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Local Government Procurement: How Does Your City Stack Up?

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Screen Shot 2013-07-18 at 1.10.50 PMThe Sunlight Foundation, Code for America, and Omidyar Network are joining forces to investigate municipal procurement trends, best practices, and potential areas of reform across the country. If you’re knowledgeable about your community’s procurement process or data, please take 10 minutes to fill out our Local Gov Procurement Survey.

The procurement process (also known as the process by which cities contract with business vendors for services) may not be generally or historically sexy, but it is an intrinsic cog in the city machine and very influential to your experience as a citizen. The local level procurement process affects every service your city hires contractors to perform, from construction projects (think: the Big Dig) to your cities’ website design. Getting the best quality for the best price is in your best interest as a taxpayer and recipient of city services, and having an efficient procurement process (quick, accountable, flexible, and not corrupt--think: the Big Dig) directly affects your everyday experience and happiness -- and that is very sexy.

Demystifying the procurement process has attracted significant attention in the open government world recently -- with special attention from both Code for America and the Sunlight Foundation, as well as the White House 2012 Presidential Innovation Fellows and Knight Foundation News Challenge winner Procure.io -- and rightfully so. In the world of open government financial data (which covers topics relating to revenue, budget, payroll, spending, and participatory budgeting) information about the contracting process is notoriously veiled. Different local governments rely on different rules and regulations for establishing contracts with vendors. Many of these are steeped not just in location-specific legal history, but specialized practice. The resulting complexity means it’s hard to enter any given procurement system from the outside if you’re new to the process -- let alone observe and analyze the related government data.

Many cities have begun to explore a variety of technological means to aid in streamlining the procurement process to encourage new businesses to participate and improve the depth and quality of the ways in which their process is open to the public. At the Sunlight Foundation’s 2013 TransparencyCamp, Derek Eder and Juan-Pablo Velez of Open City and Mark Headd, Chief Data Officer of Philadelphia, hosted a “How can we fix local level procurement?” session. There they shared stories about the challenges with local level procurement for IT services (Open City’s experience in Chicago) and their experimentation at making IT procurement easier and more transparent (Mark’s work in Philadelphia with GitHub). The Smart Chicago Collaborative, another organization focused on technological solutions in the Windy City, has since experimented with hosting RFPs (also known as Request for Proposals, the formal, sometime contrived, ask for bid submissions posted by governments to find attract contractors) and sample contracts on Rap Genius’ annotation site.

In addition to these hip tech experiments, cities around the country are exploring other ends towards more transparent procurement. Some examples include Washington State’s Shared Procurement Portal, which provides a roundup of city and agency RFP sources, Miami Dade County’s procurement website, which highlights relevant legal, vendor and contract information, and Memphis, Tennessee’s website,  which hosts the full text of procurement documents, such as RFPs.

But despite the rise in governments’ desire to tinker with and share procurement data and practices, there’s much work to be done to set best practices and to help local governments move from general willingness toward workable policy solutions.

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The best recommendations we can give for improving access to procurement data and thinking creatively about reforming the process will come from having a better picture of what current practices are in place. It’s a tall order, and that’s why we need your help. We are seeking information on how your local procurement process works, what kind of information (and data) your government is making available, and how that information is being released. We want your help in understanding your community's procurement process, share this survey with your local procurement expert or feel free to drop us a line with the subject line "procurement" to local [at] sunlightfoundation [dot] com.

Read Code for America's announcement here.