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