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It ain't over 'till it's over
Ontario's proactive approach to debriefing vendors

by Sheldon Gordon

Debriefing losing bidders: handled badly, it could result in angry respondents, threats of litigation and the refusal of suppliers to submit proposals in the future; handled right, the outcome can be better proposals in the future and early resolution of disputes - plus, the confidence and trust of vendors.

Once a contract is awarded, the Ontario government, like other jurisdictions, debriefs losing bidders - only upon request. "That's part of our 'best practices,'" says Karen Owen, director of the Strategic Procurement Branch at Ontario's Shared Services Bureau (SSB). "Now we're taking a more pro-active approach."

Vendors used to have to "know" that they could request a debriefing; now all tenders and Request for Proposal (RFP) documents will explain that bidders have a right to one. Ontario plans to be more consistent in posting awarded contracts on MERX with references to debriefings and Ontario's Management Board is highlighting the debriefing policy on its website.

Owen says this is being done to help suppliers improve their proposals and tenders, "but it also provides us with significant feedback around our own processes," she adds. "We clearly need that from the vendor community."

The SSB, which provides procurement services to all the ministries, runs most of the existing debriefings. Where ministries handle their own procurement - such as large construction projects at the Ministry of Transport, or complex, service-based projects at the Ministry of Health - their own staff debriefs vendors, tending to follow the same principles as the SSB.

Even so, concedes Owen, "We've had inconsistency, from one ministry to the next and from one location in a ministry to the next. What we're aiming for, before ensuring that we're giving debriefings everywhere, is just putting in place a standard process."

For some SSB staff, the pro-active approach means more debriefings - Owen anticipates a 20 percent rise. In addition, the SSB will play more of a leadership role: inviting the vendor; setting the agenda in conjunction with ministry staff; and, at the meeting, having SSB staff explain what will be covered and facilitate the discussion.

Debriefings can be tense affairs. Owen says she has never had a vendor stomp out of one, "but I have had times when a vendor was extremely irate. If a company's future hinges on being successful, there's a lot of anxiety around. It's sometimes difficult to accept that another proposal was chosen when they feel strongly about the quality of their proposal." This is especially so when the selection criteria are less tangible - e.g., the winning proposal was more in line with a ministry's direction or strategic approach to a project.

"There's always difficulty," says Owen, "when vendors don't feel they've been given fair access - for whatever reason - or feel that another vendor may have had an advantage, be it political or administrative." She tries to focus on the perspective from which the unsuccessful proposal was written and identify areas where it might have been brought more in line with the direction of the project. Still, she admits, "It's sometimes hard to convince vendors that there has been fair access."

Jim Kovacs, manager of Purchasing Services at the Ontario Ministry of Health, has been involved in his ministry's debriefings for 13 years. He says their number has increased in the past five years. In the past, "RFP respondents were not aware they could get a debriefing." Now, "they are more sophisticated; they understand they are entitled to one and ask for it." The ministry does up to 100 RFPs annually, and "more than 50 percent of the people ask for a debriefing."

He notes that "there are a lot of independent contractors bidding on government contracts who are not familiar with the process. Sometimes they lose because their proposal is not up to standard." While the number of complainants has declined as the industry has come to understand the bidding process better, says Kovacs, he still debriefs at least one losing vendor a month. "But others genuinely feel that a debriefing will help them respond better the next time."

Kovacs always takes the time to explain the RFP evaluation process. One of the most frequent mistakes that vendors make is not following the rules - usually because they have not read the RFP carefully enough.

The error may be as simple as neglecting to sign a form. "In instances like that, the respondents are very upset, because to them it's a minor issue," says Kovacs. "Yet it is crucial because we cannot award respondents a contract if they didn't comply with all the mandatory items in the RFP."

While Kovacs or one of his four staff consultants leads off each of the ministry's debriefings, the civil servant overseeing the RFP carries the discussion, especially on the technical issues. Kovacs conducts four to eight workshops a year to train project managers on how to run debriefings.

"We tell [vendors] upfront why they weren't successful, where they ranked in scoring and point out the weaknesses and the strengths of their response," says Kovacs. "We give them feedback, they ask questions and we clarify the issues that are important to them." Comments are offered without comparisons between the vendor's bid and the winning proposal.

While the vendor can request his or her total score, the ministry won't disclose the rankings, the scores or even the names of the other unsuccessful vendors. The winner's name is public information.

Debriefings are potentially stressful for both sides, but Kovacs says he enjoys the process. He sets a friendly tone rather than an adversarial one, thereby easing tensions. "It is key that people feel they can benefit from this process rather than just vent their frustrations. I try to make sure they understand it's beneficial for both sides."

Sheldon Gordon is a freelance business writer in Toronto.



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