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Carlsbad rips up the RFP in favour of challenge-based search for transformation partners

Carlsbad wants to be the “best-run government” around and is seeking digital transformation partners to support this.


The City of Carlsbad in California has issued what it says could be the broadest challenge-based city procurement initiative to date.


David Graham, Carlsbad’s Chief Innovation Officer, who is one year into the role and was formerly the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for the City of San Diego, said the challenge-based approach aims to solve some of the issues with requests for information (RFIs) and requests for proposals (RFPs) and avoid the city “getting bogged down in the minutiae of procurement”.


He explained: “Rather than using an RFI, which often doesn’t lead to real procurement, or an RFP, which is often too prescriptive and does not lead to co-creating solutions, the city launched a Request for Innovative Digital Transformation Ideas and Partners.”


Roadmaps, not products


Carlsbad is searching for one or more partners to support its wide-ranging digital transformation goals relating to civic engagement, data-driven decision making, mobility, sustainability and internal systems.


Carlsbad has many legacy systems that need to be upgraded or replaced. The financial system, for instance, has not had a significant upgrade in nearly a decade and is subject to frequent outages and has a clunky user interface, Graham notes.


Carlsbad wants a partner that can understand the art of the possible.


The procurement document states its goal like this: “Simply put, the City of Carlsbad will be the best-run government. Period.”


It is calling for submissions from partners that can prove they can provide a strategic roadmap and implementation.


The document notes: “Successful partners will understand that the city is looking for transformative ideas. Typically, government acquires digital systems that mirror existing processes and provide replacement value. The city is looking to leapfrog that. It wants a partner that can understand the art of the possible, examines its existing processes and systems, and proposes changes as a part of the upgrade and adoption of digital products, all of which culminates in advancing the city beyond its existing conditions.”


Interoperability and a holistic approach are highlighted as crucial to this.


After going through the evaluation process, selected partners may be contracted with directly, subject to city procurement regulations, or through subsequent RFP sprints.


Graham said: “This is pretty ambitious, particularly considering Carlsbad has a population of 115,000.


“I envision the outcome being better-informed city staff, solutions that are more tailored to our needs because the vendors fully understand our challenges, and less frustration in addressing our challenge of city-wide digital transformation.”

The deadline for submissions is December 18.


David Graham, City of Carlsbad
David Graham, City of Carlsbad

Q&A with David Graham


SmartCitiesWorld finds out more about why this new procurement approach is needed.


SCW: How radically does this differ from what you would usually do?


DG: Traditionally, we’ve seen cities use Requests for Information to gather input on what the capabilities of industry are in supporting things like digital transformation or smart cities. However, several of those large efforts have not led to actual procurement so there is a reticence developing in industry to spend the time, effort and money in pursuing those.


On the other end of the spectrum are Requests for Proposals that usually outline requirements and budget. When solving complicated problems, cities may not always know the universe of solutions or know all of the requirements and flexibility they should include in an RFP. You end up acquiring a product or service that is supposed to be a solution, but there is no co-creation or problem-solving.


Our Request for Innovative Digital Transformation Ideas and Partners differs from both because we are indicating that there will be procurement, but we are tapping into the knowledge of industry by having them submit a roadmap and their qualifications and then engaging in an evaluation process that allows them to learn more about our challenges and allows us to better understand their capabilities.


All of this will lead to us qualifying one or more Digital Transformation Partners that we will either directly contract with or who will be able to compete in RFP sprints that are better informed from the evaluation process and require shorter procurement time because we have already evaluated the capability and credibility of our qualified partners.


We are taking a challenge-based approach that differs from the traditional methods but will lead to problem-solving rather than just procuring a product or service.


SCW: How different do you expect submissions to be compared to what you would receive for an RFI/RFP?


DG: I expect that given the broad nature of this procurement vehicle we will have proposals that are across the spectrum and some that have very little connection with what we’re trying to accomplish.


"We are challenging ourselves to be innovative and consider things we may not have considered before."


That’s OK because we are challenging ourselves to be innovative and consider things we may not have considered before. The education process for the city is just as valuable as the ultimate conclusion.


SCW: You say you are looking for “one or more partners”. How likely is it one partner could fulfil all the requirements?


DG: It remains to be seen whether one partner will be able to fulfil everything we want to accomplish in digital transformation, but it is possible. Just like eating out, your favourite Italian restaurant may have a classic American hamburger on the menu but wouldn’t it just be a better idea to hit up your favourite burger joint if that’s what you want?


There are some in industry that purport to be the platform to solve everything in a city but in my experience, it’s better to get a round peg for a round hole rather than trying to whittle down a rectangle and shove it in there.


SCW: Why is the time right now in Carlsbad for this type of approach?


DG: Carlsbad is staring down the barrel of legacy systems ageing out of existence, demands for convenience from our residents and a future that will be more connected than ever.


"We could procure products and services one by one and hope that they will all integrate and work in harmony."


We could procure products and services one by one and hope that they will all integrate and work in harmony. That’s a recipe for disaster. Instead, we worked across the entire city to understand our digital transformation challenges, we’re boldly putting that out to industry and we will engage in a process that I believe will result in better integration, reduced procurement time and more innovative solutions that will benefit our residents and employees.


SCW: Was it hard to convince everyone within the city that this was the right approach?


DG: Every city I have worked in or with grumbles about traditional procurement. Offering a different method that is aimed at solving problems rather than just acquiring products and services was attractive. The challenge came in defining the approach for people and making them comfortable with doing it for such a massive undertaking.


SCW: What are the risks of this approach?


DG: We’ve worked hard to reduce the risk of this approach by involving many people at the city, working through various scenarios and even doing a pre-mortem that works back from where we think we’ll be in five years and considers everything that could have gone right or wrong.

Ultimately, we’ve reduced the risk by recognising that the alternative is going to an RFP and if this doesn’t achieve our goals, at a minimum we will have a better-informed city team because we engaged in this effort.


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