Hacking the Procurement Process in Philadelphia

The annual Code for America Summit brings local/state government leaders, entrepreneurs, and activists together to have a conversation about “where we are, where we want to go, and how we’ll get there.” This past October, the City of Philadelphia was represented at the CfA Summit by two speakers: Chief Data Officer Mark Headd and Story Bellows, Co-Director of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. Speaking on two very different initiatives, Mark and Story were both able to convey the same message: the City government has innovated in its procurement process in ways that yield better, more form-fitting solutions.

In the case of finding a vendor to build the myPhillyRisng app, Mark Headd and his team saw room to experiment within the confines of the City’s procurement process. For smaller professional contracts, the formal requirements only state that three vendors need to submit proposals. This presented an opportunity to use GitHub, a hosting service for software development projects. By using GitHub, the City was able to give vendors creative freedom in their proposals by asking them to submit through GitHub repositories. While some vendors simply uploaded a PDF document into the repositories, others submitted code of their app’s framework or told stories from community members who use the app most. Using GitHub in the procurement process allowed the City to identify firms that shared similar values, specifically in open source software and collaborative software development.

“Just because a firm has the organizational endurance to get through our procurement process, it doesn’t make them the best choice for us to work with.”
— Mark Headd

As a result of using GitHub, the City faced the unusual challenge of selecting a winning firm from an exceptionally strong group of finalists. The City eventually chose OpenPlans to build the well-received app. You can use the app here.

In her talk, Story Bellows identified similar challenges in the City’s procurement process:

“When cities issue an RFP, we typically assume that we have complete understanding of the problem and then prescribe a solution which allows little room for high risk, untested, or unexpected solutions to take hold.”
— Story Bellows

Story spoke of Mayor Nutter’s winning-submission to the Bloomberg Philanthropy’s Mayors Challenge. Based on the submission and the subsequent $1,000,000 prize, the City launched the Fast Forward, an urban innovation refinery. In the partnership between the City of Philadelphia, the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and Good Company Group, Fast Forward will solicit entrepreneurs (and the venture capital to back them) to solve the City’s biggest challenges. Further, the initiative will create infrastructure to facilitate and support the entrepreneurial solutions through an acceleration and piloting process.

Based on interviews with key stakeholders, “Public Safety” emerged as the most pressing challenge to tackle with the new innovation refinery. Philadelphia currently spends over $1B annually in direct public safety services.  The public safety market is also largely untapped by entrepreneurial solutions:

“There a few entrepreneurs creating solutions intended to disrupt and improve how cities tackle public safety challenges in part because we believe the opportunity has never been articulated in a way that engages entrepreneurs or gives them access to the domain experts.”
— Story Bellows

As a result, Public Safety is Fast Forward’s first challenge area. With a newly launched website, Fast Forward has issued this challenge, worldwide, to entrepreneurs. While the website outlines areas of interest within the realm of public safety, it is clear to not “prescribe a solution to the problem.”

While the use of new procurement processes like GitHub and FastForward has just begun, the efforts are important. With these efforts, the City has gained the ability identify better-fitting firms while giving creative freedom (and a better chance of success) to entrepreneurial and collaborative solutions.

“We need the think about the design of our procurement process and the kind of firm that comes out the other side.”
— Mark Headd

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