The County Learned a Year Ago That Its Contract Management System Was Broken. It Took a Year to Hire the Two People Meant to Fix It.

Its contractors often don’t get paid on time, county employees don’t know who’s responsible for renewing contracts, and the county doesn’t do a good job of tracking vendor performance.

A tent in Northwest Portland. (Blake Benard)

Multnomah County handles social services for the state’s largest population center, and it does so mostly by paying other people to do the work.

The county is often a pass-through agency: It decides which contractors, mostly nonprofits, receive tens of millions of dollars to shelter homeless Portlanders, connect them to housing, and help families escape domestic violence, among other tasks. Forty-five percent of the county’s budget last year—more than $1.1 billion—flowed to contracts.

That makes the results of a 2023 consultant’s report on the county’s contracting and procurement system—and how the county responded to it—all the more important.

The overarching finding of the report, conducted by Austin-based consulting firm Civic Initiatives and delivered to the county in January 2023: The county’s contracting system is broken.

Its contractors often don’t get paid on time, county employees don’t know who’s responsible for renewing contracts, and the county doesn’t do a good job of tracking vendor performance.

And yet, although the county says it’s begun improving its contracting process because of the report, it wasn’t until this spring that the county filled two new positions that are key to ushering in the transformation.


Among other findings, Civic Initiatives reported that the county’s contracting practices were so disjointed that county employees within various departments didn’t know who was responsible for renewing contracts, contracts “frequently” expired, it took contractors as long as four months to get paid, and there was “no urgency in paying community urgent contracts.”

“Due to the lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities many contracts are allowed to expire unknowingly causing departments to have to extend them repeatedly or reprocure them,” Civic Initiatives found. Another finding: “Lack of communication with the vendors leaves them not knowing what is expected and who they should contact at the county.”

Civic Initiatives also found, perhaps most importantly: “County program employees don’t regularly evaluate vendor performance, so it isn’t always clear if suppliers are fulfilling their obligations.”

In other words, although the county contracts out much of its work, it doesn’t hold contractors accountable for what they’re doing with the money.

The study described the county’s contract management and administration as “ad hoc.” Basically, the consultant said, the county managed its contracts on the fly.

A big part of the problem, the report found, is that the county tracks contracts with two separate databases that don’t interact with each other. Contract payments are handled by one database, while contract status and data are tracked in an entirely different database. And they’re not compatible.


The report, for which the county paid $140,000, made a number of recommendations to fix its broken system.

Among them: set a clear hierarchy of who at the county is responsible for executing and managing contracts, create a training program for all county employees who touch contracting, “establish requirements that all county contracts have a named contract manager that is trained properly, responsible for their execution and management of the contract,” and “identify, prioritize and implement technology improvements as needed.”


County spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti says the county has undertaken a number of preliminary steps in its “first wave” of improvements, including completing a pilot project in the Joint Office of Homeless Services, identifying what processes needed improvement, and making it easier for contractors to communicate with the county.

But it wasn’t until March and April of this year that the county hired a contracts administration manager and a project manager, the two people largely responsible to streamline the contracts process. Sullivan-Springhetti said the county wanted to hire them last fall but couldn’t. Still, she says, the delayed hirings didn’t impede progress. “We didn’t wait for the new hires to start improving our processes,” she said. “They have the next waves to tackle.”

Sullivan-Springhetti says the county does not plan to create a centralized contracting database, however, that consolidates all information—financial, outcomes, contract paperwork—in one system.

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