Procurement 101 in government IT: Request for Proposal (RFP)

If you're new to the procurement process in government IT, understanding how to create an RFP is a first step. Follow these tips to write an RFP that produces the competitive bids you need.

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In my last article, I discussed the importance of reviewing standards for your IT infrastructure and being willing to evaluate new products for use in your department. Of course, any time that you are spending money on new products or services in a government setting, you must adhere to your organization's procurement policies.

While private companies have relatively few restrictions placed upon them for purchasing decisions, governmental organizations have to follow certain rules and regulations for the expenditure of public money. Contrary to popular belief, not all of the restrictions have to do solely with price. For example, I was talking to a friend the other day about the upcoming launch of the space shuttle. He made a joke about it being the product of the "low bidder." I am sure you have heard multiple low-bidder jokes and comments in your government career. And while some of these comments may be dead on, I feel the majority do us a great disservice.

The government procurement process is designed to get the best price/highest quality for our tax dollar while being as fair, open, and competitive as possible. However, procurement policies are not always easy to understand. When most people think of procurement, they relate it to what they do in their private lives—if they have a need, they find one or more places that have what they want, and they buy it. Simple as that!

It doesn't quite work that way in government. There are rules regarding who can buy, how you can buy, when you can buy, and so on, and the rules can vary quite a bit, depending on various city, state, or federal regulations. Because of this complexity, and depending on how helpful your purchasing organization is at explaining and helping you through the procurement process, many people just assume it's all about the lowest price.

So for those of you who may be new at this, or if you're thinking about a career in government IT, I'll tell you how a basic Request for Proposal (RFP) works.

Request for Proposal

If a government organization has a need for goods or services for which there is no existing contract, an RFP is often the method used to obtain them. The RFP is a solicitation process in which vendors are asked to submit sealed bids. The RFP specifies what the buyer (government organization) needs, how the buyer is going to evaluate the bids, and all the terms and conditions surrounding the subsequent contract. Again, because of the complexity of the process, many people forget that in most RFP processes, price is not the most important evaluation criteria used in making the award decision. At least it doesn't have to be. Price will be the most important criteria only in the absence of any other criteria.

If you want to make it clear that a low price is not your main criterion, make sure you are very clear about what you require and on what your evaluation is based. Here are the two basic ground rules for listing criteria.

Criteria can be objectively measured. Our criteria are our benchmark for evaluating the RFP response. Because they will be scrutinized by the public and the vendors who submit the responses, criteria must be fair, understandable, and defensible. Having criteria that cannot be objectively measured not only makes the evaluation process more difficult, but having to justify "gut feelings" when your selection is challenged is not a good use of anyone's time. For example, if you are shopping for a new ISP, you must have a certain amount of bandwidth to handle all the traffic, so make sure you spell out your exact requirements.

My experience has been that creating criteria that is objective and measurable is generally more difficult for services than for products. Maybe it's just me, but I know that I am going to have to spend more time with service criteria when creating an RFP. Some of what we describe as "good" service is somewhat subjective. You and your supplier may have very different ideas about what this means.

For example: You have written an RFP for a software price contract. One of the things that you require for good service from a software vendor is a Web site where you can find products and prices quickly. But asking if the vendor has a Web site for this purpose is not enough. Your criteria has to specify how accessible that site must be (uptime), as well as how often it is updated (currency), and some description of its relative ease of use.

Criteria should focus on the results you wish to achieve. In other words, make sure your criteria focus on what's important to your organization regarding that good or service. For example, if the most important criteria in choosing a new e-mail system for your organization is reliability and capacity, don't have most of your evaluation criteria focus on scheduling and instant messaging. It should be focused on performance, scalability, ease of administration, etc.

Writing RFPs is never a fun process and is fraught with challenges. Poor specifications will result in poor responses. However, as long as you follow procedures and craft an RFP that observes these two ground rules, you can create RFPs that use something other than lowest price as the criterion. Doing so will provide you with much greater flexibility in your purchasing process and give you a higher degree of satisfaction with the products and services you end up with.

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