By Dr. Shalini Vajjhala, Founder & CEO, re:focus partners, Co-founder The Atlas Marketplace, Nonresident Senior Fellow,The Brookings Institution

November 2, 2018

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.
But procurement can be an entry point for innovation—rather than an obstacle to it—for cities and utilities across the US.
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.

Seven cities from across the United States piloted the procurement toolkit. The procurement toolkit was piloted by seven U.S. cities: Anchorage (AK), El Paso (TX), Camden County MUA (NJ), Gary (IN), Norfolk (VA), Imperial Beach (CA) and Providence (RI).

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 was piloted in a workshop in May 2018 at the Kresge Foundation. The first cohort of cities focused on the common challenge of dealing with major legacy water system issues. The workshop encouraged city officials to engage with one another and leading private sector innovators in the water sector to explore the implications of different procurement decisions and pathways.
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,
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.
Eight implementing partners piloted the toolkit in partnership with the seven participating cities. The procurement toolkit was piloted in collaboration with eight implementing partners, who also participated in the May workshop, representing leading organizations in water, resilience, and sustainability.
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:

1. Shaping a great problem statement to enable innovation

“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.

2. Identifying the tool that’s most relevant for you

The toolkit enables cities to innovate within their *existing* legal and procurement frameworks by creatively applying three relatively new, but proven, procurement tools.
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.

3. Setting the terms for responses and solutions

“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.