Are public sector RFPs the equivalent of a pro wrestling match in terms of outcome?

Posted on June 27, 2011


Has anyone had an experience challenging a requirement in an RFP as not a true requirement? Using Blake’s “must have completed some ridiculous certification course that I have never heard of” example, has anyone had experience challenging that as not necessary? Would the same results from someone who hadn’t completed the certification couse be just as valid?

Posted by Randall Senn in the LinkedIn Discussion:What “RED FLAGS” do you look for when evaluating a Federal RFP.

Even though the main or central theme for this week’s posts are focused on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), the above discussion comment from the Federal Government Contractor Network (TFCN) on LinkedIn was too compelling to pass over without adding my two cents . . . which I did as follows:

A very interesting and even potentially incendiary question Randall as past experience has shown that this is the preferred method for slanting the RFP towards a particular vendor. Combined with the fact that expert opinion contends that 90% of all RFP winners are decided before the actual RFP is issued would tend to indicate that this happens with greater frequency than one might suspect.

As we discussed on many occasions from radio roundtable discussions to Internet television programs to even the release of a white paper titled Transparency in Government Procurement, the fact that as Judy Bradt so eloquently put it when she said that suppliers have to legitimately and transparently win buyer preference, I have always expressed the opinion that people buy from people they know, like and trust – period!

What is interesting is that the market, especially as of late, recognizes this and as a result few suppliers actually pursue government contracts given the onerous time and financial commitments associated with the RFP process.  Or as Mark Amtower stressed in an interview earlier this year, 80% of all government business is won by 20% of the usual suspects.

Of course there have been exceptions, albeit rare, such as with the Commonwealth of Virginia’s eVA program which between the time of it’s launch in 2001 and 2007 saw it’s supply base grow from 26,000 to 34,000.  The key is not so much in relation to the growth in numbers but, the significant percentage increase in terms of active suppliers that is most compelling.

eVA is the procurement platform in Virginia

In 2001 only 23% of the entire Commonwealth’s supply base received or won contracts.  By 2007 that number more than doubled to 47%.  Suffice to say, and even though eVA like any program has its detractors, it has become a blueprint that have led other States in the US, and even the Federal Government in Canada, to seek input from its executive brain trust.

The real question is whether or not the Virginian success is indeed scalable across the broader market, or if an eVA is one of those successes that is based on a one-time convergence of factors such as leadership, application utilization and economic timing.  The challenges with the healthy percentage of software vendors who have been unable to convert a one-time, big win into sustainable success would tend to favor the latter.

Virginia notwithstanding, as well as the recent Google lawsuit in which the company contested the legality of a contract being awarded to Microsoft, there is little evidence that the chasm between the purported level playing field ideal of transparency and the reality of human nature in terms of how we interact and ultimately do business will ever be bridged.  I merely have to point to a post in this blog titled The Bands of Public Sector Supplier Engagement, and in particular the article 25 Public-Sector Channel Leaders (ChannelWeb Network, March 19, 2007).

Next to the revelation that as you review the backgrounds of the “leaders” featured in the ChannelWeb article, one cannot help but note that 11 of the 25 individuals listed have at least 20 or more “years in the public sector,” and for the most part all represent large, multinational suppliers, is the following statement:

“To really leverage vendor partnerships, solution providers need an in.  For the public sector, that entre has to go beyond the program to the individual behind it who understands the market nuances and challenges that can hold partners back.”

Perhaps this explains what I have called the cross-pollination effect in which certain individuals have worked in both the private and public sectors.

All this being said, the real question at the end of the day is whether or not suppliers like a Linda Lazarowich, M.Sc., take a strategic view of government procurement in which they build natural boundaries to competition by only pursuing those opportunities in which they have a specific and unique competitive advantage.

On the other side of the transaction fence, it is about time that the public sector abandon the love all, serve all mirage that leads to counter-productive laws and policies that in reality do little to ensure best value decision-making on the part of buyers and on behalf of the taxpayer.

What are your thoughts?