The drawing up of suitable specifications for construction projects is one of the most difficult aspects of the purchasing assignment.
Frequently one finds that the specifications used in an RFP or tender can be traced back to some manufacturer’s product description. Often, the specifications in question are unrealistically precise in the requirements set down, delving into an entire range of specific details that would either be irrelevant to any rational customer, or that require a great deal of technical expertise to place in the proper context.
When product description material of this nature is used to draw up a specification, one finds that contractors will be asked to bid to supply equipment that is tied exactly to one of the products available in the market. Ideally, the specifications for an RFP should identify needs rather than propose solutions.
The adoption of such an open-ended approach allows the contracting authority to seek the best solutions available without defining the technologies involved. Such an approach is premised upon the assumption that customers do not know what suppliers have available or what they are planning to bring to the market.
An RFP that contains tight specifications that limit suppliers to a defined technology thwarts the fundamental purpose of an RFP. The result is that in the end, the contracting authority may get not the most advanced technologies nor the most cost-efficient solution that meets its basic needs. Allowing vendors to propose what they think are the best solutions to the facility’s problems can enable the institution to receive more suitable proposals and review them more readily. This is where acceptance criteria play a significant role.
I have written previously that specifications should, to the extent practicable, emphasize functional or performance criteria while limiting design or other detailed physical descriptions to those necessary to meet the needs of the municipality.
However, to keep cost to a minimum and speed the supply process, there is clear merit in specifying that identified needs should be satisfied by standard commercial products whenever practicable. Generally, whether one is using a tender or an RFP, it is possible to be sufficiently specific to guide suppliers properly as to what is required, without dictating a particular solution for the problem to be solved.
When it comes to substitutes, many tenders and RFP documents permit suppliers to propose optional products for those that have been specified by the municipality. In principle, permitting suppliers to propose options gives them latitude to provide novel thinking for dealing with the customer’s requirements. Although this is consistent with the notion that specifications should identify a problem to be solved, rather than prescribe a solution, it is possible to allow too much flexibility.
Doing so loosens the specification and reduces the municipal customer’s control over final supply. It also affords a basis for introducing unnecessary risk. To balance these competing considerations, thought should be given to the creation of a process for evaluating products offered as substitutes. In addition, the RFP or tender documentation should encourage suppliers to confirm the acceptability of substitutes before making a bid for the contract.
When options are available, it is common to find RFPs and even tender documents in which contractors are asked to bid for two or more different configurations of goods or services that form the basis of the proposed contract.
The specification should make clear how the municipality will select between such options and where its priorities lie, although greater flexibility is required in relation to goods because often higher-level features may be bundled in at low or no additional cost when buying off the shelf.
Moreover, it is clear that in many cases the choice of option will be limited by budgetary considerations.
Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.