For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. In the month leading up to our 2021 Code for America Summit, we’re lifting up the voices of past and current Summit speakers who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Mariel Reed, the CEO & co-founder of CoProcure who spoke at the 2019 Code for America Summit.
At the 2019 Summit, you talked about the need for collaboration in public procurement. How has the conversation around your work evolved since then?
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the urgency around local government procurement collaboration. In the early stages of the pandemic, the lack of a federally-coordinated approach to purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) meant that states and local governments competed against each other to buy these scarce items instead of aggregating American purchasing power—leading to price gouging; issues around due diligence, fraud, and counterfeit goods; and heartbreaking shortages of this equipment. Beyond the immediate challenges of PPE procurement, the pandemic’s economic impact has stretched government budgets at a time where even more community members and businesses will depend on timely government support. Though this pressure is daunting, we’re also seeing that it’s a catalyst for governments to come together.
But despite that—or because of it—government interest in procurement collaboration is rising, making it an exciting time for those in the procurement world. At CoProcure, we’ve been able to work with local governments on PPE procurement while building the technological infrastructure to make collaboration easier for all. In the last quarter alone, we’ve seen 6X+ growth in the number of government buyers who use CoProcure each month to find cooperative contracts from national and regional purchasing groups, states, and other local agencies. It’s also been fascinating—and frankly, a lot of fun!—to work closely with government buyers to improve the experience (try "safety vests," "lawnmower," or "Microsoft Office").
What does collaboration mean to you?
One of the great things about the public sector is that governments are encouraged to work together. Public procurement staff have the critical job of spending $1.6 trillion each year of taxpayer dollars to enable government delivery of services. How they spend that money determines not just the quality and responsiveness of government services, but also which businesses get access to government dollars.
In public purchasing, collaboration can go beyond exchanging knowledge about projects, pricing, and suppliers; governments can actually create competitively bid contracts that can be shared with other governments. Cooperative contracts can save time and money—and open the door for more diverse businesses to work with governments.
For CoProcure, collaboration in purchasing is about helping governments make well-informed decisions faster, so they can better serve their communities. The starting point for that collaboration is information. If you’re a buyer in government, you have to know that a contract exists in order to use it (or that one doesn’t yet exist, in which case, you should create it!) Today, tracking down this information is a huge barrier to governments working together. Most public agencies rely on phone calls, emails, and tedious web searches to identify cooperative contracts, or just forgo looking for collaboration opportunities altogether. At CoProcure, we aim to make finding cooperative contracts as easy as a Google search. We believe that reducing the friction around purchasing collaboration will also reduce the costs of buying and selling into government, increase the number of businesses that sell into the public sector, and produce better outcomes for residents.
Do you have a favorite piece of advice to offer those just starting out in the field of civic technology?
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: make sure that the problem you’re aiming to solve with technology is actually a technology problem. For so many challenges in the public sector, more technology seems like an appealing solution but actually doesn’t get to the core of the problem. Take time to understand the existing process and constraints; different stakeholders in the process; and the reality of different (and oftentimes competing) incentives.
What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?
It’s funny, because I think it’s fairly well-known that the ups and downs of entrepreneurship can be really tough. But the ups and downs of working in government are really hard, too. In my experience, public servants join the government because they want to be of service. But the scale of public challenges, the urgency of these challenges on real human lives, and the number of constraints to navigate can be overwhelming.
Like so many who work in this field, I know that there will be days where the future we envision feels impossibly distant. But I still believe that future is worth fighting for. It’s not hopeless, but it is hard. So you have to be a bit of a jaded optimist, and you need to surround yourselves with other jaded optimists, too. You all know it’s going to be hard, it’s going to take time—but you keep going.
What does “designing equitable government” mean to you?
I believe that the government has the potential to support a more just and prosperous society. But government often fails to live up to this potential, or even works counter to it. Occasionally, this failure is intentional and malicious; more often, it is an insidious outcome of outdated processes and bureaucratic inertia. Designing equitable government is a commitment to making government live up to its potential. In practice, I think this involves designing not just technology, but also regulations, processes, and services with the communities that the government serves.
Want to hear from more speakers like Mariel Reed? Tickets for the 2021 Code for America Summit are on sale through May 13, with tickets for pre-Summit workshops available until May 4. The theme of this year’s Summit is “designing equitable government.” Register for Summit and workshops today.