RFP for a Screwdriver

Law libraries don’t often have to do an RFP, but it’s a nice thing to know about before you need it.  Government law librarians probably have experience, although the RFP may happen at a different place or be managed by other people.  Unfortunately, these tools are often used where the cost is small, relative to the organization, and can create huge time waste when the process overwhelms the project.

What is an RFP

The request for proposal is one of many RFx you can come across – request for information, request for quotation.  In some cases it will be a precursor to a negotiation although in legal information, much of what we buy is sole-source and so these requests are often EITHER a total waste of time OR skewed towards a favored vendor by the requirements.

In the example below, the Minnesota Judiciary wanted products published by 2 vendors.  To me, it suggests either a law librarian wasn’t involved or they’re willing to buy 2 products.

I think these examples from Alabama and the California Bar did a better job of keeping theirs product agnostic.  Also, note that a Google search for “request for proposal” “legal research” -“legal services” returns plenty of examples to cadge from.

RFPs can be useful if you are:

  • buying something open ended, where it will be hard to compare or quantify how something is going to be done.  Use one if the purchase options are complicated.
  • spending someone else’s money, and need to be clear about how purchases are being made.  Use one for better transparency.

An RFInformation can help when you’re not even sure what you want to do, and you want publishers to explain what they have to offer.  Skip an RFI if you already know your requirements.  And if you need transparency but the project isn’t that complicated, an RFQuotation can fit the bill

Requests Have Overhead

One reason I am averse to the RFx family of processes is that they can immediately complicate what is otherwise a straightforward activity.  Particularly when you are working within a specialized information world like law, or within a particular expertise, like SharePoint records management.  Unless your law library is a stand-alone entity where you are the only person working on the RFP, it immediately broadens the pool of people who will be involved.

Note that they will be involved, but they will not necessarily be contributing value to the process.  To that end, it is typical for a finance department to exclude some purchases from these sorts of processes:

  • sole source providers, which is arguably common in the legal information world
  • purchases below a particular threshold, like $50,000, because the cost on both your side in staff time and on the vendor’s side in responding means (a) you waste a lot of time and effort and (b) vendor’s are less likely to respond for smaller contracts

Requests Can Become a Bad Habit

Some organizations can tend to embrace RFx processes, even when dealing with an excluded purchase.  In those cases, the organization has become fixated on the process rather than on getting things done.  It can be tricky to thread a purchase through, because even though you are following corporate policy, people like to do what people like to do.

This is what I’m working through at the moment.  We are looking at doing in-place records management within a SharePoint 2013 on-premises installation.  Our RM folks are plugged into ARMA and have identified the likely candidates and we’ve met with 3 vendors.  The functionality is largely the same, particularly given our lack of SharePoint best practices like using content type to differentiate documents.  Since these products are seat-based, we’re looking at a roughly $50,000 license.

The money comes out of IT’s budget, though, and the records management function is not within IT.  So they’ve been involved in the vendor meetings and subsequent discussions.  No surprise, their preference is to use one of the RFx processes.  Unfortunately, one gets the feeling they’d feel better with one even if we were just buying screwdrivers.  The RFx process can provide cover when you are uncomfortable making an unpopular decision, or when you are unwilling to be responsible for a particular purchase decision.

Threading the Needle

In this case, success will come down to communication.  We have already confirmed – in writing, by e-mail – that the finance staff do not require an RFx process.  This is supported by finance policy, which excludes purchases within this price range but requires 3 competing bids since it’s not sole source.  Our discussions with IT have meant that the document we send out to the 3 vendors will be far more explanatory than we’d initially intended, but still short of a full blown hashed out RFx.

In some ways, it’s a semantic difference.  If you send a document to a publisher that spells out what you’d like them to respond to, it’s a request for something.  However, an RFx process can proliferate meetings to discuss the document, dramatically extending the time to release it.  When the purchase is within the particular expertise of the people making the decision, the only people really able to contribute are those same experts.  Having extra devil’s advocates doesn’t add value, since they often ask uninformed questions as they lack the necessary knowledgebase.

If you are in the position in your law library of considering an RFx process, think about what value it will add and what resources it will correspondingly sap, both on your side and the vendors’.  It won’t eliminate negotations or your need to create a list of desired features or functions (scope), both of which you’ll need regardless of approach.   If using one means:

  • diminishing the pool of possible respondents because your contract isn’t valuable enough
  • committing time you could be using to provide a service or staff resources you’d planned to use elsewhere
  • increasing the length of time of acquisition

then I’d lean against using one.  There are political reasons to use one (transparency, it forces other groups to be included without necessarily dragging out the acquisition period, etc.) but keeping a purchasing process informal, within what’s allowed by your corporate policies, can reduce the friction in maintaining your team’s momentum for delivering their services.