Many times, public sector procurement teams can feel like their relationships with suppliers are Us vs Them. Suppliers may be frustrated by a lack of communication and purchasing managers may feel like they’re not getting the performance and pricing they want. Improving these relationships can lead to strong outcomes, including better pricing, quicker fulfillment, and happier end users.
Recently I attended a standing room only panel discussion at the National Institute of Government Purchasing’s (NIGP) Annual Forum addressing, “Why Suppliers are Still Choosing to No Bid,” moderated by Danielle Hinz, a former County and Higher Ed CPO. Procurement professionals on the panel spoke about the need for suppliers to understand their requirements, limitations, and challenges— while suppliers stressed that they seek more opportunities to have an open dialogue with government procurement teams and share information.
Refer to NIGP’s white paper titled, “We No Bid and I’ll Tell You Why.”
This is a topic that has been debated for years, as deepening the connection and collaboration between buyers and suppliers is critical to overall acquisition success. Yet building these connections can still be elusive.
Twelve years ago, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Daniel Gordon issued a memo to federal chief acquisition officers addressing misconceptions to improve communications with industry during the acquisition process. The memo went viral in the world of government procurement because it struck a nerve with many about the often-rocky relationship between suppliers and buyers.
Here we are years later still discussing and debating the topic.
As a former government procurement professional and now as a supplier selling into the public sector, I’ve seen firsthand the strategies that are most successful in building stronger connections. These strategies may seem obvious and simplistic, but they are not always frequently or consistently applied despite their ability to drive program and mission success.
Recognizing that public sector acquisition team may have to conduct or adapt these activities according to their own rules on supplier engagement, I’ve outlined below a few of my favorite activities that can be taken before, during and after the bidding process.
This may not seem like an obvious strategy to build strong connections until one considers how costly and time-consuming it is for both suppliers and acquisition teams to undertake the bidding process. Many suppliers, particularly small and diverse businesses, don’t have the resources to bid multiple times across hundreds of public sector institutions. Nor is it always possible for under-staffed acquisition teams, especially those at small and medium sized institutions, to develop, issue, evaluate, award and administer a contract.
It’s therefore mutually beneficial to both parties to start the acquisition process by first seeking suppliers through cooperative contracts. It allows the buying team to take advantage of suppliers already pre-vetted for their performance, capabilities, and enterprise-level pricing through the cooperative’s public sector bidding process. Suppliers can realize economies of scale by competing once and growing their sales by reaching many more public sector customers.
Gathering information from suppliers early in the acquisition lifecycle, well before a public sector acquisition team issues their solicitation, helps government or education officials gather information and conduct market research. These are typically more informal conversations to enable an acquisition professional to gather information from a variety of suppliers with a variety of viewpoints.
The challenge for a supplier is to secure a meeting, with some procurement teams requiring suppliers to first register as a vendor, while other teams believe that a one-on-one supplier meeting may show favoritism. There are often ways that public sector procurement teams can meet with suppliers to learn and gain knowledge about the industry—while still adhering to their rules and policies.
Driving more suppliers to compete for a Request for Proposal (RFP) not only signals a fair, open and competitive process, but also leads to stronger proposals and outcomes.
Writing an inviting and clear Statement of Work is critical to driving those strong outcomes. By getting qualified suppliers excited about the opportunity to work with you and providing a clear sense of the work required of them, acquisition teams open up the process to new, innovative suppliers and solutions as well as traditional suppliers.
Yet sometimes acquisition teams draft a laundry list of requirements—from tasks they must undertake to requirements they must meet—which can drive a supplier to focus more on compliance and less on performance and outcomes.
In the end, this can drive up costs, create a more antagonistic relationship between the supplier and acquisition team, and scare away suppliers who want to bring innovative solutions to the table. Successful SOWs should focus on the goals the team wants to achieve.
Using a SOW sets clear parameters and expectations, allows the supplier to be inventive and creative about how to achieve them, and more importantly, leaves the supplier excited about a potential partnership.
A debriefing, which allows suppliers to evaluate the proposal and understand the results of their evaluation through a constructive dialogue with the contracting officer or team, is central to the public sector commitment to openness and transparency in the acquisition process.
A debrief helps suppliers improve their performance, which in turn drives value to the public sector institution. Public Sector procurement teams can also learn from the supplier about ways to improve their internal procurement processes.
And yet debriefings are still not consistently happening in the bid process.
This not only hinders the supplier from growing and improving but can discourage suppliers from competing.
One supplier at NIGP’s panel discussion shared that his company will not compete for an RFP if he does not see a debriefing in the bidding schedule.
Sometimes I hear that the main purpose of a debriefing is to thank the supplier for competing and to encourage them to try again. While that is important, a debriefing is also a useful tool to educate the supplier on their strengths and areas of improvement. I understand that small, under-resourced acquisition teams may find this task daunting or worry that it will be an antagonistic discussion; however, a well-run debriefing can lead to enormous benefits by building stronger relationships and driving better results in the long term.
Robust, timely, and specific feedback is needed from key stakeholders so that agencies can continually consider and improve their performance in early supplier engagement efforts and internal acquisition practices.
Earlier this year, the Federal Government issued a regulation to encourage use of “Acquisition 360,” a voluntary online survey to elicit feedback on the pre-award and debriefing process in a consistent manner. It was based on a memo I issued in 2015 when I served as Administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, in which I stated that “successful acquisitions depend on a clear understanding of the market’s capabilities and dynamics, and this requires early and meaningful engagement with industry and the application of strong management practices within the agency.”
The memo outlined specific steps that agencies could take to improve how they receive and act upon this feedback through the survey tool. This can serve as a useful model for state, local and education procurement teams as they seek to strengthen supplier relationships and improve their overall acquisition process.
Because at the end of the day it’s not Us vs Them—we’re all in this together.
Anne Rung is the SVP of Public Sector at Varis, a procurement technology platform that serves government and education customers. Anne is the former U.S. Chief Acquisition Officer in the White House, and Deputy Secretary of Procurement for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.