Don’t be embarrassed by a bogus RFP

We’re working on some RFPs from a number of cities and counties and came across one that’s so heavily skewed toward a particular vendor, it inspired us to think about some principles that are worth considering if you work in procurement.  Although the examples are for mass emergency notification services, the lessons should apply to any RFP sent out by a government agency.  Because if you’re sending out an RFP the violates the guidelines below, I think you’re setting yourself up for trouble if other vendors complain to whoever you may be accountable to.

Quick note: we’re not going to file a complaint about this RFP.  If we’ve decided you don’t want our services, we just go find customers who do.

  1. Don’t list requirements you don’t understand.  There’s a requirement here to get a certification related to the “Safety Act”.  One of the criteria for that certification is that the technology is not widely released.  Since what we sell is used by thousands of cities and counties around the US, it’s pretty obvious that the technology is widely released and we’re not going to get that certification.  I doubt the RFP writer had any idea what they were asking for.
  2. Don’t list requirements that are irrelevant.  The city that issued this RFP has fewer than 20,000 people, which means fewer than 10,000 callable phones.  But they want proof that an emergency notification provider has previously placed 3 million calls in a 24 hour period.  That’s more than 300 times the capacity they are ever likely to require.  Do they really want to eliminate vendors that can only document, say, 1,000,000 calls in 24 hours?
  3. Don’t list requirements that are archaic.  This RFP requires a smartphone app running on Windows phones.  Now, since Microsoft has pretty much abandoned all three Windows phone operating systems developed over the last 10 years, this requirement raises all kinds of questions.  An obvious one would be this: “assuming you actually have some Windows phone users, wouldn’t it be cheaper just to get them to switch phones than pay the premium it will cost to limit yourself to one possible vendor?”
  4. Don’t use the “inside baseball” language.  There’s a line in this RFP that says vendors aren’t supposed to use “cascading calling methodology.”  Since there’s no definition of what that means, this kind of question accomplishes nothing.  Every vendor will simply respond the way they expect the customer wants the answer and the customer – who probably has no idea what the term means – is unlikely to challenge those answers.
  5. Design your requirements to address your REAL needs. Instead of getting caught up in obscure technicalities, specify requirements based on your objectives.  This RFP is full of technical details about a system that provides for communication between government agencies. It happens that most government agencies don’t actually use the system discussed, so all the details about how it works are so many words about nothing of consequence. Meanwhile, the RFP asks comparatively little on how a vendor will effectively get an emergency message in front of the largest number of citizens in an effective way.

Of course, if you’re required to send out an RFP and you really know who you want to choose, maybe these questions serve a valuable purpose.  After all, we’re not going to use our valuable time to respond to an RFP that’s obviously skewed to a particular vendor.  And if you’re the buyer, you’re not wasting your time going through the motions pretending that you’re actually comparing vendors fairly.  In many ways, sending out an RFP that pretends to be fair is actually worse for all involved, since it usually takes a lot of time to answer one of these.

If you really want to have some viable options and get the best deal for your agency, consider an outcome-focused RFP that’s based on your actual objectives.  In our case, we think that most buyers should want to reach as many of their citizens – and often, staff members –  as they can, as easily, quickly, reliably and effectively as they can. Requirements that are built around these specific goals tell us that you’re a serious buyer, worthy of our attention.

Thanks for letting me rant.  Now I’ve got to get back to answering the other RFP I have on my desk.


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