Philadelphia taps Big Ideas for small IT contracting

Philly taps Big Ideas for small IT contracting

When officials in Philadelphia noticed the city’s sizable technology community wasn’t bidding on the city’s requests for proposals for IT projects, they knew they needed a new approach to match agencies with the right suppliers.

They found it in the form of a cloud-based, open source e-commerce portal that has quadrupled the number of bids the city gets from small and startup firms. lets companies subscribe to RSS feeds that alert them to new IT contracting opportunities. Firms can also choose from 12 categories, such as business intelligence and analytics, data management and website design, or they can opt to receive all posted work descriptions.

“The minute we did that, frankly, we started to see nine and sometimes 11 or 12 responses to an RFP,” up from two or three, said Adel Ebeid, chief innovation officer in the city’s Office of IT.

“We also started to see the responses were very different and very creative. Folks were not submitting a 200-page-long narrative that’s full of a lot of fluff. People were actually already thinking about how we would design a database, how we would design a mobile app.”

What’s more, the presentations were fresh, visually logical and helpful for comparing proposals, he added.

Before the release of Big Ideas a little more than a year ago, Ebeid said responses tended to come from the same small firms. Since then, about 200 new businesses have subscribed to the RSS feeds, and the variety of potential contractors has increased, he said.

The system also helped diagnose what had previously stalled the IT request process.

The problem, Ebeid found, was that small firms and startups often aren’t well versed in e-contract language, making the city’s main procurement site, eContractPhilly, in place since 2006, difficult for them to navigate. With the existing site, companies must initiate periodic searches for new postings – very different from Big Ideas’ alerts approach.

“The local tech community does not know how to engage with government because the old portal is complex,” Ebeid said. “Only companies that have a traditional government practice know how to get to or know even how to look for” opportunities on it.

Another problem was that the city wasn’t “engaging [small firms] in the same space where they splash around,” he added. To tap that pool, Big Ideas set up a page on GitHub, a code-sharing network.

It took Ebeid’s team two to three weeks of internal effort to customize a WordPress site and park it on GitHub to stand up the portal. “We didn’t have to build IT to deliver it,” he said. “We just needed to configure things and use the cloud to make that happen.”

Although it’s startup-friendly, the portal is open to companies of any size. Eventually it could scale to RFPs outside the technology arena, but for now Ebeid is keeping it tech-focused.

So far, it’s not tied to the legacy procurement system, but that will likely change.

“The plan is to do that,” Ebeid said. “I think right now we wanted to really perfect this process and make sure that we have it working well, and while this happening, we would work on a much larger procurement reform and legal framework that would simplify the process, streamline the engagement with us and people who are bidding on our opportunities.”

Although Philly kept its effort internal, other cities are turning to Code for America (CfA) – an organization founded in 2009 to narrow the gap between the public and private sectors in the use of technology – for help with revamping procurement processes.

When it comes to procurement, CfA is trying to take advantage of its platform, network and relationship with cities to be a hub and convener of ideas, concepts and people to speed the process of making it easier for new companies to sell to governments, said Lane Becker, CfA’s director of products and startups.

“You have one set of rules that are built for buying the big technology and now you have to just rewrite it for the small technology – not smaller in terms of scale or impact but smaller in terms of what it takes in order to get up and running with it,” Becker said.

One significant way CfA is working toward that goal is through the Open Procurement Standards Project, which Becker said could be released later this year.

“We’re trying to put together a series of examples, RFPs and example contracts, in collaboration with both cities and startups who are going through this process right now,” Becker said.

For example, CfA is working on a software-as-a-service request and a SaaS contract to find ways to create standards so other cities looking to procure SaaS can use the same RFP or contract as a basis for their plans.

“What they need here, very practically speaking, [is] new legal language that’s been vetted by other cities that’s something they can pick up and use the next time they want to buy one of these tools,” he said.

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