Reimagining Procurement as an Essential Tool for Urban Resilience

On the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans became the second city in the 100 Resilient Cities Network to release its Resilience Strategy. The Strategy is as equally dedicated to combating the chronic stresses of poverty and inequality as it is focused on the more visible issues caused by a changing environment. As a step toward creating equal opportunities for all residents, the Resilient NOLA team began investigating ways to lower barriers to workforce participation and by asking the question: How can New Orleans promote digital pathways to economic, social, and cultural opportunity for groups that are underrepresented in technology?

To start, 100RC Platform Partner Citymart helped New Orleans develop and launch a Digital Equity Challenge in early 2017. The competition was structured in the form of a Request for Information (RFI) soliciting creative ideas to address the digital divide. The Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability issued the city’s first-ever RFI jointly with the city’s Office of Information Technology and Innovation, which had already completed research on the technology skills and access gaps. Eight weeks and 25 applications later, the Arts Council of New Orleans was selected as the Challenge winner with an exciting proposal to leverage the power of arts as a high-interest entry point into digital literacy; social, emotional, and professional skill building; and job preparedness for youth.

Central to this story is that the RFI reimagined the procurement process – typically bureaucratic in form – to focus on the deeper problem at hand and desired outcomes. Praised by challenge participants, the RFI’s open and user-friendly process changed perceptions of city opportunities and even brought new, innovative partners to the table. All challenge participants were furthermore asked to complete a Corporate Endeavor Agreement along with their submissions, which meant that non-traditional vendors could more easily be cleared for doing business with the city moving forward. Another important factor to consider was that the city did not have the financial capacity to affix an award to the winning proposal, and instead committed to joint fundraising with the Arts Council of New Orleans; in this way, all actors were able to further refine the winning proposal, ultimately landing on a grant from the city’s Edward Wisner Donation Fund. Finally, in partnering with the Office of Information Technology and Innovation, the Resilient NOLA team was able to foment interdepartmental coordination and add a resilience lens to other city operations.

Testing this new process might have seemed risky for such an important city priority, but the high volume of responses to the RFI demonstrated the value of that risk. Moreover, New Orleans is building off the successful Digital Equity Challenge to integrate Requests for Information as a standard component of the city procurement process. Particularly well-suited for projects coming from or inspired by the city’s Resilience Strategy, the RFI model opens up a whole new world of resilience expertise which can inform future innovation challenges.

Already in motion is an RFI issued by the City of New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to help develop a Comprehensive Recovery Plan. This pre-disaster plan for post-disaster recovery – a principal initiative of the city’s Resilient Strategy, under the vision to Transform City Systems – aims to set forth a sustainable recovery management structure that stabilizes resourcing and ensures resilience-driven decision-making. Unlike the city’s first experience with an RFI, no winner will be selected: responses to this iteration have assessed current and available approaches and methodologies, contributing toward the creation of a citywide plan. Questions posed to would-be vendors sought to uncover what types of professionals are best suited to draft the plan, how the process can best include input from stakeholders, how to align the plan with topical strategies published by city agencies.

Closed in February, the rate of response to the RFI was overwhelming. Subsequent review of 12 responses indicated a need to focus on creative and equitable approaches to planning for recovery. Responses also revealed that the implementation of a successful Comprehensive Recovery Plan for New Orleans would be one that can be utilized for different scales of disaster; takes a holistic approach to social, economic, and spatial planning by using a resilience and climate action lens; creatively engages communities in both planning and recovery actions; and serves as a catalyst for inclusive growth. With the objective of choosing a consultant to spearhead the development of the Comprehensive Recovery Plan, the City of New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness is set to release a Request for Proposals (RFP) this quarter, with selection of a vendor by the end of the year.

What’s next for Resilient NOLA? In the short-term, we are considering an RFI to inform the creation of a renewable distributed energy network that supports our water and drainage system. In the longer-term, the RFI model is changing the way we do procurement. Each time we issue an RFI, we have the opportunity to further streamline government, refining the process to make it more efficient. Incorporating the RFI model into the city’s procurement process furthermore goes a long way toward achieving the vision of Transforming City Systems as depicted in the Resilient New Orleans Strategy. As we build a New Orleans of the future—one that embraces change, prepares for 21st-century risks, and honors our traditions—we will continue to modernize and reimage our operational systems, better equipping residents and businesses to evolve from consumers of public services to partners in addressing our shared challenges.