Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bidding NJ Contracts: Part one

I was a contracting manager for the State of NJ from the early 80s until 2009, so I've been part of some changes in procurement policies over the years. Until 2005 or so, most state bids had Bidder's Conferences. Our procurement team and the Purchase Bureau (PB) assigned buyer would sit at the head table facing all the bidders in a good-sized conference room - representatives from big and small companies alike. Our practice was to go thru the bid document, the Request for Proposal (RFP), page by page and entertain questions from the bidders.

I was the State contract manager for many bids, probably more than two dozen during that time. All my contracts were big, worth millions to the successful contractor, so a lot was at stake.Up until 2005 or so, being a contract manager wasn't formalized. The agency designated someone, and the PB Buyer followed their lead, adding or changing as things went along. The buyer had ultimate say, so as a contract manager, I was careful to keep on good terms with the PB Buyers. Mike Shifman, the Information Technology buyer, and I became good buddies, often going to lunch together, or shopping downtown. This paid off in being able to maintain requirements to my liking and not having many deletions and changes, not that the buyer was out to get me or anything. It just helped, since in most cases, I wrote all the specifications to begin with. Don't get me wrong, none of the buyers were pushovers, Mike included, but sensible explanations were accepted more readily.

After 2005 I and all other Contract Managers had to pass a PB online exam to maintain state contract manager status. I passed mine at over 80% correct. There was no text to study beforehand, no cheat sheets. you registered online and took the multiple choice test. This was a good thing, something I had personally been pushing for years - buyer education, especially at the agency level - where non existed. literally, none. Lowly clerks usually were promoted to  buyer and learned the good and the bad, the right way and the wrong way, from their predecessor - if they were lucky. In all my 30 years of buying and contracting activities, PB hosted only one general training session on buying , and that was a mere recitation of DPA buying regulations (purchases up to $17,500 at the time), with Q&A thrown in.

The buyers at PB did not want to appear as roadblocks, since their job was to help me and other agency personnel acquire the products and services legally. Some buyers were easy, deferring on everything, others were very hard, but logical, like my friend Ed Cotterell. He asked tough questions, and together we hammered out compromise language that we inserted in my Request for Proposal - the bid document. But all buyers asked the tough questions testing the RFP premises, mostly looking to cut overly restrictive language. And I had no choice in the matter if there was a conflict - the buyer was king. This went well when the buyer was savvy, particularly about the specific product or service. For me, it meant RFP's for purchasing computer hardware (equipment) and software, and services, and also buying energy for all state agencies -- combined $00 million contracts annually just for electricity and natural gas. A lot of responsibility for a kid from Trenton with no college degree and no formal training in procurement. Well, not much considering my scope of responsibility. Magnify a general lack of training among the hundreds of agency clerks and buyers and you see why the procurement process was skewed.

During the early days, the bid process would take an average of three or four months tops from start to finish. When I left in 2009, one of our RFP's had sat at PB a year before being assigned to a Buyer - totally unacceptable, but also acceptable because I had no recourse. On that particular contract, after being assigned for months with no activity on the RFP, the buyer dropped out because he couldn't get to it and another PB buyer was assigned. Not a great way to do business. What drove these buyers was the existing contract expiration date. And they had the power to extend these contracts for their own lazy, or overwhelmed, reasons. They were tough when I asked for an extension, but could easily do it for themselves. I asked a buyer friend of mine to write down all the RFP steps and timings, and Bob Coyle gave me a detailed list which specified one year to completion. So if I got mine done under six months, I was overjoyed.

The upshot of these delays were that many of us agency buyers wqrote waivers - bypassing the bid process altogether. A waiver generally took a month more or less. Yes, there were only certain legal excuses i could use with a waiver of advertising, but they all worked. I never had a waiver rejected, and I probably walked thru close to ninety in my thirty years as a contract manager.

But back to the Bid Conference. as the writer of the RFP, I knew it backwards and forwards -- I was supposed to so I did. Bid conferences in those days were where the bidders asked all their questions -- some obvious, some oblique and some asinine. Our goal was to answer each one right there and then. If we didn't or couldn't, it meant we had to consult afterwards or do research, and a written addendum had to be issued causing more delay. No matter what, we didn't want delays - it was tough enough just getting the bid process started. It was critical to meet the Bid Due Date printed on the RFP.

So you got to be quick with answers given at the bid conference. The goal was to keep answers as brief as possible -- a simple no or yes was always best, never a maybe. And each question and answer was recorded -- the whole proceeding was recorded on cassette tapes. There was only on bid conference where i had to go back thru the tapes and listen carefully to what was said, so we'd have the right answer for the addendum. In all the many bids i worked on, I only ever saw one transcript of a bid conference that PB paid for. They were loathe to do it because it was expensive, and they had a tight budget like everyone else so transcripts were rarely done. So that meant taking care in answering the bidder's questions. This all was part of the public record after all.

The best part of having open bidder's conferences with Q&A, was that once the session was over, it was over. It was recorded, so we didn't have to issue any answers in writing - no addendum. That was the best part. As well as the fact, that if an answer wasn't understood, clarifications were asked and answered right then and there.

I'm proud to say that of all the bid awards I had challenged, i.e. the formal protest, none were due to poor answers at the bid conference. Protests are another worthy segment I'll write about. 

Since 2006 or so, with eBidding, bid conferences are gone entirely. All questions are asked and answered online, in writing, which is just terrible. More on that in Part two.

Now it's 2014 and checking my eRFP emails for State DPM&C and PB notices I see that the critical Bid Conferences have made a comeback and are back in vogue, Ah, as the pendulum swings, they saved themselves as Poe wrote. Yes, they have intrinsic value, knowedge has value. And knowledge arises from questioning reality and the perceptions of reality, in this case, State ideas fior what they want, traditionally not perfect at making their wishes clear. That's why when the BAFO (Best and Final Offer) process was approvwed 10 years ago or so, it was a step in the right direction to negotiating better descriptions and tighter requirements. Which, will always save money!

 Change is good, but perfecting what works is better!

Rodney Richards copyright 2014

Check out my bipolar journey with happy interludes in my memoir Episodes available no from, as well as my other longtime blog, ABlessedLifeinAmerica on Google's Blogger!