How Not to Procure Professional Geospatial Services

How Not to Procure Professional Geospatial Services
June 21, 2018 Ryan Kibsgaard

equests for Proposals (RFPs) are a standard method of soliciting professional services for a reason – they are an effective tool to find qualified professionals who can save your organization money. They can be efficient mechanisms for the stakeholders to find a qualified service provider at a competitive price. However, when procuring professional geospatial services, it is rarely advisable to use this process to find the cheapest priced services. Professional services can’t and shouldn’t be procured as if they were widgets.

We all want a deal. Shopping for the best price is a cherished economic freedom and produces downward pressure on price and upward pressure on value by encouraging innovation and performance. As professionals procuring things, we are accountable to

 

Professional services can’t and shouldn’t be procured as if they were widgets.

 

others for the money we spend and the things we buy. We want a good deal. But professional services are not widgets like office supplies or ground control target material. Your health is not a widget. Your tooth extraction is not a commodity item. Building a bridge or acquiring a useful terrain model is not the same as hiring someone to service your photocopier or replace your oil filter.

There is value in how the dentist extracts my tooth, manages my pain, and treats me when I’m in his office. There is value in how a terrain model is acquired and produced. Its accuracy and timely delivery add value. There are better ways to procure professional services than by shopping for simply the lowest price.

As our profession works through another procurement season and many RFPs for professional services hit the streets, I offer advice on ways NOT to procure professional geospatial services.

It’s a sad story repeated where “lowest” price is the goal and in the end the quality, timeliness, and the utility of the deliverables is also compromised. RFPs are a useful method of procuring professional services but can fail an organization and endanger public safety when the goal is achieving the lowest price and quality is sacrificed on the altar of “price first”.

RFPs need to accurately or completely describe the project scope or specifications. If they fail to do this, then the intended use of the professional services will be jeopardized. Then, the stakeholders (those purchasing those services) will lose value. It is vitally important that before specifications are written, the stakeholders convene and agree on an “intended use” of those services. Then, and only then, can the specifications be clearly written. This, in turn, improves the successful procurement of quality data and services under budget and on time.

 

RFPs can fail an organization and endanger public safety when quality is sacrificed on the altar of “lowest price”.

It is, unfortunately, far too common that RFPs are poorly written. Specifications are often misconstrued, undefined, or poorly defined. The stakeholders then must compare proposals and pricing from bidders that are essentially impossible to compare because everyone was proposing different solutions based upon different assumptions about the specifications. This often leads to the selection of a provider who may lack experience, does not provide the expected quality service, or who contrives a cost/service package in their own best interest and to the detriment of the stakeholders. Or, you get a qualified provider but one that fails to deliver “quality” services because they were poorly described and expectations between them and the stakeholders are unclear and unaligned.

 

It is far too common that RFPs are poorly written. Specifications are often misconstrued, poorly defined, or left undefined.

Get The Information

Start by asking for all the information needed to make a wise decision. Below are the typical sections stakeholders may wish to include in their RFPs for professional services. These sections make up what is known as the “Scope of Services.”

Responsibilities

A description of the responsibilities of the stakeholders and provider will help to avoid confusion and make the project run smoothly. If the is likely to provide the contractor with existing data (like ground control or an existing DTM) this should be noted. In turn, list if the contractor must perform certain tasks or meet certain deadlines.

Subcontractors

You should request a list of all subcontractors the submitting firm expects to use. This list should include the subcontractor’s name and address, location (U.S. or foreign “off-shore” companies), what services they will deliver, and how they will be used by the submitting firm.

Project Specifications

All professional services have specifications, terms, and definitions that should appear with every solicitation. When procuring geospatial services such as aerial photography, lidar, mapping, ground control, and orthophotography from geospatial service providers include the following:

Supplemental Project Data

All geospatial projects relate to a location on earth. If the stakeholders can provide the contractor with a shape file defining important project boundaries, it is extremely helpful in accurately designing a project and estimating costs. These are also important contractual elements that help both parties objectively determine if the deliverables properly cover the specified geographical area(s). It is still far too common to see solicitations that do not include electronic data that defines the precise geography of the project.

 

It is, unfortunately, far too common that RFPs are poorly written.

 

List of Deliverables

A detailed “List of Deliverables” should be included near the end of the “Scope of Services.” It clarifies exactly what the contractor is expected to deliver. List all the information and features you want represented in deliverables (such as metadata, metadata format, hydro-flattening, breaklines, road centerlines, road edges, etc.). The list should be as specific as possible. The professional services provider can aid in helping you decide which features are important and what each will generally cost. Without a definitive list, one bidder may price the job assuming the feature is or is not included, the other bidder may do the opposite, and the stakeholders may not know the difference.

List Optional Items

Facilitate the professional service providers to suggest alternate ways of providing the requested items. The RFP should have a section in which these optional items are discussed. Great companies are often great innovators, and this is an excellent way to discover new, better ways to map. Additionally, pricing of the “standard” items can still be fairly compared between respondents and the merits of the “optional” items can be objectively assessed.

Price Sheet

A standardized price sheet guarantees the contractors will provide prices for the items requested consistent with the needs of the stakeholders and that each bidder’s pricing is comparable. For example, instead of using a single line item like “Topographic Mapping,” it may be important that multiple line items be specified such as “Ground Control,” “Lidar” and “1-foot Contours,” to understand how a large item is priced. Additionally, different stakeholders may need different items in the list and it helps each party understand the relative costs and merit of each item. It is also important not to group dissimilar items into a single line item. This makes it difficult or impossible for the stakeholders to discern the real cost of each item. It is always advisable the pricing sheet request a flat fee or a ‘price per unit’ for each item. These prices can then easily be compared between different vendors.

 

Instead of requesting a single line item like “Topographic Mapping,” it may be important that multiple line items be specified such as “Ground Control,” “Lidar” and “1-foot Contours,” to understand how a large item is priced.

Liability Insurance

The stakeholders are advised to require the contractor and all subcontractors to carry adequate insurance coverage for worker’s compensation, general liability, etc. Other insurance protection may be required depending on the project.

Bid bonds add unnecessary cost to the procurement and are not needed when procuring professional services from reputable companies.

Bid Bonds

These instruments are occasionally included with RFPs and require all bidders to include a bond (or check) with their proposal equal to an established portion of the proposal amount. A bid bond is intended to keep frivolous bidders out of the process, guarantee the stakeholders that the vendor will honor its proposal, and that the service provider will sign all contract documents when awarded. Unfortunately, these add cost to the procurement and are generally not needed when procuring professional services from reputable companies. If the stakeholders are intent on getting the lowest price from anyone that can throw together a proposal, then a bid bond is more important because you are increasingly dealing with unscrupulous providers. A better approach is to write a good proposal that illuminates quality providers and avoids the need and cost of a bid bond.

Performance Bonds

These bonds are sometimes included with lowest-price procurements. The Performance Bond secures the contractor’s promise to perform the contract in accordance with its terms and conditions at the agreed upon price and within the time allowed. For many smaller projects, bonds are an unnecessary expense ultimately borne by the stakeholders and increases the overall project cost. When procuring professional services for very large projects these instruments may be warranted. On smaller projects they are a waste of money.

Invoices & Payments

This section outlines how the stakeholders will be invoiced by the contractor, when the invoice will be paid, and any other terms. Are these terms fair for both parties?

 

It’s 2018! Stop asking for 15 paper copies of the proposal! Ask for one digital copy and make copies yourself.

 

Proposal Copies

It is still far too common that multiple paper copies of proposals are required. It’s 2018! Stop it already. Go digital. Digital documents are transferred easily, can be read on any device, and can be copied as needed – reducing resources and costs.

Evaluate More Complete Proposals

By writing more complete and accurate solicitations, stakeholders give themselves a clearer picture of which provider can provide the highest quality deliverables with the best value. Then, they can compare providers’ offers and can be confident they have all the information needed to make the best decision regarding their (& the public’s) investment. Sometimes when procuring professional services, it is often difficult to know what specifications are needed or how to define them clearly. All the professional service providers that Aerial Services works with would be happy to help ensure specifications are meaningful and clear. Don’t hesitate to ask us for help.

Below are my tips on How NOT to Write a Solicitation

  • Cut and paste specifications into your proposal from others if they are “pretty close” to what you want. A little ambiguity is okay.
  • Be unclear in specifications, because we don’t mind comparing apples and oranges. What’s wrong with bidders making wild assumptions about what you really want and being unable to objectively score their proposals?
  • Go ahead and use terms you don’t fully understand, e.g. topo, accuracy, geoid, DEM/DTM. That’s what everyone else says is needed.
  • Don’t ensure that all the technical requirements are sufficiently described. It’s not important to us to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable bids or to discover a better approach among the proposals.
  • Don’t have the RFP final draft reviewed by knowledgeable professionals to ensure it is clear and aligned with our actual needs. We love to answer dozens of questions from respondents about the same puzzling specification.
  • Use the same specifications as last year. Technology and innovation never occur.
  • Set the minimum acceptable technical and performance requirements low so everyone can bid, even the unqualified and unscrupulous.
  • Specify the actual flight heights from which you want your imagery and lidar acquired. After all, aren’t all sensors the same? You may not be an operator of that sophisticated equipment, but you think you know how best to acquire the data.

Professional geospatial services are, by definition, complex. Every procurement is unique; it’s not like making Frisbees. Weather, stakeholder demands, equipment performance, and a variety of other factors contribute to a geospatial project’s complexity.

Professional standards of accuracy and quality continue to evolve as technology advances. Technical specifications need to align with stakeholders’ specific needs. It is imperative that those writing the RFP understand the relevant technology and how to clearly define specifications. The writers need not be experts, but they must understand the basics. If not, get help from service providers or other neutral third parties.

If specifications and minimum acceptable requirements are too low, then marginally acceptable bidders become candidates for contract award, low price becomes the determining factor, and the risk of project failure, threats to the public, and low-quality deliverables are more likely. Real value declines.

When low price becomes the determining factor, and the risk of project failure, threats to the public, and low-quality deliverables are more likely. Real “value” declines.

Setting good minimum standards also protects the stakeholders and providers from positive bias toward those bidders who can far exceed those minimums. For example, the smaller company with less but acceptable experience still passes the threshold and can compete on equal footing with the larger firm. A small firm’s innovation and responsiveness can win them a seat at the table and ultimately bring additional value to the stakeholders.

Not all projects can have clear specifications at the outset. They may be very complex or novel. Sometimes new technology is being used. Sometimes professionals have only marginal experience using a new technology. “How to do it” and its associated costs are simply unknown. In these cases, specify a pilot project. This will help the client and provider work out these details and set a reasonable price based on real-world experience doing the needed work.

Clients should not dictate how the work will be done. Instead simply define the deliverables. Don’t ask for more quality or accuracy than your stakeholders really need, or you’re wasting money and losing value.

Finally, don’t recycle ambiguous, unneeded language from other RFPs.

How TO Write a Solicitation

  • Set related project experience specifications. Require a minimum number of similar projects to have been completed in the last 12-24 months to demonstrate familiarity and experience with the work.
  • Require key project personnel to meet minimum experience and education thresholds. That said, don’t make these arbitrary. You don’t want qualified bidders disqualified simply because a proven project manager didn’t have a master’s degree in geography, for example.
  • Set technical standards such that inferior or marginal equipment cannot be used.

Set clear and appropriate positional accuracy standards so sub-par work is not allowed and quality can be objectively measured in the deliverables. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard from stakeholders a sincere desire for accuracy, but their RFP criteria fail to set meaningful, measurable standards.

 

Set clear and appropriate positional accuracy standards so sub-par work is not allowed and quality can be objectively measured in the deliverables.

 

Why Go Low Bid?

If you are still determined to “go low bid,” here are some excellent reasons to do so.

  • You love sub-par contract staffing, marginal technical accomplishment, late deliveries, and cost overruns.
  • You want to encourage contractors to pay the lowest possible amount to the least-qualified staff, cut corners, and keep unemployment high.
  • You enjoy adversarial relationships with providers as their performance slides and your (unrealistic) expectations of timeliness and quality erode.
  • You love explaining to other stakeholders why more money is needed to get the job done or the deliverables you received are sub-par.
  • You don’t want to have confidence that the geospatial data received really is fit for its intended use.
  • You don’t care about the best way, just the cheapest.

Go “low bid” because you don’t want to have confidence that the geospatial data received really is “fit” for its intended use.

Lowest price bidding is inappropriate for professional services. When the stakeholders apply this strategy to procurements, both the stakeholders and the providers lose. When the stakeholders are government entities, we all lose because our taxes are being wasted on inefficient and possibly unsafe, unneeded, low-value services.

 

As price is pushed downward, performance risk goes up. In the end, everyone loses, and the initial satisfaction of saving a few percent of total cost is often overshadowed by the burden of contractor poor performance.

 

Generally, as price is pushed downward, performance risk goes up. At the end of the day, the lowest bidder’s reputation suffers, their fiscal health is probably hurt because of low or negative profitability, and the stakeholder is criticized for cost and schedule overruns and poor program management. In the end, everyone loses, and the initial satisfaction of saving a few percent of total cost is often overshadowed by the burden of poor contractor performance.

When clients use qualifications-based selection (QBS) or best-value procurements (where price is not a consideration until after the most qualified firms have been identified), they recognize that there is value in non-cost factors such as public safety, public welfare, technical approach, management plan, and past performance. These tradeoffs give the stakeholders the latitude to award a contract to other than the lowest-priced provider because of that added value.

The Brooks Law, adopted by Congress in 1972, was amended in 1989 to add that qualifications-based selection procedures apply to the professional services of surveying and mapping. QBS is simple.

How to Use QBS

  1. Write the RFP clearly, setting minimum selection criteria.
  2. Define the scope of services that optimizes value to all stakeholders.
  3. Select the most qualified firm.
  4. Negotiate the price with the most qualified provider.
  5. Retain the geospatial firm.

If an acceptable price cannot be negotiated with your first pick, move on to the second most qualified firm. The beauty of this contracting approach is that the second and third firms on the list are both qualified. The superior specifications and project approach devised in consultation with the expert professionals have minimized (not eliminated) the risk that the client will get an unqualified firm or sub-standard performance.

As you procure professional geospatial services for 2018, be smart. Get the best deal with the most value for your stakeholders. The contracts with the most value are seldom found among the bottom feeders. Professional services should not be contracted as if they were simple widgets. Unlike widgets, every geospatial project is unique and requires sophisticated technology and the seasoned judgment of professionals to balance a thousand complicating factors. Find the best value for your projects by writing solicitations clearly and selecting firms based on qualifications, not price alone.

 

Sample Unhelpful Requests

“A USGS camera calibration report, no more than three years old…”

Modern cameras don’t have USGS calibration reports.

“Spot elevations will be complete and accurate.”

How precisely is this measured? To what standard?

“Flight acquisition must occur between 10am and 2pm … and be acquired with a minimum of 30 degree sun angle.”

Just specify the sun angle. The provider will ensure it is collected correctly.

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