The Match Game
It takes more than a swipe to ignite a successful vendor partnership; it takes a plan
Creating a great partnership with a vendor can sometimes feel like an impossible mission. Pre-planning in the early stages can make things easier later on.
That’s because the more you can strategically envision what your agency really needs, the more it helps to create a clearly articulated road map. The more a vendor knows and understands the nuances of your agency, the better they can support you.
When you’re anticipating a major purchase or project, start by doing a request for information to narrow down what things are important to you, especially if you’re just not sure what’s out there or what vendors have to offer, says Rose Jarois, director of the Department Services Administration, Michigan Department of State. Then request vendor demonstrations to see what they have to offer.
Pat Kohler, the former director of Washington State Department of Licensing, who stepped down at the end of June and became the deputy director, Liquor and Cannabis Board, says this is a great way to see what vendors have to offer.
“Doing an RFI helps you understand if you have enough money set aside in a budget and what is out there in the marketplace,” Kohler says.
Once an RFI is done, use that information to craft a targeted RFP by continuing the dialogue with vendors.
“Making government-vendor relationships work depends on being open, fair and transparent,” says Linda Dunstall, director of Road User Safety Modernization at the Ministry of Transportation Ontario. “And it starts with your request for proposal.”
After creating a draft of an RFP, but before it’s officially published, Dunstall will hold “vendor days” to meet with potential vendors to get their feedback, allowing them to ask questions, comment on timelines and address other project details.
“As long as you meet with everybody who wants to meet with you, you’re being fair,” she says. “The only thing you should never be transparent on is how much money is in your budget.”
Getting vendor recommendations on a project’s terms and conditions has helped stave off potential problems. For example, in some instances, Dunstall says vendors mentioned the timelines were too tight and unrealistic or they would be assessed penalties if they swapped out resources at appropriate times.
Having these conversations stopped barriers that might have been there unintentionally, she says, because in Canada, once an RFP is officially released, it usually can’t be altered without a change request, which can cause scrutiny to the process, depending on the terms and conditions.
Regardless of whether you’re in Canada or the United States, it is still important for government entities to articulate what they want with specific details and requirements in the RFP to avoid any confusion or ambiguity.
“But then be willing to adjust those requirements to what vendors have to offer,” Jarois says. “Don’t get so hung up on your requirements to the point where you’re going to exclude somebody.”
That’s why her preference is to not include too many deliverable specifics within the RFP.
“We’ve found it’s best to say, ‘We need a project plan or we need a staffing plan’ instead of dictating how that looks,” Jarois says. “Then, the state and the jurisdiction will develop an expectation document so that we can utilize the expertise we have and what our needs are.”
The expectation document outlines the project deliverables and sign-off criteria. “So we don’t get a written deliverable and go back and forth too often,” she says.
Don’t Cast Too Wide of a Net
Many reputable vendors can be turned off by the procurement process and not even bid on a job, especially if it is too complicated and cumbersome.
It’s one of the reasons government agencies should avoid using a “boil the ocean” approach says James Harrison, a partner at Fast Enterprises that is headquartered in Denver, Colo.
While some agencies may think this will help them achieve better bottom-line prices, Harrison says it will actually create an adverse effect where vendors will “nickel and dime” agencies.
The idea of asking for a massive amount of documentation in a proposal is based on a “false premise that you can actually know everything at a certain time,” Harrison says. It’s based on the idea that there will never be a change order or an additional cost, he says, because in an attempt to be complete, you’re going to make the RFP process ridiculous and complicated, and you’re not going to save money.
Instead, vendor and procurement officers recommend having an internal discussion about what really matters and what solutions are needed before creating an RFP draft.
“There are many times when we’re reading an RFP and it’s not clear how to respond,” says Steven Young, the senior vice president and director of state, local and commercial divisions at Mathtech in Hamilton, New Jersey, a company that helps agencies write RFPs and manage projects.
The reason: one section of an RFP will ask for a vendor’s project management approach and then for the vendor’s methodologies. “And, of course, one’s methodology overlaps with your project management approach,” he says. “And then [an agency] will ask for your approach for how you’re going to keep the project well managed, which, of course, is the first two things. But really all [the agency] wants to know is what your deliverables are, because the agency isn’t clear about the project management deliverables or system deliverables.”
That’s why Young always tells agencies they’ve got to put an appropriate amount of time into designing the project and pre-planning phase which will help determine a more positive outcome months, or even years later, and help thwart potential problems.
“An RFP is really a rulebook,” Young says. “Once that rulebook is written and everyone agrees to it, you shouldn’t change anything. You can, but it’s not easy and sometimes not fair. Once everyone gets quoted, then you’ve got to be ready to play the game as it is described in the RFP.”
Vetting and Managing Vendors
Getting a vendor who can actually do what they propose can sometimes be difficult.
Look at a vendor’s delivery track record, Young says. “But it’s got to be the right solution that meets your needs.”
Asking vendors to demonstrate their solution or conduct a proof of concept session provides agencies “a chance to test drive to make sure it works,” Kohler says. “We found those [demonstrations] to be very effective while also giving a vendor an opportunity to ask us questions in a Q&A format.”
This has helped to reduce the number of bid protests, where a vendor appeals because they feel there has been an error in the process or the situation was unfair, Kohler says.
To effectively manage vendors, Kohler recommends implementing a continuous review process to constantly evaluate if goals are being met. Even though hiring a third-party to oversee another vendor can make some contractors unhappy, Kohler says it creates “positive tension” because it helps identify where you have potential problems.
“It also helps to have an initial conversation about what you are going to do about it rather than just burying your head in the sand and ignoring it,” she says.
Dunstall uses a vendor scorecard that itemizes all project expectations. Every month the vendor has to self-evaluate their progress against the scorecard. “When we have our monthly meeting with a vendor, it shows areas that need to be improved,” she says.
To manage her projects and vendors, Jarois color codes the status of each project in red, for problems, yellow for things that are potential problems, and green for everything that is on time.
Then, before a project goes live, Jarois implements a “go, no-go” document that is developed at least six months ahead of a project’s targeted completion date. The comprehensive checklist includes every milestone that must be accomplished before the system is ready to go live. Although Jarois will include sample details of her potential “go, no-go” expectations in an RFP, she doesn’t finalize the document until vendor input has been given after the project has begun.
“To me, it is the best way to assess whether the system is ready to go live,” she says. “So there are no surprises later on.”
Make sure you follow a detailed process when embarking on a new vendor relationship. Here is a seven-category process developed by Road User Safety Modernization at the Ministry of Transportation Ontario. Each criterion should be ranked as follows:
1.1. Delivery conforms to RFP and IRFP response
1.2. Adhere to commitment on the requirements under the signed contract
2.1. Identification of Ministry dependencies
2.2. Identification of Ministry resources (knowledge and skills)
2.3. Collaboration with Ministry’s team (on schedule)
2.4. Finalizing project schedule that meets Ministry deliverable acceptance criteria
2.5. Effective schedule management
2.6. On-time delivery of key milestones per baseline schedule
Methodology and Process Execution – PMO
4.1. Status updates
4.2. Risk management
4.3. Issues management
4.4. Communications management
4.5. Compliance with escalation process
4.6. Compliance with change management process: mutual agreement to proposed changes
Systems Development Life Cycle
5.1. Design principles and integration strategy
5.2. Design authority
5.7. Data load and data migration
5.8. Roll out
5.10. Knowledge transfer
6.1. Ministry’s review
6.2. Third-party review
6.3. Audit review