Procurement: Boston Story

Laura Melle, on the City of Boston Office of Technology team, was assigned to support the evolving departmental procurement process, provided the background information for this story.  The Office of Technology “inbeds” data oriented staff in key line departments to build support for and overcome the challenges to bringing these departments into “smart cities” status. Her information was valuable in the preparation of this story.

While surrounded by some of the top universities in the world, for generations the culture of Boston city government has been dominated by retail politicians active in Boston’s neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves.  In the early 1970’s doing business with the city required approval from the city’s patronage office.  For many years the engine of change in the city has been the urban renewal department, the Boston Redevelopment Authority.  Most change was dependent upon whether or not the city was passing through a robust construction cycle.

Thomas Menino was the city’s longest serving mayor, from 1993 to 2014.  He famously focused on the nuts and bolts of city operations and was dubbed the “urban mechanic”.  Near the end of his tenure he codified this term creating a cabinet level group of smart, well-educated managers-without-portfolio called the “New Urban Mechanics”.  This group continues and has worked effectively with the new (2014) Mayor Marty Walsh to make ICT, citizen engagement, transparency and “smart” infrastructure top priorities.  Early in Walsh’s new tenure he learned about the NYC “dashboard” used by Bloomberg and charged his staff with the task of making such a data dashboard operable in the City of Boston’s mayoral office.

Building Support for Data to Measure Services- Build Citizen Demand

The city has had an Office of Technology and Walsh recruited a new director who had helped run the social media machine that elected Obama in 2008 and again in 2012.  Walsh’s charge to Jascha Franklin-Hodge in June, 2014:  enhance online service delivery, empower City employees with effective digital tools, and improve access to technology and the Internet for all Boston neighborhoods.  Boston launched a 311 program with the intention, under Walsh, of strengthening that program and making the pattern of responses to calls more transparent.  Code for America fellows helped initiate a number of citizen facing apps , addressing school bus schedules, mapping, pothole repair, online payments, etc.  Then in 2015 the city was hit with the worst snow fall season in 500 years, sorely testing the 311 reporting, transparency and response capabilities of the system.

Beacon Hill Neighborhood, Boston

By spring, hiring to staff new initiatives had begun.  A controversial death of a college student in an “under inspected” apartment led to a new Inspectional Services commissioner and the need for better operations and reporting in that department.  Fire and other departments had similar needs.  With the support of the Mayor and New Urban Mechanics key staff like Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob, the city’s office of technology began placing public administration trained staff with a mandate to make departments smarter into these key departments to work directly as consultants to the department heads.  Much of this kind of work requires the sensitivity to and patience for cultural change.  As the special projects proceeded, the Office of technology expanded and reorganized.  Laura Melle is one of the new hires, titled Senior Procurement Lead for the Department of Innovation and Technology, her job is to build the pool of private sector “smart” problem solvers and modify the barriers to their ability to work effectively with the city.  She has a counterpart in the department’s new organizational structure who is focused on acquiring “people assets”, not goods and services.

Build Enthusiasm and Capabilities within Departments

Boston has about 40 city departments.  The IT department has about 150 people. Citizen approval of city services is a high priority for IT as the department sets a course for the future.  Branding city customers’ experience with the city is important.  IT sees the effort as creating a cultural change throughout the city, among city employees in each department.  One of the first steps in this culture change was to develop transparency tools enabling the citizens to watch the city’s progress.  Spending and procurement procedures are highlighted in this July 2014 press release   from Mayor Walsh. The language of the press release also underlines the city’s concern with transparency and citizen engagement.

Building digital capacity within departments is also a critical factor in the intended culture change.  IT assigns internal business consultants from IT to work with individual departments on moving from paper to digital processing, setting measurable goals that are tracked on the Mayor’s dashboard and developing the ability to be responsive and eventually anticipate 311 concerns.  The city is building toward “smartness” with transparency, internal cultural change and capacity building.  The city also has a tremendous amount of raw data to work with.  In addition to the data departments generate (but don’t now have effective access to) the city just signed an agreement with WAZE, the driving app owned by Google, to get the WAZE traffic data.  All of these initiatives build toward a foundation for expanding ICT and “Internet of Things” approaches to managing the city.

Eventually every department will have “smart city” champions who can pull data out of the new tools, use the dashboard, feel empowered and convert others.  Internal consultants, sent by IT, will be on hand to support the migration of paper forms to a reexamination of workflow processes to development of new tools and ultimately a new culture and a higher quality of useful information for effective, proactive management. This is the “holy grail” of “smart cities” for city government managers.  Can these new digital technology strategies yield the kinds of data that will enable government to turn the corner from reacting to city problems as they occur to proactively reducing the potential for problems to occur?  It is hard to put a “return on investment” value on improved effectiveness but that is the goal.

Two key line departments in Boston are touted for their success  in using this data centric “smart city” approach:  the Fire Department and the Inspectional Services Department  (ISD).

The project manager role now emerging through the IT department can go in two directions.  First, and current, it is a permanent position in the city, through the IT department and assigned to an operations department or departments.  Second, the project manager can be a sub-contractor to the city’s IT department assigned to help the department with the internal cultural change functions, bringing a boost in digital literacy.   The sub-contractor role can also help the department develop specifications, recruit an expanded pool of digitally skilled bidders, help shape the RFP and, post contract award, with the implementation process.

State Owner Project Manager Role Changes the Game

This second iteration of the project manager role sounds very similar to another function outsourced by cities, that of the Owner Project Manager (OPM).  This role evolved in Massachusetts in the early 2000’s after huge cost overruns and major design, suggestions of corruption, and construction problems were experienced by cities statewide in the construction of public buildings such as schools, fire stations, low income housing, etc.   In 2004 the state enshrined the OPM role in state law.

This law, in effect, amends the state’s procurement process for public construction.  Since 2004 a number of highly qualified and successful professional services companies have opened, combining building architecture and project management skills.  They are hired by municipalities at the onset of a new construction project.  Municipalities have found them to be hugely effective in saving money on cost overruns, avoiding design errors and getting the project bid and built successfully in accordance with the city’s original intent.

If used in the context of acquiring ICT and other digitally enhanced infrastructure, a new kind of professional services company with professionals skilled in digital technology, agile development methodology, etc. might bring similar efficiencies to the process of technology procurement in the city.  Under the cover of this MA law, the city might move toward a more “agile” development process for contracting, i.e.  the OPM is the “project owner” or “scrum master” in agile language, which allows you to change the current tech approach – fully specified final contracts for one of a kind projects with no room to break the project into smaller pieces for user testing unless through a work order change/ contract amendment.

Need to Recruit New Vendors

Boston officials believe changes in the legal framework of procurement at the state level will need to be undertaken, in addition to the cultural changes among staff in city departments that the introduction of 21st century “smart city” management requires.   Legal changes include issues like creating a pool of qualified vendors, establishing dollar thresholds for triggering bidding rules, amending bidding rules to expand the pool of vendors, amending contracting to build in criteria like “open standards”, “open APIs” and “interoperability”, joint procurements and breaking large projects down into smaller chunks, more amenable to exploratory design with users. City officials believe more can be gained with an opportunity to procure a “minimum viable product”, something that can be built small until they get it right and then expanded.

The city is exploring new techniques like the use of “Request for Information” instead of the traditional “Request for Proposals”.  They are trying to expand the pool of potential vendors.  With no available library of software tagged by function, department, size, cost, etc., they troll their contacts at GSA, the Austin Texas area tech community and Onvia .  “It’s really all about outreach.  We need a YELP for vendors”, said Melle.

The city’s new Climate Action Plan is a major initiative, or was in 2014 when it was introduced.  .  It may serve as a good case study for how Boston evolves its procurement policies for ICT and digitally enhanced infrastructure. The overall plan relies on the belief that it will engage citizens to invigorate and enforce the process, citizen engagement.  The “Green Buildings” pilot project, part of the “Greenovate” policy, uses more open ended specifications and has announced requirements for procurement according to Melle.  In 2007, under Mayor Menino, the City added Article 37 to its statutes  setting forth requirements for procuring goods and services pertaining to the construction or rehabilitation of city sponsored buildings, including housing.  In keeping with the policy value of transparency, the city announced in Oct. 2015,   the first year of energy metrics for large buildings – including an interactive map for Boston residents to see their building energy and water usage – as part of its energy reporting and disclosure program. The metrics and findings from that data are available on a new website created by the City and can be accessed here:

State Pool of Certified Vendors

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts provides a common pool of certified vendors but the certification is designed for recurring hardware not new, innovative software.  The state is pursuing its own approach to improving the procurement process for, perhaps, somewhat different reasons.   State legislators have been surprised by the growth of tech services like Uber and apps like the one designed to sell open parking spaces.  In reaction, they have pushed for new policies under the umbrella of Innovative Communities.  The Innovative Communities program  initially was to “serve as a common place of access, education, and a central point of connection and facilitation for startups and municipalities seeking innovative technology solutions.  The focus is on early stage technology companies seeking to pilot their products and services with participating Massachusetts municipalities.”

When Bill H.2737 was filed……. The mission, under the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, had become:  “The innovative communities program shall support the introduction of cutting-edge technologies into the marketplace and offer incentives for the adoption of such technologies by municipalities. The secretary shall ensure that participants in the program represent innovative technology companies, including but not limited to those that are seeking a first or early-customer to validate the commercial readiness of their technologies by deployment of said technology within a participating innovative community.”

By the time it was finally passed as Bill S.1982, the Innovative Communities program had moved to the Executive Office of Housing and Community Development and the newly revised mission:  “to implement the innovative communities program, the executive director shall enter into interagency service agreements or other contracts with state agencies, state authorities, business associations and other entities including, but not limited to: the Massachusetts office of information technology; the operational services division; the Massachusetts clean energy technology center; the office of inspector general; and regional planning organizations. The interagency service agreements and contracts shall be designed to support municipalities seeking to utilize innovative technology and startups.”  It appears to have become another new state agency with a staff and a purported interest in helping municipalities.  But new tools for the use of municipal procurement are not yet evident.

In addition, on the executive side of state government, the new governor, Charlie Baker, recently announced the “Community Compact” with a mission to “champion municipal interests across all executive secretariats and agencies, and develop, in consultation with cities and towns, mutual standards and best practices for both the state and municipalities.”  From the city perspective, the most significant piece of this community compact is the installation of a new high level official in the state to listen to and represent the needs of city officials.

Other references to Massachusetts procurement:

City Website:
Population:  645,966  (2013)
Form of Government:  Mayor

Written by Barbara Thornton on behalf of the Smart Cities Council in November, 2015

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