Open Contracting Reform in U.S. Cities

Every year, city governments spend huge sums of money through contracts, on everything from pencils and paper to major infrastructure projects. The challenging nature of navigating government procurement processes can box out small, local, and underrepresented vendors from doing business with the City, and a lack of competition in bids can lead to an adverse affect the quality of services provided to city residents. 

The Sunlight Foundation’s Open Cities team works directly with U.S. cities to find opportunities for open procurement processes and open contracting data to deepen the impact of public procurement, both for government innovation and for residents’ quality of life. 

Pilots in Los Angeles and Philadelphia

The Sunlight Foundation and the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) are two like-minded organizations using open contracting data to solve citizens’ real problems. Beginning in 2018, Sunlight and OCP partnered with two cities (Los Angeles and Philadelphia) to pilot a novel approach to using open contracting data to reform the procurement processes and improve transparency and accountability in U.S. cities. The Sunlight Foundation and OCP assembled a core team to work with each pilot city over a 9-month period to conduct research and identify tactical opportunities to apply open contracting reform and open data. 

The pilot work in both cities leveraged open contracting to produce more open contracting data and to include more voices in procurement decision-making. Pilot projects directly included community feedback in policy recommendations and recommended opening contracting data based on which currently closed data would have the most value to community members. If the City was lacking data that communities wanted, we identified how the City might begin collecting and publishing more impactful open data. To learn more about our technical assistance process, download the project summary

Case 1: Inclusion in Los Angeles

Empower small, local, and underrepresented businesses to bid for contracts in the City of Los Angeles to improve the local economy and promote inclusive procurement.

With billions of dollars in services being contracted by the City of Los Angeles every year, the city government was determined to find a way to ensure that the vendors competing for these contacts reflected the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the city. Recognizing that clear and usable open data on the contracting process is critical to keep businesses, officials, and other stakeholders apprised of upcoming and ongoing opportunities, the City chose to pursue pilots to improve the governance of existing procurement data, and to ensure departments collect adequate data on business inclusion.

Improving the current data infrastructure will ensure relevant procurement data is available to community members interested in how the City awards contracts. Collecting robust data on business inclusion will grant the City a more thorough understanding of the departments and agencies making efforts to include new and underrepresented vendors, and will help the City to hold those falling short in inclusive practices accountable.

Announcement blog post
Action plan
Progress story (forthcoming)

Case 2: Food procurement in Philadelphia

Improve the quality of food for Philadelphia’s most vulnerable populations by implementing “best value” practices and engaging key community members.

At any given time, hundreds of thousands of people living in the City of Philadelphia may rely on the government for meals. The City wanted to ensure residents are offered the best food possible, balancing the desire to provide high quality food while respecting the City’s budget. We heard from community members and food preparers that they were surprised when vendors who provided food in broken packaging, delivered late, or sometimes provided the wrong products altogether continued to win contracts. Therefore, the City chose to implement pilots to include kitchen staff and food receivers in deciding who should win food contracts and what they should be buying, including by evaluating value instead of price.

Bringing kitchen staff and food receivers into the vendor decision-making process (by co-drafting RFPs) offers positive outcomes all around. Best Value contracts for food will enable the City to evaluate vendors on offerings beyond a price point, opening the door for smaller and local vendors to effectively compete for City contracts. Choosing from a larger pool of diverse food vendors means the City can better evaluate food options for residents.

*Note: The City chose not to publicly publish the Action Plan co-drafted by City staff and the Sunlight team until staff have reached consensus on implementing Sunlight’s recommendations.

Announcement blog post
Action plan
Progress story (forthcoming)

Dive deeper into the pilots

Through our work with Los Angeles and Philadelphia, we learned valuable lessons about the challenges and nuance of advocating for open contracting reform in city governments. In the following project summary, we captured our insights and guidance for other good government reformers working either inside, outside, or alongside local governments to implement open contracting reforms. Download our project summary to learn more about our process and the lessons that came out of our work.  

Open Contracting Pilot in U.S. Cities Project Summary