What open and fair public procurement could achieve


New York City’s PASSPort procurement portal aims to streamline access to virtually all of the city’s contract information in one, freely accessible location.

COVID-19 has put cities and states to the test, and many have struggled. We have seen government agencies at all levels compete for life-saving emergency supplies. In most cases, public procurement processes were not put in place to meet the needs of those they were meant to serve: residents.

Local and state contracts in the United States run into the billions of dollars each year. But there isn’t much we can build, much less better or faster, on the obsolete foundation of slow, bureaucratic, compliance-driven procurement and contracting systems that fail to include citizens, businesses and governments. community members in planning and monitoring how public money is spent. According to an analysis by Citymart, only 0.5% of municipal procurement transactions in the United States could be classified as innovative and open to new ideas or different ways of doing things. We need to make public spending more transparent, efficient and equitable to help create sustainable and equitable societies.

Through our work around the world and in the United States, we know that better sourcing works better. Here are four of our strategies:


• Make purchasing a strategic function of city and state governments by giving it a bold vision, a large budget and an intelligent and diverse team. The city of Des Moines, Iowa, a member of our organization Lift Impact Accelerator Program, rethink how procurement can help achieve one of its key objectives for the city – to be more sustainable – by changing policies and processes; the city has also expanded its procurement team. El Paso, TX, which is also involved with Lift, has established memoranda of understanding with six community partners to help with local business engagement and technical assistance.

• Set social value goals for public procurement and report on your progress towards achieving those goals. The ways in which governments purchase goods and services have enormous power to shape markets and include traditionally underserved communities, especially at the local level. Although some governments aim to use procurement for social results, such as improving gender and race equity or strengthening sustainability, they often lack clear and measurable goals.

In Philadelphia, on the other hand, the city and the Center for Food Vouchers set goals around better buying local foods. The city of Austin, Texas, estimates that by proceeding in a different way, more than 40% of the city’s contractual expenditure could be allocated to historically disadvantaged or excluded companies, compared to less than 10% currently.

• Improve e-procurement systems so that they are supplier-friendly and run on machine-readable open data. Companies often complain about barriers to entry to work with government, including the lack of easy access to systems. In Riverside County, California, for example, it takes 10 clicks on three websites to access an auction opportunity. In some localities, you not only have to pay to access tenders, but you also have to go through a tedious registration and certification process first. New York City presented its PASSPort supply portal as a means of rationalizing access to almost all of its contractual information in one freely accessible place.

Relying on open contract data and open source technology can help develop cutting-edge business intelligence tools and alert monitoring systems, including those developed for our Open contract data standard. Civic tech companies can step in to develop tools, opening up space for innovation and reducing vendor lock-in.

If tackling a data project seems too difficult with too few staff, start small and build towards a more complete data set; any information helps. Some starting points post upcoming market opportunities on your website or social media, as well as forecast information provided by El Paso and New York City Where The Boston buying plan, or simply list the end of the terms of the current contract. The El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the city’s official partner, also offers creative events for local businesses to learn about contracting opportunities, such as its weekly sip and search.

• Establish clear oversight and monitoring of procurement and expenditure systems to make open competition the norm and ensure enforcement of regulations. These mandates should be designed with and by key stakeholders, including buyers, oversight agencies, community organizations and small businesses. Boston City Council, for example, continues to push for change after a report published in February showed how few municipal contracts are awarded to women and people of color.

Procurement can be more than just an administrative or compliance-oriented function; it can be a creative – and exciting – tool for problem solving. When we allow ourselves to re-imagine public procurement as a mission-driven public service, we create the potential for a powerful outcome: more equitable, sustainable, resilient and democratic societies.

Kathrin Frauscher is Deputy Director and one of the founders of the Open Contracting Partnership, which advocates more open, fair and efficient public procurement.


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