Data-Smart City Pod

Making a Socially Just Social Service System through the Lever of Procurement

Episode Summary

Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Kailey Burger of Harvard's Government Performance Lab on how her team helps cities improve equity and delivery by innovating and improving procurement processes.

Episode Notes

March is National Procurement Month, and in this episode  Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Kailey Burger, the Managing Director of the Procurement and Economic Mobility Practice at the Harvard Kennedy School Government Performance Lab. Burger discusses her experience seeing service delivery on the ground working in Bronx Family Court,  the two prongs of equity and economic mobility, and how the pandemic radically changes government procurement.

Music credit: Summer-Man by Ketsa

About Data-Smart City Solutions

Data-Smart City Solutions, housed at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University, is working to catalyze the adoption of data projects on the local government level by serving as a central resource for cities interested in this emerging field. We highlight best practices, top innovators, and promising case studies while also connecting leading industry, academic, and government officials. Our research focus is the intersection of government and data, ranging from open data and predictive analytics to civic engagement technology. We seek to promote the combination of integrated, cross-agency data with community data to better discover and preemptively address civic problems. To learn more visit us online and follow us on Twitter

Episode Transcription

Steve Goldsmith:

Hello, this is Steve Goldsmith, professor of Urban Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy school. And you're listening to Data-Smart City Pod, where we bring on top innovators and experts to discuss the future of cities and how to become data smart. 

Thanks for being with us today for another podcast on government. And today we're fortunate to have Kailey Berger, who's the managing director of the Procurement and Economic Mobility Practice at Harvard's Government Performance Lab. That took about half of our time, Kailey, just to get that out, but welcome. Let's just start with a friendly question, I know you were an assistant commissioner for community-based strategies at New York city, in one of the country’s leading agencies, in fact, in the services for those who need them, but could you just explain this title that goes on for two or three sentences? How does economic mobility and procurement get in the same sentence? Let's just start with who you are and then we'll go to what you're doing.

Kailey Burger:

I think that's great. I think describing who I am helps describe why my title has so many fun government terms in it. So it's great to be here, thanks so much for having me. I started my career primarily in government, working in New York city government. Actually, my first job was in Bronx Family Court, which I think is the very best place to learn about how systems work and how folks access services. And then I was recruited to work at the Administration for Children's Services, as you noted, ultimately ending up overseeing strategy and planning for the child abuse prevention continuum in New York. That continuum tries to address all the upstream drivers of folks' involvement with the child welfare system. So things from mental health to substance use, early attachment, trauma, all the kinds of challenges we know people face. Particularly low income communities and communities of color, who are disproportionately impacted by so many different things in community.

What I learned in that role was that how we buy services and how we manage those services as government has a huge impact on people's daily lives, and the dignity they feel, and the outcomes that they're able to achieve, and the access that they have, and the way they experience both government and community, and how they trust their government and trust their neighbors and so on. And so I became really passionate about this idea of making sure that the way government spends its resources is really thoughtful about the people that ultimately those resources are supposed to benefit. And that they really do benefit those folks. Often we don't go ask those folks, are you feeling like these resources are working for you? Is this being delivered in a way that feels comfortable and safe? Are these resources meeting your needs?

And so, thinking about structuring procurements differently, adding in questions and goals, requiring providers to at regular intervals, engage with those end users and understand their perspective became a really, really powerful tool in my toolkit in New York city, to think about how to make, what I like to call a socially just social service system. After several years of doing that work, I decided that I was interested in a more national perspective on how other governments approach these questions. And the GPL has been a phenomenal place to get that vantage point. So here at GPL, I get our portfolio nationally of work with cities, counties and states across the country, doing procurement reform on all kinds of things. It's not just social services that are how people experience their government, it's putting your kid on the school bus, it's driving on the road, whether there are potholes, it's whether your sidewalks have been repaved or you walk outside and feel like nobody's thinking about the fact that you have to walk six blocks to the bus to get to work.

And so we work on projects all around the country with governments in order to orient procurement dollars spent and the contracts that we're all investing our taxes in toward better results for their residents.

Steve Goldsmith:

Oh, great. That's an interesting convergence of two important issues. So I have a question, but it gives me an excuse for, I've been in local government for 30 years, have a lot of stories. So a couple centuries ago, when I was mayor of Indianapolis, we went to outsource the wastewater treatment plants to the larger ones of the country in fact, and we asked the winning vendors in the competition to explain how they were going to increase the diversity, not only of the workforce, but of the suppliers to the wastewater treatment plant. And the winning bidder eventually tripled our MWBE participation through procurement goals, and then tutored the winning company, an MBE, on large scale vendor supply management and the MBE became a national player himself as well.

So, I like your title because most people, I don't think really concentrate on the linkages between procurement and opportunity. So talk to me a little bit about how you're thinking about that, how you're working in that and how you're helping cities achieve those sorts of goals. If your title and what you explained are the same as what I did several centuries ago, which it sounds like they are.

Kailey Burger:

It sounds like you might have been our first pilot of what is a great strategy for increasing diversity in vendor participation, because we're basically replicating your model I think in a lot of places across the country. So I think of procurement and equity and economic mobility as having two prongs. The first is just what you said, increasing diversity amongst the vendors that government contracts with. There's a lot of government dollars out there and that's a great way to immediately get money into the hands of small business owners, particularly small business owners of color. And then the second prong is what I alluded to a little bit earlier, is increasing the quality and outcomes of contracted services and reducing the disparities in those outcomes between different populations. And so I think over this last year, particularly following the racial reckoning in 2020, that was long overdue, lots of, lots of local governments have become more interested and more focused on increasing diversity and contracting as a lever for economic mobility.

So we've done a number of projects around the country focused on that. I recently read your wonderful write up of our work on Long Beach and they're a real leader in this space and they've invested having a full time staff person doing a lot of that vendor outreach in order to make sure businesses are aware of the opportunities. And then our team has worked really hard to streamline all the processes that are required to get in the door with procurement. And so making sure we clean up our house first as government and make it easy for people to get in the door, and then also extending that invitation. We want to be hospitable to the vendors and reach out and bringing them in.

Steve Goldsmith:

Hey, Kailey, on the off chance that somebody's listening, who hasn't read what we write on Data Smart. Tell us a little bit about Long Beach and maybe another example, Portland or wherever that a little more specifically what they're doing.

Kailey Burger:

Yeah, that's great. So we have a wonderful relationship with the team in Long Beach, California, where we are implementing a project and a model we call an Extreme Procurement Makeover. Which means we send them a dedicated team of folks and they work directly with their procurement staff day in and day out, to execute a number of reforms across our procurement excellence framework. Now, Long Beach is already a leader in city government, and they have a phenomenal team there who's really focused on centering data. So they've made it easy for us to come in and partner with them to move work forward. One of them major things that they're focused on is increasing diversity in their contracting with different vendors in the Long Beach community, and so we've addressed that in two ways. The first is that we've worked very hard with them to make their whole procurement process more efficient and inviting.

So we created a new RFP template that's much easier to fill out. We've set clear goals across the department to think about how do we use data to track that the process is working and that the right people are getting access to information in order to move procurements forward. And then the second piece that they've invested in is really understanding the needs of their vendor community and resourcing a function that can actually out outreach directly to that vendor community and make sure they're in loop and aware of contracting opportunities. So we've supported that work as well, helping conduct focus groups and surveys, understanding what are the pain points for vendors and then helping to contact them and make sure they know about new opportunities in order to apply. So I think it's those two prongs of making it easier for everyone, but particularly for small and diverse vendors. And then also making sure that they have the information they need to participate in the process.

Steve Goldsmith:

This may be, Kailey, too much of a, I'm from Indiana, too much of a bank shot in basketball terms. Let try to connect three themes here for a second. So there's a demand for technology jobs and coders, for example. I just wrote a book with Kate Markin Coleman on workforce upskilling that deals generally with the workforce and how to help folks pick up the skills. So if you looked at Portland or other places that are procuring technology, how could you think about the procurement of technology in a way that also creates opportunities for diverse employees to develop skills? So there's one set of things to think about contracting in terms of WBE, MBE's as an entity, but let's just concentrate it for a second now on the diversity of the workforce and the leverage of procurement.

Kailey Burger:

I think that's a great question. As I gather my thoughts, I'll share that I'm from Missouri and I did my a first semester of college at Butler University, in Indianapolis. So I've been to the Hinkle Fieldhouse, so your reference are resonating. So I think I'll say this, the thing I'm hesitating about is we have a couple of places that are trying to do some of these things, but there are some legal restrictions around it. So I don't want to pitch this as a super viable solution or something we've proven out. But I'll say this, in addition to contracting directly with government, we've seen many local government partners thinking more about other mechanisms within a contract that could stimulate economic growth or opportunity in communities. Things like thinking through proportion of folks that are required to be hired from a local community or from particularly disadvantaged demographic. Thinking about requiring training upskilling or employment pathways within the context of the contract that they're offering services for.

And also what you spoke about earlier, connecting partnerships between prime contractors and subcontractors, where there is some mentorship and growth available there. So I think in addition to strictly just getting dollars into the hands of existing business owners, thinking about ways to bring more jobs and opportunities to particular communities, increasing the ability of folks to access skills and important training in the context of those roles. And then also seeing opportunities for larger entities to play a coaching mentoring support role to smaller entities or things that a lot of cities are trying to think about as creative structures they could implement in their contracts.

Steve Goldsmith:

So what I'm trying to do is one equity goal for every 180 seconds of this conversation. So, let me get to one more. So we talked about companies and we've talked about employees as relates to procurement, how about other equity goals was in procurement? We wrote an article about San Jose and 5G, for example. So what are some other areas that you think about in terms of achieving equity through procurement?

Kailey Burger:

Yeah, we did a phenomenal project in Boulder, Colorado that hits on about that rate of equity goals per sentence of the RFP, I'd say. So the big picture goal in Boulder was to decrease the digital divide. So increase access to high speed broadband internet in communities that typically have not had as high quality access. And those, again, tend to be low income communities of color. So we were working with them on writing an RFP to find a vendor to lay that broadband pipeline, that infrastructure. What we also heard as part of the planning for that process, was that past construction RFPs like this had resulted in certain community being left with a big mess. Contractors leaving trash behind, working at all hours of the night and day, disrupting community life, whereas in other communities totally cleaning up and observing business hours and working appropriately.

So we thought, in addition to solving this big, important problem for these communities, let's also make sure we incorporate some rules for the road and make sure there's equality in how neighborhoods are treated during the construction disruptions. So we integrated some requirements about the high quality of planning and communicating and maintaining the space so that neighborhoods were not disproportionately impacted by the construction. In addition to that, because we wrote such a results oriented RFP, and we enhanced the marketing of that RFP and drew in more bids in competition, they were also able to come in $8 million under budget because they found a new vendor who was willing to do the project for significantly less than they had budgeted. And so I think by taking a proactive approach, being creative and being really solutions oriented in pitching the RFP and also taking into account the end users and their experience, not only of getting access to 5G but also what it would be like for them day to day as that project was unfolding, we were able to achieve a number of those equity goals

Steve Goldsmith:

Who was in, I was deputy mayor of New York, it did seem to me, we looked at construction practices and sanitation practices on the Second Avenue subway and it did seem that as the subway went farther and farther north and the communities became a little more rest economically, that the amount of trash seemed to be inversely correlated with the prosperity of the neighborhood. That's totally unscientific. All right, so in the last five or six minutes, what have we not covered that you're particularly proud of in terms of driving equity through procurement and how would our listeners take advantage of your or knowledge and experience?

Kailey Burger:

The GPL is all about helping governments directly to provide support on implementation of some of their most challenging projects, but we also want to make sure everything that we're learning as we work with individual governments becomes accessible to practitioners across the country. So we're in the process now of developing a whole suite of resources for folks to grab and go and be able to download and implement on their own. And one of those resources that's already out and available is our RFP guidebook. And so that is a modularized tool that governments can download that'll walk them through every step of the process to get to the results driven RFPs we've been talking to, including how to think about equity and incorporate those goals. And so that's available on our website for download, and it's a really easy to use tool that we hope can start to implement on their journey to having a more results driven and equitable procurement system.

I think these last two years have been a moment where people have felt and experienced and recognized their local government more than ever as a resource and procurement staff have really been the backbone of that response. Going from buying road construction and landscaping services to buying ventilators and respirators and vaccines, and really quickly mobilizing to implement relief funds and think of new ways to provide services to communities. When we look around at the response to COVID across the country, it's been a lot of effort by procurement staff. And I think what I found in this job, talking to people every day who are on the front lines of doing this work, is that they have really great ideas about how government can work better.

And they feel really connected to their communities because they look at a school bus or get in mode and know that they were integral in purchasing that service. So I just find, as somebody who loves parks and recreation and who loves civic life and government and being connected, it's a really lovely group of people across this country who are working hard to make sure that we feel supported by our government.

Steve Goldsmith:

That's terrific. Thanks. Your work is quite important in an area where most people tend to overlook its leveraging opportunities because traditionally procurement has been more about conforming with the terms and conditions and it has been buying value. And particularly as the definition of value becomes broader to include equity, it's important grows but also the, I think the confusion for the average procurement officer about what he or she is allowed to do also grows. So I think with the work of GPL is particularly important in your work, especially. So thanks for your insights, we'll direct our listeners to the Harvard Kennedy School and particularly to your work on equity. And we thank you for your time.

Kailey Burger:

Thank you so much. 

Betsy Gardner:

If you liked this podcast, please visit our us at, or follow us @datasmartcities on Twitter. And remember to subscribe at the new Data-Smart City Podcast channel on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. This podcast was produced by me, Betsy Gardner, and hosted by Professor Steve Goldsmith. We're proud to be the central resource for cities interested in the intersection of government, data, and innovation. Thanks for listening.