability and ownership.

Portland

In Portland, an effort to "create a better RFP" is underway through a project from the Portland Development Commission. "We're looking at it not just from the perspective of how we can make progress within the city more efficient but also how we can affect private industry...both of these simultaneously," said Jared Wiener, business development coordinator at the PDC.

The commission initiated its Early Adopter program earlier this year in response to a competitive funding process for city agencies organized by Portland Mayor Charlie Hales' $1 million Innovation fund. As part of the program, the commission is working with other city bureaus and private sector companies to create an online platform to make it easier to connect agencies with start-ups that can offer innovative solutions to their needs. The site is currently in private beta but is set to formally launch in the first quarter of 2015.

"We're not talking about the reinvention of the procurement process," Wiener said, but a technology solution that "enhances that" and "creates that dialog between the entities -- it kind of resembles a simplified version of Craigslist."

Amy Nagy, business development coordinator at the PDC, noted that often bureaus end up meeting with companies one on one , or companies need to search around an organizational chart to arrange a meeting in a very time consuming process. The hope is to "find a more efficient way that opportunities can be promoted by city bureaus," she said. The new platform could help connect start-ups that might not have the relationships of more established companies that " have grown up with the city."

Nagy explained that one aim is to address the interests of companies working on services that are very much in development and would like to test and demonstrate their products using city assets. The program involves "not creating a formal RFP process, but creating a different way to start to work together" to establish a framework where a company can test a service on city infrastructure, such as a pipe, get feedback, and prove its product before moving to broader commercialization of an entire market while pointing to the test in Portland, she said. In some cases the program might result in a formal RFP process, while in others the value may be more in the "real time experience" the company gains from working with the city.

The interest from three or four companies and entrepreneurs who have already offered potential solutions to city challenges since the program's launch in March without much outreach demonstrates the real need for such a program, Wiener said.

While those companies are now in touch with different bureaus to see whether their products might meet bureau needs, Nagy emphasized that the aim of the project is a step beyond a simple match making process toward an eyeopening "massive behavior and process change" within bureaus.

A bureau like environmental services is often focused on its distinct mission with all its procedures in place, she said, calling the program "the opportunity to open up the way we've always done business...sometimes the public and private sector fly by each other."

An example of the result the program hopes to encourage is a recent partnership between Portland area public transit agency TriMet and mobile ticketing platform GlobeSherpa. A press release noted that since TriMet implemented the ticketing platform into its own systems, the platform sold 100,000 tickets worth $450,000 in sales. "TriMet’s cost for selling electronic tickets is significantly less than the traditional paper ticket, which has the agency promoting the mobile ticketing solution throughout Portland to an overwhelmingly positive response from customers. GlobeSherpa can use the positive promotion to market its service to other transit authorities across the country."

Nagy and Wiener said they would be working closely with different bureaus on how to implement the program broadly and how to organize more networking opportunities with the private sector. "It was something that when we proposed it, every bureau signed on immediately," Nagy said.

California, Code for America and beyond

The projects in Philadelphia and Portland echo a mindset that Code for America hopes to help replicate across the country. The projects represent the "bottom up approach of cities around procurement reform" and a "laboratory of democracy" at the city level, said Lane Becker, director of products and startups at Code for America. "The iterative testing of new ideas and new approaches to procurement makes it easier for smaller, nimbler, better and more effective [platforms] to get purchased."

While he noted that Philadelphia is a previous Code For America city, Becker said the most important factor spurring such programs is the mindset "of the people who are inside the cities doing the work that is necessary."

Code for America sees itself as a spreader of such ideas emanating from within cities, including through a new project to establish open procurement standards, Becker explained. In conversations with city partners and tech start-ups, "across the board a huge challenge for the companies was getting through the procurement process," he said, especially with cloud application companies requiring different kinds of contracts from cities than larger-scale internally hosted applications. The traditional process of single sourcing procurement where a city makes a selection from three contractors who give a quote also "doesn't have a corollary [when you have] a new type of tool and finding three versions of a tool can be a challenge," he said. "Rather than saying here's a laundry list of requirements, build this specific kind of thing; it's about saying here's a problem, what's the solution?"

Becker is leading a team that that has been specifically speaking about these issues with vendors and city purchasers. "Historically our constituency has been local governments and community teams and brigades, now we are recognizing this new constituency which is vendors/start-ups and asking questions...about how we can play a role in making it easier for them in this environment."

Specifically, Code for America has been working with Kiran Jain, a lawyer for the City of Oakland, to create a model for a kind of contract for a city website redesign. "It's a perennial problem that cities have been having with a big RFP...[for] a fully developed thing with a backend and a frontend, and by the time it gets delivered, it's already out of date," he said. With the guiding idea of the city website "as a living, breathing part of the city," the hope is to craft example RFPs that can be embedded in contracts that see the project not as one large monolithic RFP, he said. Rather the idea is that cities are responsible for managing the project overall and then can break it up it into smaller parts from a local design or branding firm and development firm, he said. The sample would also include an explainer text to put the legal language in plane English.

Code for America plans to launch those examples in beta form and seek feedback from cities and companies with the aim of creating an information repository which cities can contribute to, he said. Future samples could focus on situations where software is used as a service tool, such as SeamlessDocs, which converts PDF documents, community engagement platform MindMixer or SeeClickFix.

The more efficient the procurement process becomes, "the more companies are going to be available," he said. "One big idea can come from many small ideas."