Steps to get the right solution
How can government agencies be sure they are choosing the right technology solution at the best price?
In the case of technology, the typical request for proposal (RFP) process can sometimes hinder selection of an optimal solution because the RFP doesn't ask the right questions. Understandably, the questions posed are based on known available solutions presupposed to meet the government agency's needs. A problem with this approach is the speed at which technology evolves. Without an updated understanding of the possible technology solutions and their functionality, RFP questions are likely to limit the information received from vendors.
Incorporating thorough research and open communication early on in the process is at the core of best practices in technology solutions procurement. These elements are necessary long before the RFP is prepared and sent to technology solution vendors. Following are the sequential steps that have proven highly effective in technology solution procurement for local government agencies:
Gain governing board support. The governing agency employee seeking a technology solution must communicate clearly and regularly with the governing board about the challenges associated with an inadequate system. Emphasize the inefficiencies that are detrimental to the service the government agency must provide, and whenever possible, present the information in terms of statistics that illustrate the magnitude of the problem.
Form a selection committee. Identify key staff members and have a representative from each impacted area assist in the process of selecting the technology solution vendor.
Issue an RFQ or RFO. Send out a request for qualifications (RFQ), also sometimes called a request for offers (RFO). Most states have a provision that allows a local government agency to ask potential vendors to respond to a small set of qualifying questions. A list of potential vendors is usually available by researching online or speaking with neighboring counties. The questions included in an RFQ/RFO will help ensure that companies ultimately participating in the RFQ process have the right technology, services and expertise to bring a good solution to the table. As part of these questions, it is acceptable for the government agency to ask for ballpark pricing to help determine if the vendors are within competitive range. However, be aware that some vendors may provide high ballpark figures when many unknowns are present. Also, the RFQ/RFO process presents the opportunity for technology solution vendors to ask questions to better understand the challenges faced by the government agency.
Create a short list of qualified vendors. The selection committee should review each RFQ/RFO response, conduct a brief telephone interview, and select the top five to eight technology solution vendors to move on to the next step. Then, government officials should schedule a brief overview demonstration of each remaining vendor's solution to gain insight into each company's unique value proposition. The selection committee can then narrow down the list of vendors to three that will proceed to a full product demonstration.
Request full product demonstrations. The selection committee should ask the three remaining vendors to conduct a full product demonstration. Make sure the technology solution vendor is able to demonstrate the full capabilities of the system being proposed. Also, ensure that the system the vendor is demonstrating is the same version the vendor is proposing and that is installed at reference sites. There should be no excuses for the system not performing properly during the demonstration. After watching the product demonstrations, the committee can select the top two vendors that will continue to the next steps.
Conduct site visits. The selection committee should request a list of past installations from each remaining technology solution vendor so it can conduct site visits. Site visits are an important yet often overlooked step. Up to this point, the selection committee has only been exposed to the potential solutions from the vendors' perspectives. Conducting site visits enables the selection committee to validate the information provided by the vendors and determine whether or not there is a proven track record of success with the implementation and ongoing usage.
Update the governing board. With the information gathered through the site visits, the selection committee can then prepare a presentation for the governing board. That presentation should update the governing board about the progress made in researching viable solutions, including the provided high-level cost estimates.
Issue an RFP. After intensive research and communication with vendors to gain a complete understanding of the solutions available and once the vendors have a solid understanding of the selection committee's needs, the RFP should be issued. Depending on the size of the local government agency, this step might involve consultants or be handled by the county procurement department. Since many procurement departments prohibit vendor communication with selection committee members, issuing an RFP any time prior to this point could seriously impede the selection committee's ability to identify the best potential vendors for their particular challenges.
Negotiate and select. With proposals in hand, the selection committee is ready to negotiate final cost and terms. From there, the selection committee is well positioned to select the vendor that best meets its needs.
While each of these steps might not work for every local government agency, incorporating as many as possible will improve the technology solution procurement process. The more research and communication that occurs before the issuance of the RFP, the more likely the government agency is to learn about innovative technology solutions they may not have otherwise known. Empowered with knowledge of all possible solutions, local government agencies are able to choose the best solution confidently to meet their needs today and into the future.
About the author
Osvaldo Morales is president of LPS True Automation, Plano, Texas. He has spent more than 20 years working in the technology field, including posts that allowed him to interface directly with local governments to help them leverage technology for greater efficiency.