Five Principles for Government Agency Emergency Procurement

At Third Sector, we work with government, nonprofit organizations, and communities to design and implement social services contracts that promote long-term outcomes like meaningful employment, healthcare access, and stable housing for people in need. Over the last decade, we’ve found that a sustained focus on outcomes like these can help government and communities work together to improve social services -- and use resources in innovative ways -- to deliver better results for individuals and families.

In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, our partners in state and local government are working around the clock to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities, care for the sick, and provide immediate support to tens of millions of Americans who suddenly find themselves out of work. These efforts will soon receive a boost from the CARES Act and other federal legislation, which provide much-needed support to states and counties. 

The critical challenge facing states and local governments now is putting this new funding to work to meet new needs, while also making the most of existing resources and programs. Agencies are already purchasing new goods and services, adapting their programs in response to social distancing and emerging community needs, and stretching resources further than ever before. This effort is already changing procurement practices and requiring amendments to existing contracts, and we expect the rate of change to accelerate as community needs evolve and additional funding becomes available.

Our goal is to provide simple, practical guidance that agencies can implement with existing processes and systems -- without adding to workloads in the midst of crisis response. We offer five guiding principles and a set of key questions to ask your team alongside each principle. We hope these will help government agencies meet the current challenge as they create new contracts and amend existing ones, creating the greatest positive impact on the communities they serve.

1. Define Success

Create a clear vision and goals for each contract to facilitate coordination and support accountability across multiple stakeholders. Consider using a quick tool like a logic model or results-based accountability framework to articulate how services will support the community. Keep racial equity top of mind, as always and now more than ever (like our partners at Living Cities have encouraged). This crisis is already perpetuating systemic inequalities in employment, health care outcomes, housing, and other dimensions of wellbeing, and we should all be focused on mitigating these negative impacts as much as possible.

Questions to Ask:

  1. OutcomesWhat outcomes do you aim to achieve? For whom?
  2. EquityHow can you adjust, clarify, or re-articulate existing goals to ensure that they serve people equitably, and not just equally?

2. Build Strong Partnerships

Coordination is critical in a crisis that cuts across employment, health, housing, and other issues, making it more important than ever to engage partners along the continuum of care and services. Start by sharing your goals with other agencies and your community partners. Create a small team that is responsible for quick decision-making, or better yet, use an existing forum or workgroup that includes members with the right diversity of perspectives. Use that small team (which could function like a “nerve center”, centralizing decisions) to map the continuum of services so that you can coordinate transition points, highlight areas of overlap, and identify gaps.

Questions to Ask:

  1. Stakeholders: Who should be at the table and for which decisions?
  2. Needs: What are each partner’s preconditions for successful collaboration? What does everyone need to bring to the table to ensure success?

3. Ensure Provisions for Data Sharing and Transparency

Gather data on progress towards your goals so that you can spot emerging gaps and needs early, and adjust your approach as the situation continues to evolve. Leverage existing data sources and team members as much as possible, such as administrative data systems and data specialists whose regular projects and partnerships are taking a backseat during the crisis response. Invite data experts to emergency meetings, and ask them to document decisions and begin formulating plans to measure results from new or adjusted programs and services. Make room for flexibility and creativity -- this crisis may call for unexpected data sources and methods. Finally, be careful to not overburden service providers that are already facing unprecedented demand with new reporting requirements or manual data collection. Qualitative data, especially simple, timely updates from the field, can often illuminate just as much as additional quantitative data.

Questions to Ask:

  1. Sources: What existing data sources can help us make progress on the goals identified in #1?
  2. Disparities: How can this data help illuminate any disparities or inequities in access to services or outcomes? How can we gather stories about what is happening “on-the-ground” from providers?

4. Plan Check-in Points

Schedule frequent “check-in” points when you will revisit progress on your contract, amendment, or spending later on, both with your own team and with your contractors, stakeholders, or partners. Use the check-ins to understand progress towards the goals identified in #1 and discuss the qualitative and quantitative data from #3. Develop a decision process for these check-ins, perhaps leveraging the “RACI” framework. A clear understanding of who is responsible and accountable for various aspects of the services will pay dividends if there are issues later on. Finally, set a timeline to revisit the long-term implications of the changes you make. Even if you are forced to move the timeline further out, a series of strategic check-ins will eventually become critical for accountability and managing the transition from crisis response to long-term recovery.

Questions to Ask:

  1. Timeline: At what points should we revisit this contract and understand how it is doing?
  2. Improvement: How will we use the data identified in #3? What will we do with that data to understand progress towards goals in #1?

5. Enable Long-term Flexibility

Whenever possible, consider adding flexibility to your contract design by focusing on outcomes goals without prescribing specific practices or services. For example, rather than contracting for job training workshops, consider paying providers a flexible amount to meet an outcome like stable employment for dislocated workers. You can create accountability for outcomes goals through the partnerships, data sharing, and checkpoints described in #2, #3, and #4, and (when appropriate) add incentives or rewards to accelerate results. This combination of flexibility and accountability will enable providers to remain agile and responsive as they work to address unexpected or evolving community needs, while still ensuring that resources flow towards results. 

Moreover, try to find ways to remove restrictions, regulations, or provisions on existing contracts, if possible, enabling your provider partners to better meet urgent needs. For example, the federal government has waived many procedural requirements around the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). State and local governments should consider similar flexibility now and in the future. Ask your contractors and partners what type of flexibility would be most helpful to them, and strive to respond in real time.

Questions to Ask:

  1. Prescribe outcomes, not methods: How can we clarify what success looks like, rather than focusing on the method to achieve that success? For example, rather than proscribing how many times a contractor should contact a client or perform a certain activity, can we focus on the outcome we hope those visits and activities will achieve?
  2. Reward results: How can we increase flexibility for our contractors over time, perhaps as a reward for positive and equitable results?

The cornerstone of our work at Third Sector is putting vulnerable people and their needs at the center of decisions about how the government deploys limited resources. We believe this approach is more important now than ever before. By defining success, building strong partnerships, identifying clear decision points, sharing as much data as possible, and planning for long-term flexibility, state and local agencies and their community partners can maximize their impact in the critical weeks and months ahead.