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Getting Smarter about RFPs

We look at a few companies working to help government get better at purchasing.

Mention the request for proposal process and you’re likely to elicit groans from both sides of government procurement — the public servants who craft the documents and the private vendors who must respond to win contracts.

RFPs, with all their regulations and laws and hyper-specificity, can contain hundreds of pages of highly detailed, often dense information. Such documents are familiar ground for some companies that work with government, especially larger ones with years of experience and vast resources. But what about startups trying to break in for the first time? And what about forward-thinking municipal innovators who want more vendors and a wider selection of ideas?

Many of these stakeholders agree a simpler RFP process would connect more technologists to the public sector, while also making government more efficient, potentially saving hundreds of staff hours needed to write monster RFPs.

A number of significant obstacles, however, remain, according to many who work in government procurement. For one, government RFPs are inherently lengthy. Also, in order for a disruptive innovator to change the way RFPs are done, that same company must first navigate existing government RFP processes.

In spite of these hurdles, a diverse group of companies still seek to make RFPs, as well as overall government procurement, simpler. An executive at one company, however, was quick to point out that new solutions tend to pop up regularly, before struggling and ultimately fading away, leaving the time-tested practices. With all this in mind, Government Technology has profiled several companies currently operating in the space. Some are new to the scene, while others have been standard bearers for more than a decade.

RFP365 — Kansas City, Mo.

RFP365 encapsulates the potential many see in streamlined government RFPs. The company grew out of a government effort, going through the Innovation Partnership Program hosted in 2015 by the city government in Kansas City, Mo., before then going to work to help the same city government. RFP365, however, is also an example of why reworking government RFPs is such a challenge.

RFP365’s software speeds up the RFP process while simultaneously helping organizations learn best practices, especially those related to fairness and transparency, and the company currently works with a handful of public agencies — Kansas City, the California Community Colleges Technology Center and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority — but David Hulsen, co-founder and business director, said RFP365 no longer actively reaches out to new government business. The reason is simple: Private-sector clients are better adapters to tech, making for more productive relationships that lead to renewed services instead of eventual losses.

“We have had other governmental clients who signed up, paid for the software, went through training, but never did any projects,” Hulsen said. “We continue to be concerned with some existing clients, as they are showing the same reluctance to really get going. Surely, any new technology can be intimidating, but we see our private-sector clients much more willing to jump in feet first with their new investment.”

The company’s attempts to work with government have long been rocky. Prior to RFP365’s participation in Kansas City’s Innovation Partnership Program, Hulsen tried to breach local government for some time, with no success. At the local county courthouse, he was not even allowed to discuss his RFP software unless an RFP had already been issued for it.
“The irony of waiting for an RFP for RFP software didn’t escape the elected officials I spoke with,” Hulsen said.

When the city hosted its Innovation Partnership Program, Hulsen eagerly applied, gave his pitch and received a commitment for a pilot. For RFP365, a tech startup with software to fix government problems, this was an ideal scenario. Less than two years later, the company now works with several agencies in Kansas City, and earlier this year Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennett pointed to RFP365 as an exemplary story during a conversation about bridging the gap between government and startups.

Hulsen said it’s possible RFP365 could return to actively pursuing public-sector clients. Its first priority, however, is survival as a young business.

“We know the RFPs are there,” he said, “and probably aren’t going to decrease anytime soon.”

Periscope Holdings Inc. — Austin, Texas

Periscope Holdings, founded in 2001, is an old software company in the government procurement space, with roots that extend even further back.

The company was born when Brian Utley, current president and CEO, stopped running political campaigns to purchase an Austin-based government procurement company, which he described as having good fundamentals but old tech. Utley sought to streamline bloated and decentralized procurement processes, thereby improving government efficiency.

“I’m not on the right, I’m not on the left,” Utley said. “I’m a centrist. I believe government needs to do some things, and when they do them, they better do them really well.”

Periscope manages the entire RFP cycle — “soup to nuts,” said Utley — for public agencies, and also provides access to a database of about 900,000 vendors. Basically government decides which direction it wants to go, and Periscope guides it there, allowing agencies to manage the process electronically: posting prices, asking questions of vendors and progressing to the actual award of business. Periscope also trains vendors on its corresponding portal.

Periscope started out working with local governments, school districts and counties. In 2010, it won the state of Arizona, and today it handles procurement for Michigan, Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Oregon, with Nevada a likely next addition.

Drawing from 14 years of government experience, Utley stressed the importance of efficient government RFPs and procurement, saying ongoing budget crises have led to cuts in education and other services, while money can be freed up by getting this right.

He pointed to his home state of Texas as an example, saying the state’s decentralized procurement practices were inefficient, costly and outdated, making it hard for vendors to figure out how to do business, which reduces variety and often raises cost. This is a difficult concept for the public to grasp, let alone discuss with elected officials.

“Nobody wants to talk the ugly truth about procurement,” Utley said. “Government is still far behind in procurement. You’d be surprised at how many people still use paper.”

Govlist — San Francisco

Govlist was co-founded by Liam Dorpalen, who was doing management consulting at Deloitte when he saw a need for an improved procurement process, especially as it pertains to RFPs.
In working with Deloitte, which does much government contracting, Dorpalen wrote RFP responses at the federal, state and local levels, while also coordinating with vendors.
“I’ve seen the RFP process from both sides and understood the pain points in the process,” Dorpalen said.

He pinpointed RFPs as the most underserved area of government procurement, noticing they were often done through Microsoft Word and an email review sent to major stakeholders. Govlist offers a complex RFP writing tool that automates much of the process, while also meeting compliance standards and creating high-quality documents that maintain consistency, which is much appreciated by private vendors.

“A big part of what we want to do is help procurement teams be a great partner to the business so that they’re viewed as an ally in that process,” Dorpalen said.

While Dorpalen declined to go into specifics about clients, he did say Govlist’s software is yielding results, partially by aggregating and collecting existing RFP data and making it accessible to civic leaders through a dashboard.

Onvia — Seattle

A little over a year ago, Onvia, a data intelligence company focused on the vendor side of government procurement, started Onvia Exchange, an initiative to give public agencies access to its vast database of procurement info. Today, Onvia Exchange is used by more than 1,000 government bodies across the country.

Essentially, said Ben Vaught, director of Onvia for Government, companies that sell to government pay Onvia for data that helps expand sales pipelines, and Onvia makes any relevant info available to government for free to facilitate efficiency on the public end of the procurement process.
Aware that government agencies are often not as tech savvy as vendors, Onvia also makes data easily searchable through an interface similar to that used by Amazon or Google.

In the year Onvia Exchange has been live, Vaught has been surprised at the ways government has used it. For example, it has become a resource for piggybacking, or finding a similar agency and copying its RFPs with a few small tweaks for specificity. There is a long list of additional features the platform offers users, including pricing data, tracking time spent on procurement and more.
Like many in the space, Onvia points to the pre-bid RFP process as the top challenge in government procurement, and it hopes Onvia Exchange is a first step toward an easier RFP process for all.

“The hope and the dream is that the more governments use Exchange, the better they’re able to write RFPs, and the better written their RFPs, the better it is for vendors to respond to,” Vaught said.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.