Planning November 2013
Better RFPs, Please
One consultant suggests how to bring the request-for-proposals process into the 21st century
By Tim Baldwin, AICP
Those of you in the planning business, either on the public agency side or the consultant side, are familiar with this process:
First, a request for proposals (an RFP) or a similar document with lots of initials (request for qualifications — RFQ — or a statement of interest or SOI) for a planning project is sent out from the agency (it could be a local, regional, or state government, a transit agency, or other similar entity). If those of us in the consulting field are on the ball and have done our homework, we know about it in advance. But sometimes we stumble on it by sheer luck or by trolling agency notifications, and often we decide to pursue it without any advance information. (Sometimes we like to live dangerously!)
Sometimes there is a pre-proposal meeting requiring time and (if it's out of town) significant expense to attend. We all know how those go: Very few questions are asked (we don't want to give anything away to our competitors!), and the main purpose (despite the agency's best intentions) is to allow us to scope out the competition.
Then we go back to our offices and churn out multiple hard copies (10? 12?) of proposals, sometimes 100 pages long but usually more, often with page after page of forms and disclosures. We spend hundreds and often thousands of dollars on staff time and for printing and delivery costs. Then we sit around for days wondering if we've made the short list.
If we do, we spend more hundreds or thousands of dollars preparing a presentation (sometimes traveling out of town to interview sites) and meeting with team members to rehearse, get our hour in the sun with a stoic review committee, and then sweat out the results. Sometimes we hear back quickly, but more often it takes days, if not weeks, before the agency gives us the final verdict. And when we do hear results, sometimes we get timely feedback and sometimes we get nothing.
This is how things were done back when I moved to Denver to help open a consulting office — in 1993! Twenty years later, not much has changed. At least now we can retrieve most RFPs online instead of by mail, but otherwise the process is almost exactly the same as in the year that Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president.
In the meantime, the rest of the world is moving at the speed of Generation Flux, defined by Fast Company magazine as a "diverse set of innovators who ... tolerate — and even enjoy — recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions." By the way, for you fellow Baby Boomers, Generation Flux is made up of our kids.
Why hasn't this process adapted to the changing times? Why hasn't this business model been recalibrated?
My thought is that agencies take a conservative approach because of often burdensome regulatory requirements (have you filled out any forms for projects that were funded by an FTA grant lately?) and reduced budgets and personnel. But consulting firms also must work within budgetary constraints, and these cumbersome processes do not help our firms' bottom lines.
I've been on both sides of the table, as a public employee in a previous life and now as a consultant, and I believe there must be a better way, so I have a few suggestions:
- First, let's create centralized — and free — clearinghouses for RFP availability. Currently we must subscribe to scores of RFP electronic distribution sites, each with its own user name and password requirements (we have multipage spreadsheets to keep track of them). A nationwide website with no firewalls that serves every municipality, county and state government, and transit agency should be established to make all RFPs available to anyone who wants them. The RFP page on the APA website is a good model, but it is voluntary and therefore limited. And stop charging for RFPs! I know agencies want to find out who is serious by charging consultants $5 or $10 to download RFPs, but does that really facilitate the free flow of information?
- Don't make us guess about the budget. Every agency has an idea about how much its particular project will cost; often, it's in a regional long-range plan anyway. Especially for planning projects, don't be coy about having us develop a budget based exclusively on your scope of work; give us some idea — even a range will do — so we can craft our proposal to meet your needs.
- Conduct pre-proposal meetings by WebEx, Skype, or another interactive medium. Many outlying agencies in Colorado do this already, and there are numerous meeting sites available on the Internet that are becoming easier to use every year. I know you want to see us face-to-face, and there is great value in that in many cases, but since most pre-proposal meetings are 30 minutes or less, the use of electronic meeting formats (especially for projects that attract large numbers of out-of-town bidders) would make our lives easier.
- Allow electronic submission of proposals, preferably by e-mail (or Dropbox or a similar system if files are large). Some agencies are moving in that direction already, but most still require large documents to be printed and delivered.
- Be considerate of our time for proposal preparation. I know you have a schedule to meet, but when it is delayed please don't be tone-deaf. One agency we dealt with recently released an RFP during the first week of December, with proposals due on January 3. Really? If the roles were reversed, would you want to spend your holidays preparing a massive proposal?
- Use common sense when scheduling presentations, too. We certainly like knowing that you want to hear from us in person, and we want to dazzle you with our new ideas. But do meetings really have to be scheduled on Monday mornings? One agency recently scheduled interviews for a project on the Monday after Easter. Again, would you want to be in that position? Please give us a range of options for interviews; scheduling team members (especially those from out of town) is often problematic, so the more flexibility you have in scheduling interviews the better.
- Use imagination when developing interview formats. Be flexible about having some out-of-town team members available by Skype or other electronic medium. Have us focus on creativity, and structure a process other than the traditional 30 minutes for presentation and 30 minutes for Q&A. Encourage us to use Prezi or other alternative presentation formats, and ask us to bring video presentations showing our ideas in action instead of just clicking through another boring PowerPoint. Those traditional presentation formats are as uninspiring and uninteresting for us as they are for you. Or ditch the presentation format altogether and ask us to help you with an hour or so of free consulting advice. The city of Thornton, Colorado, recently did just that for an interview for its TOD plans. In that case, we spent 90 minutes answering their questions, posing questions to them, and discussing potential options for station area development. It was engaging, stimulating, and interesting for everyone who participated.
- Be excited when you ask us questions. I know it's been a long day and you've been through three or four interviews already, but at least show some life when you ask us your stock questions. You expect us to be engaged, so you should be, too. And let us get to know you. One agency, fearing undue communications with its interview team members, refused to allow its team members to introduce themselves, even though we knew most of the people in the room. We had to act as if we did not know them and certainly could not address them by name, which was incredibly awkward.
- And we could really use good and timely information about the results along with feedback. If we are not selected, we sincerely want to know where we came up short and how we could improve in the future. I have dealt with agencies whose procurement staff kept promising yet delaying a feedback session for weeks and even months. When faced with that type of intransigence, one usually gives up. I did.
Without naming names (I want to continue to work for most of you in the future!), here are examples of some of the worst offenders.
One transit agency I've worked with is notorious for badly written and confusing RFP documents. It needs a proofreader and editor, as its RFPs are consistently inconsistent. Documentation requirements listed in one section are often contradicted in another, with little or no clarification at pre-proposal meetings. Even answers to follow-up questions often add a third layer of complexity and confusion, requiring follow-up questions to the follow-up questions.
Another agency I've dealt with is extremely noncommunicative about any follow-up at all. It still sends out notices of RFP availability through the mail instead of allowing for e-mail notification sign-ups. And after the proposal and interview processes are complete, it refuses to allow any feedback or follow-up questions.
I don't know if some of these policies are the personal preferences of the staff members responsible for managing the RFP or if they are agency-wide, but I have been tempted to go to higher-ups to make gentle suggestions about improving the process (though I have refrained so far as I am assuming they would ask me to name names).
But it wouldn't be fair to go on and on about agencies whose procurement practices are less than ideal. Some I've dealt with take an extremely practical approach to these issues. One in particular stands out: the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority in Aspen, Colorado.
An RFP from RFTA is a model of consistency and clarity. It says precisely what is needed from consultants, gives us clear tasks and scopes, and tells us the budget. It also gives us the opportunity to propose optional services that go beyond the established budget in case additional resources become available.
The agency tells us who has downloaded its RFPs so we have an idea of the competition. Its pre-proposal meeting process is conducted by WebEx, which is helpful given the agency's remote location in the Roaring Fork Valley four hours west of Denver (of course, one can attend in person if desired), and it quickly distributes a list of those who attended the web-based meeting.
It automatically and rapidly e-mails everyone on the attendance list copies of addenda and responses to questions. Its proposal submittal process is also very simple: It asks us to upload one PDF copy to the agency's website. That's it. No multiple printed copies. No delivery fees, and no worry if the submission will get there by the deadline. And the agency offers optional interview participation by phone if needed.
I'm sure there are other agencies out there that have similar user-friendly processes. I am encouraged by seeing this tiny move in the right direction and am hopeful that others will follow suit.
My general impression of the planning RFP process in this country is that many agencies issuing the RFPs have little or no empathy for the consultants they want to hire. Most agencies generally do not understand, are not sensitive to, or are not aware of our feelings, thoughts, and experiences, and especially our schedules.
I do not believe agencies need to "test" consulting firms to determine if they are worthy of selection. Make it easy on everyone — including yourselves — and have some empathy for us. Remember, you may be on our side of the table someday.
Tim Baldwin is an associate with the consulting firm Steer Davies Gleave and helps lead the company's transit planning practice from its Denver office.
Published in summer 2013: Working with Planning Consultants, Planning Advisory Service Report 573, by Eric Damian Kelly, FAICP. See www.planning.org/publications/report/9026897/.
RFPs may be listed for free (and viewed for free) on the APA website. Go to www.planning.org/consultants/.