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Transforming Procurement: Will iPads Replace Binders?

While the typical procurement process has been around for decades, three states are breaking the mold when it comes to how vendors can respond to requests for proposals.

by / November 6, 2012
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The Request for Proposal, or RFP, a tool used to solicit business from the private sector, has long been a staple of government procurement offices. Typically, they receive lengthy responses, often in the form of large binders holding hundreds of pages detailing how a company would tackle a project.

While the typical procurement process has been around for decades, three states are breaking the mold when it comes to how vendors can respond to RFPs.

Montana, Utah and Colorado are experimenting with allowing companies to submit their project proposals on iPads, instead of the traditional method of printing and mailing multiple copies of documents. The change is saving vendors production costs and making the proposal review process a lot easier for state agencies.

Montana seems to have started the trend. Sheryl Olson, deputy director for the Montana Department of Administration, said a technology vendor initially posed the question of using iPads for proposal submissions in December 2010, during the question and answer period of the state’s RFP process for its Medicaid Management Information System (MMIS), one of the more complex and expensive data systems run by state government.

At the time, the vendor estimated it would save $50,000 if it didn’t have to submit its proposal in notebooks as the RFP originally required. Ultimately, the request was granted and all three responses to Montana’s RFP arrived on Apple’s popular tablet device.

Since then, Montana has done a total of four RFPs with tablets, not paper, as the preferred medium. The first three RFPs made the iPad proposal submission optional. The fourth made it mandatory. Olson said the immediate benefit was no longer having cumbersome binders for evaluators to haul around to their desks, homes and public meetings.

“It is just a more practical idea to have an iPad in your fist to review instead of two feet of documents,” Olson explained. “That’s beside the obvious benefit that it’s greener and we like that.”

Utah tried the iPad proposal idea earlier this summer. Similar to Montana, Utah’s health department was seeking a vendor for an MMIS project. A vendor recommended the iPad option and both responses Utah received for its RFP came in on iPads. Pam Rugg, purchasing agent in the Utah Department of Administrative Services, said the team that reviewed the proposals were thrilled with the convenience iPads provided them.

“They liked the idea the proposal was all in one place and they didn’t have to be carrying paper and loose leaf [notebooks],” Rugg explained. “It was nice that they had it in a smaller document and just carried it wherever they went. So if they had any downtime they could look and study it.”

Colorado is about to give iPad proposals a try too. The state is redesigning its MMIS and will require any company bidding on the project to submit proposals on seven Apple iPads or newer tablets.

Early Challenges

As with any change brought on by the adoption of technology, early adopters sometimes face early challenges. Montana has placed a moratorium on the submission of tablets for the near future. According to Olson, staff have been hesitant to use them and raised a number of questions that remain to be answered.

A chief concern is a need to change the procurement template Montana uses. Right now, it reads whatever items are submitted becomes the property of the state. Montana wants to make sure the tablets go back to the vendors so there’s no public perception of state agencies inheriting the devices. The other issue has to do with deleting content from the iPad after the RFP process has ended.

“We’re having our attorney and IT people take a quick look so that when we scrub them or return them to factory settings, there’s no chance residual information is going to be left on there,” Olson said. “Our people are writing their crib notes on there about the proposals.”

Utah decided to send the two iPads it received to the state surplus department after wiping the devices’ memories clean. Rugg said the vendors didn’t want them back, so the iPads will be sold. Colorado is undecided about what to do with the iPads it expects to receive.

Williams said Colorado anticipates receiving numerous responses and is concerned about the cost of returning them and the liability in the event an iPad was mistakenly returned to a wrong vendor. They haven’t yet decided whether to return or keep the devices.

Montana is also seeking to develop some best practices before making iPad submission a permanent possibility with future procurements. Olson said some of the issues the state is considering is whether to open up to other types of tablet devices and if so, what the standards are going to be.

Other concerns have to do with the digital format vendors should use. Should there be just one or more?

“We don’t want mixed media as you would imagine,” Olson said. “We’re just plowing new ground and we want to get it right.”

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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