With thousands and sometimes millions of dollars in public money at stake, writing a Request for Proposals (RFP) to solicit bids for complex technology products and services can be a frustrating and sometimes daunting experience for school leaders. Recognizing how difficult RFPs can be for all parties involved, the nonprofit Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) has unveiled a new initiative meant to make the process simpler for both schools and vendors.

SIIA plans to release a report outlining a set of guidelines that schools and vendors can follow when drafting and responding to RFPs. Called “Guidelines for Improving the request for Proposal and Competitive Bidding for Educational Technology Products and Services: A Guide for Educational Agencies and Educational Technology Vendors,” the 25-page document aims to make the entire process more manageable, increasing the chances that schools will receive the most bang for their buck, while giving vendors a better shot at winning potential big-money contracts.

In a pre-release interview with eSchool News, Karen Billings, vice president of SIIA’s education division, said the goal is to foster a dialogue between schools and software vendors, so both parties can get the most out of the time–and money–they invest in the process.

“It’s awareness building,” Billings said of the project, noting there are few places where educators and software providers can turn for help in understanding what is required to prompt and initiate a successful bid, especially when it comes to software contracts, where the needs of individual districts are often vastly different.

According to SIIA’s report, several factors make including hardware and software products in the RFP process difficult for schools. For one thing, the report says, “technology changes at such a rapid pace.” Furthermore, software solutions are inherently complex, meaning that most large-scale projects require “extensive implementation planning,” including the installation of multiple systems. The report also notes that technology acquisition demands a level of expertise often “in short supply,” especially in the nation’s more understaffed school systems. In addition, schools often find easy-to-install, off-the-shelf-solutions unsuitable for their purposes, the report says. When it comes to technology, schools “often demand solutions customized to their specific needs.”

To help schools and vendors address these challenges, SIIA’s latest resource includes an outline to guide educators through the process of writing effective RFPs. The document is meant to serve as a checklist for educators to work from as they complete their proposals, Billings said.

Topics range from an overview of how to prepare and submit a successful RFP, to the characteristics of a high-quality RFP document, to writing an accurate synopsis of your needs, providing instructions to potential software vendors, and accurately listing the anticipated budget and other factors determining the size and scope of the project–not to mention trying to decide which vendors might be right for the job.

The resource also aims to give schools and vendors a deeper understanding of the effort required at both ends to create a winning proposal. Specifically, the report makes several suggestions intended to foster better communication between the schools and the service providers seeking their business.

According to Billings, the idea for SIIA’s RFP initiative evolved out of feedback the organization received from its constituents, as well as from members of the education community. Poor RFPs, they warned, are among the biggest impediments to successful software purchases in the nation’s schools.

Realizing this, SIIA organized a working group–composed of education leaders and software vendors–charged with demystifying the RFP process and forging a much-needed dialogue between education and industry.

Also providing input was a focus group of 16 chief technology officers and various purchasing agents from districts across the country. Convening for the first time in October 2004, the focus group set out to identify the problems associated with the current competitive-bidding process. Their suggestions contributed to the current report, though Billings says SIIA’s work is far from done.

“Each time we go out and do an outreach, people come up to us with additional information,” she said.

At one of the group’s latest workshops, held during the Florida Educational Technology Conference in Orlando last month, Mary Baker, head of emerging technologies for Florida’s Broward County Public Schools–the nation’s sixth largest school system–said that when it comes to filing RFPs, schools could use the help.

“The biggest issue is in the discovery process,” she said, noting that schools often have a hard time knowing what educational service providers are well-suited, or even capable, of meeting their needs. “We need to know who is in this space,” she said, referring to the types of vendors who might respond to an RFP. “Are we getting a good deal?”

Sometimes it’s hard to tell, she said, especially at the rate technology changes today. “It’s a different game than it used to be,” Baker explained. As technology and the needs of districts have continued to evolve, vendors no longer can expect to win a bid with the “shrink-wrapped” solutions of old. These days, she said, every district has its own needs. For those needs to be met, she said, the district has to understand its options before it writes an RFP–not after.

SIIA’s report is only the beginning, noted Billings.

In the future, SIIA says it plans to add more resources to its web site for vendors and educators to use as they navigate the RFP process. The group also is planning a series of webcasts and other events intended to create awareness of its initiative, though no definitive plans were available at press time.

Links:

Software & Information Industry Association
http://www.siia.net