Public sector procurement: The rules are different (yet there are consistencies)

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Public sector work is a "horse of a different color" for marketing and business development
us capitol
Public sector work is a “horse of a different color” for marketing and business development

Bernie Siben reminds us in a recent blog posting that public sector marketing is a “horse of a different color” and he is right.

In some respects, public work is freer and more readily accessible to outsiders (you might think). Everything must be open, fair, and above-board. (We are not talking about doing business with corrupt regimes, of course, where there is an entirely different and truly nasty set of rules.)

In the private sector, at least in theory, clients can decide to do business with you because they like you or because you know someone who knows someone.

In the public sector, clients often “must” decide to do business with you because they like you. Well, more accurately, because you deliver the “best value” and the value is defined by the relationships and reputation you’ve built with the public agency’s officials.

In the US, if you are doing design or engineering work for federal agencies, the Brooks Act applies — and that means the financial numbers are considered only AFTER you’ve been selected. The rules are somewhat different for contractors, where the low bid can still win the work — but what about design-build work, public/private partnerships and other variations? State and municipal governments, especially if they are receiving federal money, generally play by the Brooks Act rules.

And there is another layer to the story, provisions for contract setbacks for eligible minority, women-owned, verteran-owned, and/or small businesses. In some cases, if you go through the hoops and qualify, you can gain a significant advantage as a sub-contractor by fitting into one of the niche holes for these set-asides.

However, even if you have advantages within this environment, you need to get the paperwork right. Even though relationships count more than anything else, if you muck up the technical details on the required forms, are just a little bit late in submitting your proposal, or violate other sometimes arcane rules, you’ll be disqualified at the outset — because the bureaucrats need to make sure everything is “right” from the start.

Siben writes

Standard forms are intended to “level the playing field” for consultants, and make it easier for agency personnel to be objective in evaluating and ranking proposals. But your job as a marketer is to tilt the playing field in favor of your firm or client. Your relationship with the client helps you do this.

Best value” is a concept developed to let agencies consider the intangibles of the client/consultant relationship in evaluating SOQs and proposals. When consultants have already worked with the agency, and know the agency’s staff, procedures, standards and quirks, benefits can include cost-effectiveness, timeliness, and freedom from headaches and distractions.

When the consultant team has already worked together, additional benefits involve internal communications, sharing of drawing/design standards and conventions, and ease of working together.

In controlling client expectations, we want to influence the personal filters through which written and spoken communications pass, in order to affect how a client reads our proposal or hears our presentation, leading to selection of our team.

(Canadian rules are different in many ways; the environment has become more dog-eat-dog because price quite often becomes the primary consideration even in design work, coupled with government agencies increasingly relying on larger and more inaccessible “bundled” public/private project rules, which require the primary contractors/consultants to have really massive capital resources, or at least really good business/financial connections.)

There are specialized consultants to guide businesses in these sometimes murky areas (Siben is one of them). There’s also a learning curve. Public work can seem tantalizingly close. It is public, with fixed bidding deadlines, and seemingly fair access — but as you can see here, the so-called “level playing field” can be manipulated and managed, and the successful incumbent almost always has the advantage.

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