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Posted by on Jun 16, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

You Get How you Pay for: How Procurement Drives Urban Design

I know: yawn. But if you care about great cities, wake up.

Procurement at local level can be just as big a barrier as the entrenched engineering and zoning standards getting all the attention. What if your city’s ossified procurement manual won’t let you hire the best firm to write your form based code or purchase the urban-friendly response vehicle?

In this two part series, let’s take a hard look at an overlooked aspect of making great places: actually hiring great consultants and purchasing good stuff.

This all started with IT (Information technology).  Decades-old procurement manuals, stuffed full of specifications for typewriters and dump trucks, couldn’t handle the evolution of hardware and software beginning in the 1990’s.  To make matters worse, procurement documents and processes can become a big pile of red tape and, in the worst case scenario, a target for corruption and patronage.

Let’s look at the solicitation process and common elements within supporting documents that can affect planning and city design. It helps to know a bit about how your city buys things.

  • Staff research and prepare a Request for Proposals or RfP, which contains a situation analysis and a specification of the work sought.
  • Above a certain $ threshold, your city sends out work for a competitive bid
  • The RfP contains parameters for who can bid and what the local rules are.
  • With urban planning, a city might first issue a Request for Qualifications to target and narrow the pool of bidders.

Sounds legit – right? Over time, though, the procurement process has morphed into a monster for both staff and vendors. Here is a small snapshot of what can happen:

  • Fact Finding – For the statement of work, professional staff make an initial wish list and then investigate what is available in the marketplace.  Thus, the innovative nature of local purchases depends on the savvy of professional staff & pool of qualified vendors.
  • Sole Source: Cities and counties will allow a simpler process if there is only one firm that can do the work. This can actually help as planners seek out the latest, most innovative techniques & practitioners. But, planners may also have to write descriptions for sole source work that don’t match what they need to simply get something out the door fast.
  • Dollar Thresholds – Cities set thresholds (from a couple of thousand dollars to six figures) to determine what can be a simple acquisition versus what needs a more complex process. Likewise this can be both good and bad for planning. Planners can chop up a project in phases, but risk lack of funding beyond Phase 1. On the plus side, a new generation of “tactical” problem solvers (think Project for Public Spaces “lighter, cheaper, faster” model & tactical urbanism) work well with these smaller bids.
  • Local Preference – “Buy local” is awesome – right?  Not always in planning. In small towns, family-owned engineering firms might be doing things the same way they did when established in 1979. Giant multi-national firms get around local preference by setting up satellite shopfronts in anticipation of a big job. In response, cities install a bevy of requirements on how long you have to be local, hiring, etc.  And hence the manual gets even bigger.
  • Investment Needed Just to Apply – A growing number of requirements intended to protect taxpayers (or in quick response to a scandal) can keep small bidders out.  Large insurance policies, extended documentation and the requirement that bidders have previous experience with the agency soliciting work all favor larger firms.
  • The Statement of Work and the Tyranny of Specifications – This is the worst.  Within a RfP, planners must construct a situation analysis (what’s wrong) and specifications of what is needed (the answer). See the problem? Planners are in charge of stating the problem and the solution at the same time. This is crazy – the whole raison d’etre of a solicitation is to get expertise not available within the Department. This drives professionals crazy as Legal Departments push for as much detail to “protect” taxpayers. So we write in bullshit to get the RfP out the door and then work with the winning bidder to rewrite the statement of work. This is unfair to bidders who could have submitted brilliant alternatives unhinged from predetermined parameters.

Several organizations, including the Sunlight Foundation and Urban.us are tackling local procurement.  This article points to problems with procurement; the next blog will showcase innovation.  Stay tuned and please provide your experience in comments or via email – ideas@greaterplaces.com (we’ll compile a list of the best without attribution).

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