Ignoring technology is the road to procurement reform, panel agrees

Focusing on outcomes, rather than specific technologies, will allow cities to build procurement systems that work better, a panel of city and state experts said.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The key to better public-sector procurement could be an emphasis on outcomes, and not worrying about specific technologies, a panel of experts said last week.

Speaking at the Smart Cities Week event last week, Washington, D.C.’s Chief Technology Officer Archana Vemulapalli emphasized that especially as city government needs change when it comes to technology, so does the way they procure the technology.

“I think we all have to acknowledge it’s just a tough space,” Vemulapalli said. “I feel bad for procurement teams. Everyone beats up on them. Their challenge, I think, is that they don’t have the staff or skill they need.”

David Graham, the deputy chief operations officer for San Diego, said that while today’s procurement environment can be laborious, the system exists for a reason — fairness.


“Why is the procurement process the way it is? Fair playing field, no inside trading, make sure citizens are getting the best service, et cetera,” Graham explained.

But to improve procurement, Graham said, cities should analyze the fundamentals of the process, ask themselves what makes procurement mechanisms important, and then go from there.

“I think we have to blow it up and do something totally new and different,” Graham said. “Start with [making sure citizens are getting the best service] and build the goals around that for buying technology.”

Illinois CIO Hardik Bhatt said his state was trying to learn from newer federal agencies, like 18F, who are trying to fix procurement. Bhatt’s department will meet with the federal IT consultancy later this year to workshop a “modular procurement” approach, which involves purchasing parts of technology at lower costs rather than big, sweeping buys.

“We are really hopeful for that with 18F,” Bhatt said. “GSA will be able to start looking at how we modularize our procurement. We’ll figure it out. I think we don’t have a choice but to figure it out.”


For Michael Mattmiller, Seattle’s CTO, it was more about building new models for technology procurement than it was modifying old ones. The city worked with its council to create new technology systems, Mattmiller explained, since their old ones did not work within the traditional structure of how the city procured goods and services.

It’s important, Mattmiller added, for cities to think long-term when reforming procurement processes, and to include plans that help startups and small companies, while also keeping an eye on smart cities and Internet of Things technologies.

“We don’t have a mechanism for anything other than procuring leases, commodity goods and professional services,” Mattmiller said. “We have some legislative work to do. For folks who want to do business with cities, there’s some level of reform to reflect modern tech. How do we approach smart cities projects and also advance smaller partners?”

Jake Williams

Written by Jake Williams

Jake Williams is a Staff Reporter for FedScoop and StateScoop. At StateScoop, he covers the information technology issues and events at state and local governments across the nation. In the past, he has covered the United States Postal Service, the White House, Congress, cabinet-level departments and emerging technologies in the unmanned aircraft systems field for FedScoop. Before FedScoop, Jake was a contributing writer for Campaigns & Elections magazine. He has had work published in the Huffington Post and several regional newspapers and websites in Pennsylvania. A northeastern Pennsylvania native, Jake graduated magna cum laude from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, or IUP, in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in political science. At IUP, Jake was the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, The Penn, and the president of the university chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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