I have just experienced a micro-example of the macro-disaster that is our government bureaucracy. I must say, if this experience is replicated only thirty percent of the time, we are wasting enormous amounts of taxpayer money.
We were excited to embark on a new venture – a consulting practice that would allow us to share some of the hard lessons we have learned about organizations and business strategy with others. We were particularly excited to receive designation as a veteran-owned, woman-owned business, thinking that would provide an opportunity to work with the government.
Two years later, I can say that consulting to the government is more politically charged than our government leaders, and the perfect example of building such a rigid infrastructure for one purpose, that causes unintended, myriad, costly ripple effects.
Requests for Proposal
Let’s first explore the concept of requests for proposal. It is a good concept. It requires the agency to state specifically the intended outcomes and parameters of the project so that those interested in bidding can compete on equal footing, therefore obtaining the best solution at the best price for the agency. The secondary purpose was, I believe, to eliminate cronyism in having consultants “in bed” with the government. Everything would be on the up and up.
After the first 10 or so RFPs I read, I was struck by the fact that every single RFP stated a pre-determined solution which was usually a commercial product or training program they expected the vendor to use. Okay, interesting. I would have thought that the agency would want the vendor to propose a process whereby they assess the need, and then propose the best solution for the need.
I began to figure out what was happening – they had a vendor already selected but had to go through the RFP motions, so they wrote the RFP in such a way that their preferred vendor would be a shoe-in. That was discouraging, so I read notices of RFPs as they came in, but didn’t propose.
You have to learn how to game the system
It was about this time that a colleague who recently left a government agency offered to introduce us to some contacts, because “that’s the way it works.”
Okay, I guess I get that, but it is disappointing to see that the infrastructure that was designed to level the playing field could be gamed just like anything else. What in its fundamental purpose was equal opportunity quickly gave way to “figure out how to get around it.”
A blatant example
Recently, one RFP popped up for which we decided to propose our solution. It smacked of a predetermined decision – they wanted a vendor who had experience teaching leadership to library leaders. Huh. We’ve developed leadership programs for multiple industries but we didn’t have this background. Given the nature of leadership we didn’t see why it matters, so we decided to submit a proposal, if only to have the opportunity to see what others, including the winner, had proposed. That way, we could learn how to improve our proposals.
On the day the winner would be announced, we checked the website, and sure enough the winner was the vendor who had library experience. We read through the other proposals, got a sense of pricing and learned quite a bit about the process. We thought that was the end of it.
Nope. Apparently someone challenged the process and the agency withdrew the RFP, saying they would re-publish at a later date. Interesting, eh?
A month later, the RFP was re-published verbatim with one exception. They now said that “cultural heritage” experience was preferred.
Breaking down the cost
Let’s hypothesize how this all played out.
• The agency – probably Purchasing and their internal client – spent time writing the RFP
• The agency invested time in reviewing the proposals with at least two participants, probably more
• Purchasing prepared the announcement of the winning bid and published.
Now here is where it might get interesting. Something happened to challenge their selection. At this point, multiple people become involved and spend time in multiple meetings trying to figure out how to get around this very real challenge so that they can engage the vendor they want.
Meetings cost money – real expense to the organization in the hours that various people spend both in the meetings and lobbying behind the scenes. There is intangible cost too, however. The dialogue that goes on in these meetings and the ultimate solution make it plain to employees on the sidelines that it is okay to game the system.
Trust? Why trust an organization that purports to have an infrastructure to facilitate equal opportunity when it is obvious that is not true.
My taxpayer dollars
I get the game; I don’t like it, but I get it. What bothers me more is the absolute waste of time and money in an agency that is using taxpayer dollars to pay employees to do work that adds no value to the organization.
Why don’t we just stop kidding ourselves that we want equal opportunity and get rid of all of the infrastructure. Surely we can find better uses for that money? Surely we can operate with integrity?
Graphic from presentermedia.com
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