Five reasons to get excited about Toronto’s new Civic Innovation Office

In Canada’s largest city, a new Civic Innovation Office is doing procurement differently. They’re inviting entrepreneurs, innovators and others from outside of City Hall to reimagine what a more modern, responsive version of Toronto’s 311 service could look like. In this post, Code for Canada explains why the office’s more agile and collaborative approach to procurement matters.

A typical government procurement process looks something like this: a department or agency decides what it needs, staff write a lengthy report filled with technical specifications, timelines and jargon, bids come in from established vendors, and after a long period of waiting, a fully-formed product or service shows up on the steps of City Hall or the relevant legislature.

Contemporary procurement models are designed to ensure accountability, prevent nepotism and minimize risk. But the process leaves little room for iteration or innovation, and is largely inaccessible — both to the community, and to the kinds of entrepreneurial startups that jurisdictions across Canada want to attract.

Toronto is inviting entrepreneurs and innovators to put their skills to work prototyping a more responsive and effective 311 service.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. What if instead of a cumbersome exercise in buying things, procurement could help governments learn more about residents’ needs and test new approaches to old problems? Or what if procurement could be a launchpad for made-in-Canada companies that design and deliver tools for the public good?

That’s exactly what’s happening in Toronto. The city’s new Civic Innovation Office wants to make it easier for residents to get the information they need about municipal programs and services via 311. But instead of a typical “Request for Proposals” (RFP), the office has released an “Invitation to Partner” (ITP), a leaner document that encourages entrepreneurs to get involved not only in building a better 311 service, but also in figuring out what that better service could — and should — look like.

This is a big deal. It’s a real attempt to make procurement more productive, and it will enable government innovators in Toronto to demonstrate what’s possible when you apply agile practices to public services.

At Code for Canada, we’re obviously excited by the Civic Innovation Office’s approach to procurement. Here’s why:

1. They’re starting with problems, not solutions. Governments around the world are learning that asking vendors for help solving problems rather than building solutions leads to better outcomes for residents. Whereas a traditional RFP might lay out the technical specifications and success metrics for a new 311 service, the Innovation Office is asking a more open-ended question: “how can Toronto’s 311 service be more responsive to residents?”

This challenge-based process enables governments to hear what others think the best route forward might be, rather than working with existing tools and assumptions. It creates opportunities for innovation by asking how expertise from one discipline could be applied to another.

It’s a lot easier to iterate on code than concrete.

Software is a different kind of infrastructure than a stretch of roadway or a swimming pool. Few people know what a great digital tool should be until they see it, so starting with a solution rarely makes sense. It’s also easier to iterate on code than concrete, which brings us to our second point…

2. They’re insisting on being user-centred. Whoever wins the ITP won’t be allowed to design in a vacuum. The Civic Innovation Office has pledged to put “residents of Toronto at the heart of the process,” and applicants are being asked to illustrate how they’ll conduct user research. According to the ITP, the successful candidate will also be given “opportunities to meet and work with frontline and management staff within 311, and… to observe and interview residents” using the service.

What that means is that…

3. Their approach is innovative, but actually less risky. As Robert L. Read, one of the co-founders of 18F, likes to say: “nothing decreases the risk of a software project meeting its deadline more than starting interaction with users early.” Working collaboratively and iteratively with users allows you to identify pain points early, as opposed to after a new service has already been launched.

“Nothing decreases the risk of a software project meeting its deadline more than starting interaction with users early.”

There’s also evidence that challenge-based procurement results in services that cost governments less than ones developed through traditional methods: when Barcelona launched its civic challenge program in 2013, all six of the resulting contracts were awarded at 30 per cent under budget!

4. They’re keeping it simple. According to the ITP, 70 per cent of people using Toronto’s 311 are seeking basic information about a program or service (e.g. “Where is the closest daycare?”). However, these basic requests are triaged the same as more complicated ones (e.g. “I would like to request a removal of a tree.”).

There’s a growing consensus that digital tools really excel at delivering basic services, freeing up staff to focus on complex requests that require a human touch. The Civic Innovation office gets this, and the ITP “aims to enhance the City’s ability to more quickly and helpfully respond to information requests, so that residents requiring more tailored service request responses receive these in a manner that serves them even better.”

5. It could spur the development of civic tech startups. In the U.S. and elsewhere, a growing number of startups, including Citymart, Textizen and Open Counter are finding success (and venture capital) by working with governments to deliver improved public services. Initiatives like Toronto’s Civic Innovation Office may be just the catalyst public-minded entrepreneurs in Canada are waiting for. A more agile approach to procurement requires less upfront time and resources and allows smaller companies to compete on their digital merits rather than their paperwork skills.

Toronto’s Civic Innovation Office may be just the catalyst public-minded entrepreneurs in Canada are waiting for.

In Barcelona, 12 of the 119 qualified bids submitted as part of the civic challenge program in 2013 were from companies expressly formed by citizens to respond to the challenges! Closer to home, Guelph, Ontario’s Civic Accelerator Program — another example of challenge-based procurement in Canada — recently hosted Alert Labs and Milieu, two Canadian civic tech startups that have since attracted additional investment and are now scaling up.

The Civic Innovation Office’s new “Invitation to Partner” in improving Toronto’s 311 shows the city is serious about piloting new procurement models that serve residents better and create economic opportunities for new businesses. At Code for Canada, we’re excited to see the results and impacts that challenge-based procurement can bring to Toronto!

You can check out the entire ITP for yourself on the Civic Innovation Office’s website. If you’re an entrepreneur looking to participate, the deadline to apply is Sept. 29, 2017.