Expert: Public purchasers’ dependence on cooperative contracts will grow as the pandemic crisis winds down
With continued work-from-home measures in place post-pandemic, public buyers will continue to rely more heavily on cooperative contracts to help save time and money, predicts Jennifer Sulentic, vice president of CompareCoOps. Reduced staffing levels and budget cuts may also play a role in greater use of cooperative agreements, Sulentic believes.
CompareCoOps is a secure, independent technology platform that enables governments to obtain competitive quotes from local and national cooperative contract suppliers. State and local government and education (SLED) buyers from more than 150 agencies have registered to use the evaluation and comparison tool.
COVID-19 has packed a punch, Sulentic explains. “The pandemic has forced more buyers away from opportunities to network in-person with supplier reps. This environment makes it difficult for buyers to learn about new products, plus they’re being tasked to find items never considered before (i.e., personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitization solutions). It can be a major time strain to search the internet or reach out to other buyers to ask where to find such items. Once found, there may not be time to put out a formal solicitation.” Sulentic notes that even if time to complete a solicitation is available, most states require buyers to only choose the cheapest option. Her conclusion: “Cooperative purchasing enables buyers to select the most qualified companies with the best value.”
Sulentic says her firm’s offering provides exposure for companies that have exactly what the agency needs on already aggressively priced, existing cooperative contracts. By using the platform, public buyers don’t have to search the Internet or send out multiple emails to find what they need. “On CompareCoOps, it’s all in one easy-to-use, free system.”
Yes, cooperative agreements can potentially save time and staff effort compared to going out for formal bids. “Why reinvent the wheel when your peers have already done an extensive public bid? Larger agencies often have subject matter experts on staff, or their spend volume far exceeds your agencies’ volume. Either way, procurement professionals save a lot of time and headache by using their staff, knowledge and experience,” Sulentic says. She adds that large national contracts may also command important non-price benefits like free shipping, training or even rebates that an individual agency might not be able to achieve through its formal bidding process.
Sulentic suggests that public procurement teams do their homework when searching for the best cooperative contract. “With so many advantageous cooperative purchasing contracts available nationwide, often for the same products or services or even from the same companies, it can be difficult to know which contract is the best for your agency. For the ultimate cooperative contract ‘bake-off,’ use our platform’s request wizard to find and compare already competitively solicited contracts from multiple companies and multiple cooperatives.” She urges public buyers to take advantage of the benefits and savings of cooperative contracts. She notes that through CompareCoOps’ tools, public purchasers can conduct a thorough comparison process that includes a robust audit trail.
Sulentic has seen an expansion in the number of companies that have multiple contracts with several cooperatives. “It’s harder than ever to know what option is the best value for your organization. In addition, more oversight groups, such as county boards, city councils, state legislative auditors (especially for K-12 districts), and chief procurement offices in several state agencies are requiring buyers to show proof that they have ‘compared’ cooperative purchasing options versus allowing buyers to repeatedly select their favorites without justification.”
She believes evaluation platforms like the one her firm offers ensures compliance by using the already competitively bid cooperative contract. Her firm’s platform, she explains, adds the extra due diligence to prove the best value is being realized each time. “Tools like CompareCoOps allow the buyer to complete this exercise easily, without significant extra work.”
Sulentic believes it’s a common myth that small, local and disadvantaged companies can’t be a part of cooperative purchasing contracts. “Companies that are awarded large national cooperative contracts can, and often do, partner with local small, Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), Women Business Enterprise (WBE), or other disadvantaged businesses.” She notes that in areas like construction services or where extensive support is required, these contracts may even spell out that the national company must use local labor or services.
She adds that her platform’s functionality provides each agency with the ability to ask required questions of respondents that may cover partnering with local small, MBE, WBE or other disadvantaged businesses. “CompareCoOps users can include direct questions regarding small, women-owned and other disadvantaged businesses. These questions must be answered for the supplier to submit its quote to the buyer. Since requirements for these categories are unique from agency to agency, the supplier answers and commits to these certifications in real time for the exact requirements of the specific agency.”
Sulentic predicts local governments will enjoy expanded cooperative agreement choices in the future. “Every day, national and regional cooperatives are adding more categories and contracts to their portfolios based on growing agency demands. Increased usage by public agencies is also encouraging new cooperatives to join the marketplace.” She notes that this trend can be both exciting and confusing. “Our system allows buyers to direct their quote requests and questions to cooperative contract holders quickly and easily.”
Michael Keating is senior editor for American City & County. Contact him at [email protected].