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How To Fix Procurement 5: It's Not About Procurement

It’s easy to get distracted with the nuts and bolts of procurement. To look at the system, so broken and inefficient, and want to fix it for its own sake. But imagine a politician – say, a candidate for mayor – running for office. What do you think the chances are that our candidate will win if she runs on a platform of procurement reform?

While she’ll certainly win the allegiance of this blog and its (literally) dozens of readers, I’m not sure we’re going to see any mayoral candidates giving speeches about increasing simple acquisition thresholds, reforming set-aside programs so that they actually work the way they’re intended to, or “creating a 21st century acquisition workforce”.1 It’s farcical.

Nobody buys a house based on the quality of its plumbing and wiring, and nobody will elect a government based on the quality of its procurement strategy. The next step in fixing procurement is understanding that fixing procurement isn’t about procurement. It’s about the things that come with it. The opportunities that get created when it does get fixed.

First and foremost, fixing procurement is about local economic development: 21st century procurement processes create jobs. The first city to implement the changes we’ve outlined in this blog is in for a massive boom. Instead of jobs going to multinational contractors, it’ll be able to work with local designers, developers and other innovators within its own community.

Those local shops will be able to create jobs, innovate further, and improve quality of life of the city’s residents. Service delivery will work better. Constituent communications (both input and output) will work better. Imagine never having to wait in line at the DMV again. Or using your smartphone to grant yourself entry to mass transit. Or knowing what the status is of that hole in the sidewalk outside of your house. Or being able to attend a government zoning hearing via your computer or phone?

Those things aren’t just conveniences, they’re things that make people want to live there. All of these things exist in government today, but they’re incredibly hard for government to pull off because they’re expensive and there aren’t a lot of businesses that can both do the technical work to do it. Fixing procurement means that these things can happen easily and in a way that is affordable to the taxpayer.

But when you talk to government about “procurement reform” they don’t see these things. They see months of meetings with contracting officers. They see huge, intra-personnel political battles. They see committees and round tables and inertia. They see an unwinnable fight. And to local citizens? You have never seen eyes glaze over faster than when you say the word “procurement” when you’re trying to inspire people to take action.

Procurement reform is a huge opportunity, and the first government to enable the innovators in its own backyard to easily work with the city is bound to have a boom of jobs and convenience. But we, the champions of reform, must be about the jobs and convenience, not about the reform itself. It’s not about the reforms, its about the outcomes.

  1. Discussed in depth in this GAO Report

Clay is the chairman and co-founder of The Department of Better Technology.

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