In addition to interviewing people about the Philadelphia procurement process, we’re doing a deep dive into understanding what’s available–and what’s not–on the city’s procurement sites. Turns out, things are much more intricate and complex than we expected, and that the information that is NOT available might be more interesting to our project than what is. What do I mean by that?
First things first: there are two ways in which vendors can enter into contracts with the city.
Procurement refers to a process where a contract is bid on and awarded to the lowest responsible bidder. These bids include concessions, public works projects, supplies, and services. Here’s an example: an open bid for a vendor to supply sandwiches to prisoners. The city is specific about everything from quantities to ingredients to the nutritional value of the ingredients.
This bid will go to the lowest bidder who meets the criteria outlined in the bid (which are mostly related to safety, working conditions, etc).
These contracts are executed for one-year terms with 3-year renewals. Currently, vendors can access them on two different sites, here (for Services, Supplies and Equipment, aka SS&E) and here (for Public Works).
Second, there are RFPs (Request for Proposals), aka “Professional Services.” These include everything from social services to architecture services, housing, and even ticket vendors:
RFPs are overseen and issued by Finance, and are awarded to the best proposal. Vendors find these contracts here (on e-Contract Philly) and here (another city website; it’s unclear as to why it’s separate from e-Contract).
Then there are smaller and more experimental RFPs that are available through a site called BigIdeasPHL. This is where Philly government is experimenting with asking local firms (tech and creative) to come up interesting solutions to more open-ended challenges, with a maximum budget of $32K per project. Check out this one on traffic knowledge and behavior.
That’s five sites through which vendors can access information on government contracts!
Digging into each site in detail revealed limitations. First of all, current available data on the site for winning proposals is spotty and only goes back a couple of years, maximum. Thankfully, the city’s Open Data portal provides a detailed overview of the city’s procurement and professional services expenditures, as well as a couple of nice pie charts to visualize spending. It also provides links to the CSV files of available information. That’s a great starting place for us.
However, in addition to the inherent clunkiness of the user experience, we were curious as to how many vendors applied for any given contract, what the proposals were, and why they won, especially for professional services (RFPs). While we were able to see who the competing vendors were for the RFPs, none of their proposals, or the winning proposal, are accessible online. Since RFPs tend to be for things like social services and housing, and go to the best proposal, rather than the lowest bidder, it seems to us that that information should be publicly available. It’s a puzzle: RFPs tend to be where the most interesting and potentially innovative public-private partnerships are, and also where there is the least amount of transparency.
We started to wonder: Why are RFP processes closed to the general public? When does having a closed process help? When does it cause problems? Why can’t the public readily access applicant data? What would it show us to see it? Are RFPs open in other cities? How do RFPs fit into larger picture of contract spending?
We’ll be exploring all these questions and more as we continue to interview people from government, media, and vendors themselves.