Ask Joe: How Do I Get on a Government Contract?

Joe Morris, vice president of research for e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company, discusses differences between RFPs and state- or county-wide contracts, and offers tips for companies looking to get their foot in the door.

by / July 20, 2017

Editor's note: Ask Joe will be a recurring series where Joseph Morris, vice president of research for e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company, answers commonly asked questions from those working in the government technology market. The conversation has been edited for length and cohesion.

A second part to this conversation will be published on July 21.

How do you get a contract, or get on a contract?

You can kind of spin "contract" off two ways. Contract could mean to some people an RFP [request for proposal], how do I win that RFP, but oftentimes it’s how do I get on that statewide or countywide contract.

So there are a couple steps. First is that like almost every single jurisdiction, a state, a city, a county has a very defined procurement process. That defined procurement process is going to lay out the steps that a traditional vendor needs to take. Sometimes those steps are as simple as “Go to this website and register as a vendor.” And then you have to plug in your company’s information and walk through that application process to register as a vendor, which oftentimes can be a step that is skipped by vendors to their peril.

Interesting.

Because if they don’t know that they have to register as a vendor or be approved as a vendor, they can go through that whole process of seeing an RFP or talking to a CIO, getting them very excited about what they offer, only to find out that they never registered as a vendor. So you really need to know those specific rules of engagement that exist within your target jurisdiction.

So for an RFP, for any type of procurement, you should check on those governments’ purchasing website on how to register as a vendor. [That’s] the very first step.

Now if you’re going to respond to an RFP, there are usually very specific rules, again, for responding to an RFPl. Could be an RFI [request for information], bid, any type of formal procurement, there’s going to be very specific requirements that are set out by that jurisdiction. You can look at that original RFP document, there’s usually going to be a scoring matrix in there, it’s going to tell you what they weigh and what they value, you know, cost of the solution or the technology. Past performance in government may be a typical type of requirement. Do they have any type of scoring weight to minority-owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses, or businesses that are in-state, or out-of-state?

If you’re sitting there on the vendor side and you’re looking at like whether it’s an RFP, whether it’s a statewide contract, and you’re trying to get up to speed, there are several avenues you can go to get more data.

One could be, I’m gonna go back and look at that jurisdiction’s past procurement history. So if I’m selling say, storage again, or any technology, let’s use a commodity technology as an example, maybe I want to go back and look at the award history. Who’s had that contract in the past? Maybe I’m going to go pull that contract. So if I’m Dell and let’s say my storage competitor had it before me, I’m going to go look at that maybe on the transparency site, maybe through a public records request. I’m gonna pull that past contract performance, and I’m gonna look at that and go, all right, how much money came on that contract? How did that break out? Which departments, which agencies, which public-sector entities really were using it? Because those are my targets.

So I’m a big believer in doing your homework, and in many cases this isn’t terribly hard. I mean we do it here for clients. But you can get at this information, it’s readily available. Sometimes you have to jump through the hoops and you’ve got to wait a little bit. But you can know before, hey do I want to compete on that contract or not, based on the performance.

It’s the same thing when looking at RFPs. Look at when was the last time they bought something? How often are they buying it? Looks like they had a lot of procurement activity five years ago and it’s been pretty quiet. Maybe they’re up for a refresh, this could be good news.

How do the processes between RFPs and a statewide or countywide contract differ?

RFPs and RFIs are traditionally leveraged for competitive procurements. Maybe those are more complex systems or maybe one-off, very unique needs. Then you’ll see what’s called statewide contracts, countywide, citywide contracts, statewide being the most popular, is when there’s a large enough need for an IT good or service across the state that it becomes to their advantage to issue a statewide contract for that.

I liken it to shopping at Costco and buying things in bulk. You get a little cost-savings sometimes in doing that. So instead of having every single agency go out and buy whatever type of laptop they want, they’ll work to set up a statewide contract for laptops and then they’ll spell out all the requirements.

So are we talking about, like, a state would do it and pull together all of these different local jurisdictions, or is it more like the state agencies?

It’s typically the states … but in most if not all cases, local government entities can purchase off the state contract. That includes education entities, nonprofits, churches, all those public-sector entities can leverage the state term contracts.

So that in itself, if you put yourself in the shoes of the vendor, immediately becomes pretty compelling, because now you’re talking about scale. Sometimes it’s not even limited to the state you’re in, other states piggyback on other state contracts, so that’s another perk.

The other thing … cities and counties can do their own. But it’s typically large cities and counties that will build their own citywide contracts. Because those large cities and counties feel that they can even get a better deal than sometimes what exists on the state contract. So it’s not uncommon for like [Los Angeles] County to have their own separate contract vehicles from that of the state.

And in terms of the process of getting onto those, are there similar quirks?

The process … can be very similar. It comes with maybe a different set of requirements, but oftentimes what you’ll see is a state term contract is awarded to a vendor or a group of vendors that offer hardware, software, a particular type of good or service. That contract will come with its own terms and conditions and timelines. It could be a five-year contract, it could be a one-year contract. When that contract expires, or is set to expire, maybe 12 months out, oftentimes that jurisdiction will then issue a competitive procurement to encourage vendors to get on the next contract. So there’s a window that opens up for vendors to get onto the next contract.

Digital Government Navigator maintains a database of about 12,000 statewide contracts and breaks it all out by vendors and how long, when does the contract expire, who holds the contract, the contact information for that, what resellers are on contracts. You can have a contract that’s held by Dell, but then have a bunch of regional resellers that are really the people doing the selling of the Dell product. That’s really common.

So if I’m a vendor and I go into, let’s say a state, and I see that there’s a contract that already exists for what I do and it’s held by one of my competitors, I’m looking at when does that contract expire? If it expires I want to be out like six, 12 months from that expiration date and start watching for that eventual procurement.

I also want to look at what are the rules and regulations associated with that contract? Is it a mandatory use contract or a discretionary use? If it’s mandatory, then it’s like I’m telling you if you’re going to buy a desktop computer, you have to buy off this contract. If it’s discretionary, now the agencies have a little bit more flexibility. So if I’m not on contract, it doesn’t mean that that door’s completely closed.

I’m also going to look to see is there a way I can kind of back-door my way in on a contract. Now let’s say that Dell holds that contract, and that contract is for a Dell product, but I’m a reseller. Maybe I can get on as a partner of one of the partners on there.

So there’s multiple ways that you can try and through partnering, work your way onto contracts. There are vendors that we do business with, you know, large vendors, that don’t hold any contracts direct. They go all through partner.

And if you want to become a partner, do you then have to go through some sort of process, rewrite the contract?

Sometimes there are windows to add partners onto contracts, and you walk through that process.

Like an example of that would be … the NASPO [National Association of State Procurement Officers] cloud contract. So there on that particular contract, which is a cooperative purchasing group, they’re adding partners all the time. People that maybe originally bid to get on the contract and didn’t are now on there because let’s say a Deloitte brought them in as a partner. Because … it allows you to sell different types of cloud solutions, but it’s fairly broad. Like it’s software-as-a-service, so they could bring on a software-as-a-service provider underneath their contract.

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.