Tired of the Same Ol’ Chicken?
Preference programs foster diversity of the supplier base, which is an important component of any agency’s overall procurement strategy. However, concerns remain over the cost and legality of these programs. If faced with a situation where preference programs do not apply, a procurement professional should rest assured that a myriad of strategies exists that can strengthen and support a diverse contracting community ready to compete for bids. Even if you end up with the chicken entree, at least there was stiff competition in making the menu.
Step One: Gather Your Ingredients. Analyze your current situation and performance according to your definition of diversity. Most likely you will be called upon to justify your efforts to support diversity in a “lowest responsible bidder” climate, which is difficult without a baseline for measuring improvement. Pull this baseline information from your current vendor records, survey your contractors, or check with other local governmental agencies with established preference programs about the suppliers you may have in common. Once you have established your baseline, here are ideas for ways to support diversity without preference programs.
Step Two: Mix in the Experts. Resources are available to provide input on how to support diversity at your agency in a low-bid environment. Contact or survey your local Chambers of Commerce, business groups and non-profit business assistance agencies to identify the perceived challenges and benefits of doing business with your agency. These groups can also suggest strategies to assist your agency in connecting with their members. Asking these experts for input will enable you to establish relationships with key gatekeepers in the business community with direct contact to a diverse supplier community.
Where do I start?. Going after government business can be daunting for some businesses, especially smaller businesses that may not have in-house personnel dedicated to the bidding or proposal process. Establish a regularly scheduled training course on how to do business with your agency to help all vendors understand the rules and processes associated with contracting. Training will help bring in potential new respondents. Chambers of Commerce and local business groups can help get the word out.
Raising the bar. In addition to general training on how to do business, targeted training – especially in the area of construction-related services – can help support smaller contractors in their efforts to stay afloat and competitive in today’s market. Local construction alliances and other governmental agencies may be willing to co-support this effort. Larger construction firms are good sources of free instructors. It is to their benefit to enhance the skills and abilities of businesses that could be their future subcontractors.
Is anyone out there?. With the current state of the economy, we expect a deluge of bids. If it doesn’t happen, you should assess what you did to encourage competition. Did you lay the ground work to encourage firms to register as vendors so they could be automatically notified of bids? Can the experts you involved earlier help to get the word out? Could social media such as Twitter be useful? How easy is it to find procurement opportunities on your website? It is imperative to strategically publicize solicitations fairly yet widely enough to reach a diverse supplier base.
Debrief bidders – winners and losers. Make no bones about it, debriefs are an excellent way to find out both the good and the bad about your processes. Approach debriefs not on the defensive, but as a way to share information openly about the solicitation process. You may find that there are barriers that could be removed to enhance competition. Bidders will gain knowledge of what makes a successful bid or proposal and how they can improve in the future.
Measure. After you employ methods designed to support diversity, measure the change at pre-established intervals. Adjust your programs as needed to continue to make progress toward your diversity goals.
Support of a “lowest responsive bidder” environment is not antithetical to support of diversity. There is nothing free about the methods suggested to help support diversity. Time is an increasingly valuable commodity due to its shrinking supply as workforces are downsized, yet having a diverse supplier base is not only a smart business practice, but a stimulant to the economy. Adding the above tactics to your procurement arsenal will not only help foster free and open competition, but will also support diversity regardless of whether your agency employs preferences for underrepresented or underutilized business segments.
About the author
Melissa Hala’ufia, CPPB, is a commodity contracts officer in Pima County, Ariz. This article is based on the winning entry in the 2011 NIGP Diversity Essay Contest.