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So You Want to Fix Procurement

There's been a lot of talk about fixing IT procurement lately. And while most of it is focused on the federal level, large IT failures happen at the state and local level too. There's not a city or state government that we can yet point to that has a truly modern procurement environment.

Fixing IT procurement is going to take a lot of people and a lot of attention to get right. In that spirit, If you'd like to be involved with fixing procurement here are some questions to ask in your local community in order to understand how procurement is set up:

Who has purchasing authority?

Is purchasing handled by individual agencies, or is it done by some central authority? Does your police department buy its own computers, does it go through a inter-agency procurement department, or does it have the option do do either?

What are the 'Purchasing Thresholds?'

Usually there are certain dollar amount thresholds that govern how complex a procurement needs to be. So for instance, if you buy something for less than $25,000, it needs less of a buying evaluation than for something of above that number. Or if it's below $500, it can just be bought with a credit card. What are those numbers?

Are there small/minority/women/veteran/local business set-aside programs?

All agencies and government officials will say that they want to give contracts to, and work with small local businesses. This doesn't count for anything. The question is: are there actual dollar or deal amount quotas that agencies have to meet that are either government policy, or written down in law? How do they work? Are they preferences or set asides or both?

An example of a preference: when reviewing a contract's price, if the bid comes from a local business, a contracting officer will subtract 10% from the bid price for evaluation purposes, giving the local business an advantage in lowest-bid proposals.

An example of a set-aside: The city says that this contract is only eligible for bid by local business.

How do Information Technology Purchasing Decisions Get Made?

There is usually a CIO for a city or a state. But what kind of authority do they have to make purchasing decisions? Does the CIO of your City or State make the Information Technology purchasing decisions for the Sanitation Department? Or does the Sanitation Department have its own CIO, and do they get to make those decisions? Or are the decisions made primarily by contracting officers seeking lowest-bid proposals?

What are the business registration requirements in your area?

How does one register to bid on government contracts in your city or state? What information must they provide in order to get registered? What does the form look like? Is it paper or digital?

What are the set-aside/preference registration requirements like?

Another thing to ask is what it takes to register as one of the set-aside/preference companies beyond basic bidding registration. In some cities, having a local address isn't good enough to certify that you're a local business. Sometimes you need to get notes from customers that are also inside of the government's boundaries to vouch for you. In other places, you must provide an original copy of your birth certificate.

Where are the RFPs?

What is the process for finding business opportunities to bid on? Is there a website that lists all of the RFPs? Is it agency by agency, does the government share a central place to list all of them, or does it use some other listing process (like does a city use a State government RFP listing website, for instance).

Some key questions to ask here are also: if the RFPs are listed on a website, is this information available to the general public, or is it behind a registration/login/signup form?

What does it usually take in order to bid?

Different RFPs have different requirements and bid processes. But usually things work minimally the same way every time on a department by department basis. So, is there a pre-proposal mandatory meeting that's held on an rfp-by-rfp basis? In order to provide a qualified bid, must you attend this meeting? Are bids collected via mail or is there a digital process? Do they use a sealed-bid process whereby the proposal is in one envelope, and the price is in another?

Do they use "schedules"?

Schedules aren't calendars or time sheets. Sometimes governments make "schedules" or lists of pre-negotiated and approved rates with companies that they can purchase from quickly. Lots of cities and states actually purchase off of the GSA's set of schedules. Does your city do that? How much do they get from those schedules, and what are the requirements to get on those schedules?

Are there any contract vehicles in place?

Despite all this, your local government may have already set up contracting vehicles and outsourced all of their technology contracting to those vendors, and do they make those vendors acquire all their technology through those contracts (either through delivery or subcontracting?)

Do they use any Federal Systems?

Some governments use websites like sam.gov to handle registrations and record management of individual vendors. Or they use them in addition to their own internal systems.

What kind of political attention has been paid to IT?

Do you have a mayor,governor, member of city council or state rep, who was recently an "internet candidate?" Are they interested in fixing the way government buys tech?


These are some of the questions you can start asking to get to know procurement in the systems that affect you and your life, and start identifying some of the levers to pull on to create change. The best place to start asking these questions? Google for " procurement".

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

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