System Procurement: Best Practices
July 08, 2008
By Stephen Macke
Any effort to secure technology that will become part of a critical communications network should begin with the commitment to excellence that critical communications demand. The notion that you get what you pay for may hold less truth than the fact that you get what you work for.
Whether you are acquiring a simple add-on component or replacing an entire network, a best effort is essential. All communications systems are made up of devices that employ both wired and wireless technologies. Wired technology is made up of switches, copper wires, optical lines, coaxial cable, and desk or handsets. Wireless technologies employ different gear: portable radios, mobile radios, base/fixed station radios and repeaters.
Typically the individuals tasked with system integration are accomplished public-safety professionals who use technology but, for the most part, don’t have the in-depth technology background that would enable them to stay abreast of the rapid changes in this dynamic field. Therefore, a procedure that is focused on well-defined user needs and industry standards and best practices, will result in the most beneficial plan of action. This pragmatic approach renders the process vendor neutral, and it will, by its construction, attract the most competitive, creative and innovative solutions currently available and thereby assure your due diligence yields the best solution for the agency or jurisdiction.
Building a solid technology team for a project of this magnitude is critical. It’s not enough to simply gather a group of stakeholders and bestow on them the title of procurement or technology team. Keeping in mind your solution may only be as good as the team that identifies it, this group should represent your best effort. Someone who is knowledgeable, but can also build a team effort, cast a vision and lead the group through this difficult task should head the team. Each stakeholder must be aware of three primary components of the procurement process before they take on this challenge. The components include: technical, economical and political.
The technical component of this process will challenge each member because of the project complexity. The economical component will emerge as you see more, want more and learn what it costs. The political component may not surface until late in the process, but could prove to be of enormous importance. Any one of these components may suddenly appear as the primary driver in your particular process, but to some extent, each of them will play a part, and they will be clearly identifiable. Ideally, the team should strive to find a functional balance of all three components, and anticipate any potential issues, which will make the project less contentious. Frequently, a project consultant is engaged to bring the obvious technology expertise to the task, and having an experienced technologist on your team also enables you to have direct access to someone with practical experience in the area of industry standards and dealing with the vendor community. This will greatly enhance your success with the acquisition.
This effort can be made into a pragmatic endeavor, and stakeholders should decide early to what degree. At a minimum, a task list needs to be created, which may be enhanced by a flow chart. Milestones should be identified and a realistic schedule agreed on with some expectation of the budgetary requirements to complete each major objective. To succeed, an adequate amount of both economic and personnel resources must be allocated.
Identifying what you need isn’t simply making a list of equipment. You should start at a much higher level and try to determine the kinds of functions/tasks you want to be able to perform. What capabilities does the network need to provide over its life cycle? Who will use them and how often? Knowing what you hope to accomplish in the long term will also help identify the solution that will best fit your needs. Use documents such as your agency’s strategic plan to help determine your needs.
Now that you know what you need at a functional level, you are ready to review your options. Typically you will be faced with two options: acquiring a private dedicated system or sharing a system with a regional footprint. A third option could exist if a commercial carrier is available to meet a public-safety standard.
After arriving at the decisive point of which network technology will meet your agency needs, the next step is selecting a vendor or vendors. The public-safety industry is attempting to develop a standards-based approach to assist public-safety agencies in selecting vendors that doesn’t tie them to proprietary technology. To date, Project 25 (P25) hasn’t been successful in developing a standard that all vendors can manufacture to, resulting in varying levels of interoperability. For example, P25 Phase 1 has standardized several feature sets, but a vendor can still add features, such as talk-group configurations and dynamic regrouping, that are outside of the standard but are still compliant with the standard. Until a standards-based common network standard is finalized, a high level of interoperability can’t be realized through P25 alone. Therefore, it’s incumbent on a public-safety agency to perform its due diligence before making a vendor selection.
A request for proposals (RFP) is used for purchasing more complex items for which a number of variables besides price are important to the purchasing decision. There are three main sections of an RFP: the instructions to proposers, the terms and conditions of purchase, and the technical specifications. A purchasing agent generally provides templates for the first two sections. You may then need to add, delete or modify portions of these based on the needs of your project. The development of the technical specifications is usually the responsibility of the project team. The specification must be clear and comprehensive so the user and the vendor know precisely what is wanted and what is expected of each party. Avoid over specifying, as it can limit the number of vendors that respond and, thus, limit your options.
Evaluate the proposals against evaluation criteria defined before the proposals were received. The goal is to select the proposal that best meets the defined needs and to determine whether the vendor has the ability to perform the work. Study each proposal carefully. Use a standard evaluation format — a spreadsheet or written form — to help you compare responses of vendors more easily. Keep copies of the results. Have your agency’s purchasing and/or legal staff review the terms and conditions of the proposal to ensure that the vendor hasn’t counter proposed any terms that would be unacceptable to your agency. The entire evaluation process should be clear, fair and equitable. Treating all vendors the same and keeping good records of the results of the evaluations will help ensure that there is no basis for a protest of your selection.
If a single best vendor emerges from the evaluation process, move on to the contract negotiation phase of the process. However, it’s more likely two or three vendors will appear comparable on paper and become the “short list.” Before a clear winner can be selected, additional in-person demonstrations and/or interviews may be required with each of the short-list vendors. As a result of the demonstrations and/or interviews, each vendor may be asked to submit a best-and-final offer that allows an “apples-to-apples” comparison of the proposals and their value. It also forces vendors to consider their profit margins carefully, one more time.
It’s not uncommon for the RFP to include a contract for vendors to respond to during the evaluation process. This will allow the stakeholders to appraise the tenor of the business relationship prior to the face-to-face discussion to resolve the issues within the contract. A written contract is mandatory. Both parties will benefit by having a document that clearly identifies each other’s obligations. In addition to legal terms and conditions, every contract should include a project schedule. This schedule should set clear, identifiable milestones for completion of each phase of a project. A milestone should be easy to measure and/or to determine that it has been completed. The contract should also include a specific payment schedule, which clearly identifies when and under what circumstances payments will be made. As much as possible, payments should be tied to project milestones, with fixed-price amounts itemized. A certain percentage of the total contract price should be retained until the entire project is finished to ensure that all work has been completed to an agency’s satisfaction.
If you need more dedicated help than is available from your agency, you may want to hire a consultant. A consultant can perform a number of the project tasks, from conducting the inventory and needs analysis to developing budgetary cost estimates to creating an RFP to assisting with project management. You determine the level and extent of services you wish to purchase. Many consultants will perform your work as a fixed-price contract, provided you can clearly identify the scope of work you need. Otherwise, you can hire a consultant on time and materials, dividing the project up into measurable and attainable incremental segments.
Following are some suggested procurement tasks:
1. Identify the project team;
2. Perform needs analysis;
3. Develop a desirable technology plan;
4. Create budget and project goals;
5. Determine the method of procurement and develop the RFP;
6. Evaluate responses, negotiate the contract and procure; and
7. Oversee the deployment and test acceptance procedure.
The project isn’t a trivial endeavor regardless of the size or scope. The impact of a successful acquisition and deployment of a first-responder communications network is a critical contribution to the infrastructure that will enhance the quality of life to anyone in a community. The network will be an invaluable tool in the daily operation of the first-responder community that will save lives and preserve property. Anyone involved in the stewardship of the project should consider it a privilege to serve his or her fellow citizens.
Stephen Macke is a technology consultant who helps small- to medium-sized technology companies, as well as state and local governments, acquire communications technologies. Macke is also on the staff at Georgia Tech Research Institute as a senior consultant with the communications and networking division. He has also held a number of positions with several major telecommunications manufacturers during the past 25 years. E-mail comments to editor@RRMediaGroup.com.