Procurement questions and answers

First, I see that I failed to provide an update to this post about pursuing APMP foundation certification.

My pursuit was successful, and I can now style myself John E. Bredehoft, CF APMP when I feel like it. (Although if I’m honest with myself, I won’t feel like it 99.9% of the time.)

Speaking of proposals…

Bobby Fischer, proposal professional?

In a post on my consulting blog, I talked about the chess-like tactics that bidders use in proposal activities.

  • In one example from many years ago, there was a bidders’ conference in which none of the bidders asked substantive questions in front of their competitors.
  • In a more recent example, no bidder even expressed public interest in a posted Invitation to Qualify.

As I noted:

In a competitive bid process, one unshakable truth is that everything you do will be seen by your competitors. This affects what you as a bidder do…and don’t do.

Bredemarket, “Canada’s IRCC ITQ B7059-180321/B and the biometric proposals chess match.”

There is another procurement phase in which bidders tread carefully. This is the phase in which the bidders can ask written questions to the procurement officer, and in which the procurement officer responds to these questions. The bidders who ask the questions (usually) aren’t identified in the responses, but the responses are distributed to all bidders and potential bidders.

Ideally, the request for proposals (RFP) guarantees that answers to questions will be provided in sufficient time so that bidders can include the relevant information in their proposals. For example, questions may be answered a week before proposals are due.

And there are some chess-like tactics that come in play here, also.

Now I’m not going to give away ALL of the tactics that I’ve used over the years, but I’ll mention three particular tactics that might come into play in the question-and-answer process. Two of these tactics can be used by the bidders asking the questions, and one of them can be used by the procurement officer answering the questions.

Tactic one: even the playing field (or declare an advantage)

Now I’ll grant that there are times that bidders ask questions for the primary purpose of getting answers to the questions. Surprising, but this does happen at times.

But there are other times in which the questions are motivated by something else: for example, a desire to make sure that all bidders submit proposals with similar costs.

For example, let’s say that bidder A uses a high-cost technology solution that conforms to ISO/IEC standard 12345-67, which bidder B commonly uses a low-cost technology solution that does not conform to this standard. If price is the only criterion, bidder B will win.

Unless bidder A negates bidder B’s price advantage.

Perhaps by asking a question like this:

To meet the City’s primary goal to protect the integrity and security of its citizens’ data, will the City disqualify all proposals that do not conform to ISO/IEC standard 12345-67, an internationally recognized standard that ensures data integrity and security?

Now this is a rather blunt way to state the question, and it could be worded in other ways, such as asking if ISO/IEC 12345-67 compliant proposals will receive higher technical scores.

Regardless of how the procurement officer answers the question, bidder A has made its point that bidder B is providing an inferior solution. Even if the procurement officer says that ISO/IEC 12345-67 compliance is unnecessary, bidder A’s proposal can hammer the point home. Depending upon the “personality” of bidder A, the final proposal can either tout the positives of ISO/IEC 12345-67 compliance, or it can warn the City that selecting bidder B’s proposal is tantamount to posting citizen data on the dark web for everyone to see!

Tactic two: ask a lot of questions

Let’s say that the procurement officer requires proposal submission in two weeks, and bidder A will have a really hard time meeting that deadline.

Now bidder A may have some really good reasons for requesting an extension. Maybe bidder A is working on three other large proposals that are due at the same time. Maybe bidder A is hosting a huge corporate event within the next week.

The procurement officer doesn’t care. As far as the procurement officer is concerned, his agency is the only important one out there. If bidder A really wants the procurement officer’s business, then perhaps bidder A should cancel its corporate event and no-bid the other three proposals.

So bidder A needs another tactic to get a proposal extension.

Such as asking a lot of questions.

Now bidder A doesn’t want to ask stupid questions. The questions need to be sound ones, and they need to be ones that deserve a well-researched answer.

But if it’s going to take the procurement officer three weeks to answer the questions, then obviously the proposals can’t be submitted in two weeks, and the procurement officer will have to extend the deadline.

(I’ll note in passing that this is the opposite tactic of NOT asking a lot of questions. If bidder C is the incumbent, bidder C probably already knows a lot of things that the competitors don’t know, so bidder C will ask as few questions as possible so that the other bidders don’t learn all this information.)

Tactic three: answer the questions that were asked

Procurement officers have to put up with these chess moves by all of the bidders.

Procurement officers also have to put up with the activities of internal stakeholders, such as the people who will be using the system, the information technology professionals who will implement it, and the bosses who want to look good because of the system.

Meanwhile, procurement officers have to satisfy their own needs, which often differ from the needs of internal and external stakeholders. Using an AFIS example, procurement officers don’t particularly care whether matching minutiae are shown in green or not, provided that the bid amount is in U.S. dollars and no unsuccessful bidder has grounds to throw out the procurement.

For example, let’s say that the request for proposal (RFP) includes the following requirement:

1.3(b) The system must have sufficient capacity to store a year’s worth of records online.

As far as the procurement officer is concerned, this is a perfectly good requirement. The bidders might not agree, and even the agency’s IT department might not agree, but as far as the procurement officer is concerned, it’s up to the successful bidder to meet that requirement, regardless of what “a year’s worth of records” means. Perhaps future trends will dictate that the system will need to store a lot of records, or perhaps it will only need to store a few records. Whatever needs to be done, the successful bidder will have to do it.

Now bidder A is understandably concerned that bidder B will underbid by estimating a low number of records. Therefore bidder A may try to even the playing field (tactic 1) with a question like this:

What was the total number of records in the system as of December 31, 2020? Can bidders assume that the number of records to be stored by the system will not exceed 120% of this amount?

As noted above, the procurement officer would prefer to pin the responsibility on the successful bidder. What if the number of records to be stored by the system ends up being 125% of the 2020 amount, or 130%, or 210%?

So it wouldn’t be surprising if the answer to this bidder question was as follows:

Please read requirement 1.3(b). The system must have sufficient capacity to store a year’s worth of records online.

“That’s no answer,” the bidders may say. But for the procurement officer, that answer is perfectly fine.

Meanwhile, the incumbent already knows that the system only stored 89,738 records at the end of 2020, and that this number has remained relatively constant for the last five years. So while the other bidders may overestimate the required storage, the incumbent will propose a more realistic number.

Not that it matters, because the incumbent will eventually be disqualified anyway for low management proposal scores. You see, the mayor was embarrassed when someone broke into the incumbent’s system and posted the data on the dark web. I guess ISO/IEC 12345-67 did matter after all.

And the mayor made sure that the right people were put on the evaluation committee to ensure that the mayor wasn’t embarrassed like that again.

Despite the procurement officer’s efforts to keep some of those people off of the evaluation committee.

In the end, the mayor rules.

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