November 16, 2020
Civic innovators need no other argument.
Testing new ideas and innovative solutions before deploying them at full scale is paramount.
At UrbanLeap we built a platform for this very purpose - helping local agencies discover new technologies, test them at small scale and collect the data they need to measure their impact.
Well, it all sounds great on paper, but my customers often ask - how do you make sure you are not violating purchasing rules by testing solutions before procurement? How do you mitigate the risk of disqualifying vendors?
These are very valid concerns. I will try to address them in this article.
#1 Create a framework for innovation
The key to avoiding this scenario is to define solid policies and processes around the experimentation of new solutions and the selection of pilot partners. This is the objective we had in mind when we built the UrbanLeap platform.
Let’s first make sure we are all aligned on why public agencies should run experiments before implementing full scale projects.
Experiments are critical to assess the potential value (or the lack thereof) of innovative solutions, as well as to identify the risks usually associated with their implementation. Pilots are essential to define the specification of future RFPs, especially when it comes to the procurement of new solutions that were never implemented before. They can also help identify the appropriate business model before the adoption of a new solution. I wrote an article on that topic here.
#2 Incorporate PoC's into your procurement process
Pilots should be conducted with one objective in mind: gathering data and hard-facts to inform the decision of deploying (or not!) innovative solutions at full scale. As such, the process of experimenting solutions should be viewed as being an integral part of the procurement process. It is the first stage of the procurement of innovative solutions. This is the sense of California Request for Innovative Ideas (aka RFI2) process (see here Governor Newsom of California’s Executive Order).
In terms of workflows, the process of submitting proposals to a public agency must be a competitive one, and should be open to everyone. Defining clear rules or a policy to guarantee a transparent and objective vetting process --through scoring for instance-- is essential to comply with purchasing rules down the road.
The functionality we've designed at UrbanLeap around the intake process and the scoring of proposals guarantees a fair and equal treatment of all the proposals.
The very idea of digitizing the vetting process is to make it transparent and accessible to everyone. The information is logged into the system and can be used for future references, in case of a claim.
#3 Assemble a committee of experts
In terms of best practices, assembling a committee of subject-matter experts, or department heads, to review and assess ideas and proposals should also help remove the subjective factor usually associated with the selection of pilot partners.
In addition, signing an agreement with your pilot partners recalling that your agency is NOT committed in any way to purchasing their services should protect you from the risk of violating procurement rules. While pilot partners have a slight advantage over other bidders (their pilots may have contributed to define specifications), there is no guarantee at all that the contract should be attributed to them, as long as the other applicants meet RFP requirements.
#4 Build a roadmap for innovation
The process of piloting new solutions before moving to full scale is just one piece in the grand scheme of innovation. Your “civic innovation journey” should include a roadmap that lays out your agency’s strategic objectives, metrics for success, sources of funding, as well as rules and policies for selecting pilot partners and managing experiments. All this will help you make sure that you comply with your agency’s procurement rules. It should also contribute to get your agency’s leadership buy-in on your civic innovations strategy!
I’m attaching some policies and innovation roadmaps for references: