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The Early Adopter Program in Portland, Oregon

Government procurement is a big, difficult problem, and one that isn’t going to be fixed in an easy way: there’s too many moving parts. Whether it’s unwieldy requests for proposals (RFPs), a top-down, specification-heavy approach where technology procurement needs to be more iterative, or simply being unable to get the right requirements in front of the best vendors, there’s a lot going on in how governments contract with suppliers.

Early adopter program in Portland

So it’s encouraging for us to see how the City of Portland is trying one way to improve procurement with their Early Adopter Program, which launched in March. Funding for the program comes from PDX’s Mayor’s Innovation Fund. What’s interesting about the early adopter program is two things: that the platform that’s being used to power the program - Switchboard – has come from a local PDX company, and secondly that it helps government move towards thinking of services in terms of user needs.

Portland is using Switchboard to power a new marketplace and community, one that lets government staff post “asks” – like a better way to update and manage the city’s 1,700 page multiple-PDF zoning code document – and “offers” from local companies and entrepreneurs – like a homegrown PDX and metro-area procurement search engine.

“Startups often use a different perspective to develop solutions, so this program gives city agencies a chance to step away from traditional ways of doing things,” said Amy Nagy, Business Development Coordinator, of the Portland Development Commission (PDC).

“We’re thrilled to be using Switchboard as the platform to connect the needs of the local government bureaus to the services that the private sector can provide. Switchboard is not only our technical platform, it is also a wonderful example of the power of tech and business to improve local government,” said Vidya Spandana, Strategic Advisor to Portland Development Commission.

Early Adopter program in Portland

The Switchboard platform has worked already: before the formal launch, William Henderson from Portland company Knock used it to get introduced to Portland’s Bureau of Transport, and now a pilot program has been started.

“There is a misconception that it’s impossible for startups and government to collaborate. The City of Portland is modeling a new way to do business. Portland’s Switchboard is meeting space where bureaus and vendors can problem solve and make the procurement process more efficient. The Mayor and Portland Development Commission have shown they are willing to disrupt themselves and bring innovation to city government. As an entrepreneur, I believe these strides should be recognized, rewarded, and repeated throughout the country,” said Mara Zepeda, Switchboard co-founder.

This combination of government using technology and new platforms to reach suppliers it might not have reached, of staff working to frame requests in terms of what’s needed to be done instead of specifying how, are great examples of Portland working to deliver government as a 21st century city.

Photos taken on March 17 at the public launch of the City of Portland Early Adopter Program. Photo credit: Portland Development Commission