By Mariel Reed

Public procurement is a massive industry that shapes the lives of all Americans. It’s government’s sexiest problem - and it’s been here in glasses and a sweater the whole time. 

Public procurement is a massive industry that shapes the lives of all Americans. It’s government’s sexiest problem - and it’s been here in glasses and a sweater the whole time. 

In case you haven’t seen it, She’s All That is a late 90s teen romcom starring Freddie Prinze Jr, Rachael Leigh Cook, and Paul Walker. In the film, a popular high school boy agrees to a seemingly impossible challenge: he must transform the school’s nerdy female outcast into the next prom queen. Spoiler alert: he does, and romance happens along the way.

I’m not defending She’s All That. It’s not OK to value women for their physical traits alone; I don’t even like the movie. But in my experience, 90s references can make talking about complex policy and regulatory challenges a bit more fun. So what does this 90s reference have to do with public procurement?

Public procurement is a lot like Rachael Leigh Cook’s nerdy character: seemingly boring. It’s too square, too back-office, administrative, and wonky. From my experience in the San Francisco Mayor’s Innovation Office, I’ve seen that the public sector topics that sit at the cool kids’ table: smart cities, autonomous vehicles, algorithmic public policy, government deployment of blockchain

Spoiler alert: procurement is all that.

Why? Procurement affects everything we do, or aspire to do, to make government better.

At its core, procurement is how governments buy products and services from businesses to deliver public services. It’s the rules, regulations, and practices guiding this process. And today, it’s not working as well as it could be for public sector staff, businesses, or the taxpayers and residents who depend on public services. 

My experience in government focused on procurement of technology, where the status quo procurement processes continue to produce epic failures. It’s not just Across all levels of government, we’ve accepted over-paying for technology that is over-deadline, over-budget, hard to use, or simply doesn’t work. As Jen Palka, founder of Code for America, writes: “It shouldn’t cost $2B to share documents between sites of the California court system (and to subsequently scrap the attempt), or take 19 years to do the same for Massachusetts (still not shipped), or cost $11B to manage medical records at the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration.”

Unfortunately, there are many, many other examples. Rhode Island recently committed to a $492M trouble-plagued eligibility-verification system for public-assistance programs for the poor (food stamps to cash assistance and Medicaid). The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power spent more than 3 years replacing a 40-year old system, but the new system — which cost more than $181M to implement — failed to collect over $245M in consumer payments due to botched rollout.

If you’re like me (and many of my millennial peers), you want to do work that matters. Maybe your commitment to social impact has led you to a career in government, or at least a tour of duty. Or maybe you’ve worked in the tech industry for a few years, and now you’d like to apply your skills to solving serious problems facing our country. (And maybe you were even interested in doing so before the 2016 election).

From my own experience across tech and government, I believe: 

  1. If you want to contribute to fixing society’s problems at scale, you should work in — or with — government. You can do a lot of good from within government, and you can also do tremendous good from outside of government working with government partners.

  1. There is one problem that, if solved, will be a force-multiplier for addressing almost all other public sector challenges: procurement.

Often, the highest-impact, most impactful isn’t adding new programs or projects. It’s removing the biggest obstacles to progress, it’s updating massive, complex systems that touch hundreds of millions of people and trillions of dollars. Public procurement is all that. It’s government’s sexiest problem — and it’s just been sitting here in glasses and a sweater the whole time.

I’m not the only one to (eventually) realize that public procurement has been there, important, the whole time. Public interest technologists Michelle Thong (formerly with the City of San Jose) and Sasha Magee (previously 18F, USDS, San Francisco Digital Services) have reached the same conclusions.