Procurement of contemporary software applications presents some significant challenges. When procurement is done well, bidders can prepare proposals with confidence, and buyers can treat pricing as though it were accurate. This ideal scenario generally necessitates that a buyer has provided sufficient product detail to prospective vendors. It also generally necessitates that the process of procurement has been managed effectively, so that resulting bids can actually be deemed comparable.
In many cases, this is easier said than done. It can be difficult for the typical buyer to determine the appropriate amount of detail to include in an RFP, especially when the buyer doesn’t fully understand the underlying mechanics, architectural specifications, or functional components of the desired software. It is also very easy to overlook features, or not realize that they are important. Furthermore, while it remains in the buyer’s best interests to enable comparison of “apples-to-apples” during evaluation, this necessitates rigorous control of communication flow during procurement, which can be difficult to achieve when multiple vendors start firing bevies of intricate, disconnected questions.
In the spirit of being a good industry player within this extremely challenging context, I would like to modestly share an anecdotal account of what I think might possibly be a better mousetrap. The story herein demonstrates how a small, arguably incremental change to the normal modus operandi can have potentially bold, sometimes even transformative implications. This is a story that proves how terrific innovations can come from many sources, even outside of our own industry.
The story in question is associated with a particular procurement that occurred about six months ago. The buyer was the United States General Services Administration (GSA), and the pertinent contract was titled, “One Acquisition Solution for Integrated Services” (OASIS). I’ll simply suggest that OASIS was one of the largest, highest profile contracts ever released by the federal government. It wasn’t strictly an IT contract, but the instructive lessons of the procurement could certainly be applied to great advantage in many contexts, including our own.
So what did GSA actually do to motivate this article? Several things, really, but their single most profound innovation was the introduction of blogging into the acquisition process. Having been involved with the OASIS procurement first hand, I have come to appreciate that this particular innovation, however small, totally changed the entire procurement experience.
You’re probably thinking, “Blogging? Really? It’s hardly an innovation. And hardly relevant to procurement. So the buyers at GSA woke up each morning and wrote a few words about their most current interests and recent musings? And this made a difference?” Not exactly. But not so far from the truth either. Let me explain.
According to traditional private sector doctrine, acquisitions normally follow a relatively standard procedure: draft a statement of work, identify qualified vendors, release an RFP, convene a bidder conference or webinar, accept and answer questions, receive proposals, evaluate bids, maybe engage a few shortlisted vendors in oral discussions, and then finally make an award. It’s a very familiar and thoroughly practical formula that works well enough.
The government essentially follows the same procedures, but they add some extra steps and protocols to the process that are generally good ideas in their own right. For instance, government agencies release “Questions and Answers” (Q&A) to all bidders, so that all bidders are working from the same information. It is also common for government agencies to host “industry days,” during which bidders have opportunities to openly discuss contract scope with buyers and stakeholders. The Department of Defense (DoD) even tends to release draft RFPs for the purpose of obtaining industry feedback. These are all outstanding procedures, because they enable qualified bidders to share information and get involved in discussions early in the process, sometimes months or years before final RFPs are compiled.
In the case of OASIS, GSA took all of the regular steps, moving through the usual process, but they also started blogging. Their blogging commenced during the inception of the process, when OASIS was nothing more than a conceptual glint in the Program Director’s eyes. The agency set up a fresh community site, and they used the site as a channel to keep interested vendors informed.
Periodically GSA would post articles about their plans and intentions. It wasn’t uncommon to see posts like, “We are considering incorporation of ‘X’ into the final scope of the program, and we would like to know what the industry thinks.” Or on other occasions, they would post comments like, “After last Tuesday’s discussions, we are planning to adjust the evaluation procedures, and will adopt procedures ‘Y’ and ‘Z.’”
It was more than just comments. They would additionally post other useful and substantive tidbits. They posted draft SOWs, links to live webcasts, and links to videos of recorded discussions and conferences. The library of available content grew fairly rich over time.
Vendors could log into the site, review recent posts, watch videos, read documents, ask questions, and reply with recommendations and insights. Interested vendors who followed the threads could gain exceptional insight into the program and the needs and expectations of GSA.
The tool that GSA chose for the blogging was simple. In terms of functionality, it aligned closely with other contemporary blogging tools. Their chosen software was therefore intuitive and instantaneously usable. The software enabled bidders to readily distinguish between posts from GSA representatives and posts from other vendors. I seem to recall that bidders were not allowed to post new threads of their own, but they could always reply with comments, questions, and feedback. Everyone could see what everyone else posted, and everyone could read the official responses.
The site remained active for a number of months, through the industry day, right up until the final RFP was released. Executive-level stakeholders spent time every day reading and responding directly to bidder’s comments. I personally spent many days reviewing GSA posts and vendor comments alike.
The blogging exercise yielded a number of productive outcomes for both GSA and the many offerors who were involved with the procurement:
- Enabled qualified industry experts to advise decision makers early in the process.
- Facilitated frank and open discussions about the program and the procurement.
- Eased administration of the (preliminary) Q&A process, ensuring that information was consolidated within a single searchable location that afforded equal access to all bidders.
- Produced a focus group effect, where one bidder’s comments would spark additional questions and insights from another bidder.
- Spurred detailed discussions that probably helped stakeholders on the buyer side to reach consensus regarding their objectives.
- Afforded additional insights into certain ambiguities, issues, dilemmas that might otherwise have affected pricing.
- Gave bidders a much better understanding of the needs and interests of the customer.
- Enabled production of a better RFP that addressed in detail the entire scope of critical issues.
- Increased the likelihood that compliant proposals would be submitted.
- Enabled bidders to make informed decisions and focus their proposals on the issues that mattered most.
- Allowed those interested in teaming to more easily identify one another.
Evidently, the vendor community was exceptionally pleased and satisfied with the procurement outcomes. Sure, a few “bidder protests” still occurred, but in contrast to the number of bidders and the regularity of protests under other contracts, the protests were relatively few and limited in scope. A number of the protests were even set aside, partly as a result of the extensive collaboration initiated through the blog (granted, some are still pending). It was a significant achievement.
In the final analysis, the procurement blog really represented a change to the regular communication flow of traditional procurement. The blog engaged communication much earlier in the process, and maintained the communication throughout much of the lifecycle of the procurement. It broke down the normal interaction restrictions, and facilitated ongoing, inclusive, two-way conversation with industry specialists (or at least it increased the amount of two-way communication above and beyond what usually transpires). The blog was furthermore better than any mere conversation, because it forced production of a consolidated archive that could be mutually shared, referenced, and targeted for further clarification by all bidders.
While the same effects could have certainly been accomplished by simply adopting procedures to ensure “open communication” and “ongoing discussion” (two ideals that are frequently endorsed at organizations, but less often achieved), the blog made the process effortless. It institutionalized the ideal practices in a way that administrative procedures, however rigorous, would be hard pressed to replicate.
When considered in relation to what we do in our industry, it seems evident that there may be something useful here. The public and private sectors alike could realize similar benefits on all sizes and complexities of procurement:
- RFPs could probably be released more quickly as rough outlines of the desired application functionality, and then the blog could be used as a tool to enable bidders to guide attention to the proposed features, application characteristics, and integrations that matter most.
- Direct access to stakeholders could become very plausible. At many organizations, this is discouraged in the interest of ensuring all bidders receive parallel information, but as long as interactions could be restricted to the blog, procurement staff would not need to worry about this issue, since the same information would automatically be available to everyone.
- Input from multiple stakeholders could be more easily managed. In fact, enterprise-wide requirements could be captured, consolidated, and monitored in a highly convenient manner.
- A community of qualified bidders would end up validating the product plans through collective questioning, issuance of recommendations, and mutual inspiration of ideas.
- Particularly in the private sector, there might be much to gain, because the private sector does not need to worry about the same acquisition regulations as the government. A private company could continue to use a blog throughout the entire procurement process, right up to the time of bid submission. Conversation surrounding bids could continue in real time all the way through proposal preparation, when most significant questions about an RFP tend to arise.
- Buyers would have more opportunities to build relationships, and would gain qualitatively better insight into vendor expertise. Whereas proposals will often represent an organization’s “best foot forward,” the blog-level interaction might be more indicative of the day-to-day expertise that could be leveraged from a vendor.
Implementation of procurement blogging wouldn’t even take much effort. Most people have participated in some form of blogging at this point, so the exercise is already a familiar one. The necessary software tools could be implemented at little or no expense. Here are some low cost options for systems that could potentially perform the necessary functions:
- Drupal: Drupal would be a great tool for procurement blogging. It is open source, free, easy to setup, and you don’t need to be a software developer to make Drupal shine. At the same time, the software is extremely extensible, so it is often a preferred choice at larger companies and growing organizations. It would have the added benefit of enabling easy establishment and maintenance of an entire procurement site. Out of the box, the system can accommodate all of the user group and blog security features that you’ll want. Some hosting companies will install Drupal for you upon request.
- Wordpress with Members plugin: Wordpress is a clear winner when it comes to ease of use. If all you need is blogging functionality, most web hosting companies will offer to setup this software for you. All you need to do is login, and start setting up your blogs. There is also some limited functionality that could be used to create static procurement web pages. The members plugin will enable you to add the security that will restrict blog access to specific vendors.
- GitHub: This is actually a programmer collaboration tool, but it was recently used to great advantage by a politician to draft and revise a campaign platform with feedback from the political community. Above and beyond blogging, this tool would enable users to download a draft RFP, make comments, and then upload the edited document. The tools would furthermore enable administrators to review and consolidate edits, and approve/deny the edits individually. Worth a look.
- Squarespace: Squarespace is another very good option for those who would want to consider blogging without having to worry about server setup and hosting. It isn’t free, but the monthly cost is extremely affordable. For approximately $20, you could be on your way to setting up your procurement blog with all of the security and user permissions that you might imagine.
- Google Groups: We’ve experimented with this option less, but we think it would work well in some situations. This tool is free, and would certainly enable basic blogging, but might not have all of the desired security features. Even so, on the right “open” procurement, this could be a great way to ensure that prospective bidders are aware of your requirements.
Think on it, and certainly call us if you need help with your implementation!