Why Government contracting processes can really suck: bicycle sharing edition
I don't write about it much in the blog, but I am working with others in a startup business, BicyclePASS, focused on what I call bicycle facilities systems integration.
It's a tough row because getting people to think systematically about some of these issues are really tough, there aren't many opportunities to be creative in the context of narrow contract proposals, you can always be underbid on commodity products like bicycle racks, being able to respond to contracts is time consuming and difficult, we need more financing, etc.
It's a great learning experience--testing and modifying your concepts as a result of the reception in the marketplace--and in the long run I think it will work out. But getting to that point is a ways off and frustrating in the meantime. (Plus readers of the blog sure aren't beating a path to my emailbox requesting bids...)
Even I was somewhat pissed when President Obama (see "Obama's right: You didn't do it alone" from the Reno Gazette-Journal) made some comments recently about how business success is based on the work of others*--"you didn't do that"--because of course people involved in business know that success is the product of multiple collaborations, but at the same time people not involved in business don't really comprehend how hard it is to build a business based on an idea, vision, and limited funds, in trying to develop new practice, in the context of a (in this case transportation) system that is resistant to change in how it approaches the task at hand.
* Note that the respect I have for the work of others and the recognition that I utilize and build upon the work of others is why my blog entries are typically replete with links to other sources and acknowledgement of the source of particular ideas and practices.
Anyway, RFP is a contracting term meaning "Request for Proposals," which involves the submission of a bid for a contract. Preparing bidding documents and meeting the various terms and conditions for being qualified (you may have to submit a performance bond of money deposit just to be deemed fit to bid), etc. The process is not for the faint of heart, but just being able to submit a completed bid shows werewithal and capability, because a lot of people/organizations can't get it together to be able to bid.
Bicycling, in particular bicycle sharing, is really hot, so everyone wants to do it. But the contract tenders are typically issued on incredibly short deadlines, with impossible or at the least, incredibly unrealistic timelines that too often aren't truly achievable.
Plus the problem with buying certain types of technologies is that they aren't open source, they are specific and path dependent.
So what you pick means that's what you get, unless you junk the system and start over, which can happen (e.g. from Clear Channel SmartBike--big in Europe, to Bixi in DC) but very rarely does.
And the RFPs are usually drawn up so narrowly that you can't build the opportunity to provide more innovative solutions into the response, because they aren't really prepared to think and approach the process as an opportunity to go beyond the ordinary.
So do you tender a response, knowing that the deadlines can't be achieved?
Do you submit questions in the pre-bidding process, making the point that the timelines are unrealistic? It makes you seem like a complainer, plus they don't look at the process as a two-way conversation with opportunities to learn on both sides. Instead, they don't want to hear it, and in the end, they don't listen anyway.
In short, sure a lot of people and organizations help you, but just as many people and organizations screw you over at the same time. It's impossible to forget that typically, at the end of the process, there are more checks in the "not helping" column than in the "helping" column.
Cases in point. Chattanooga's tender for bike sharing called for a May 2011 launch. They launched in late July 2012. Chicago called for a 5 week RFP response and a Spring 2012 launch. They just announced a move to a launch in 2013. San Francisco called for deployment starting in August. They still haven't announced a winner. Etc.
Getting to say "I told you so" after you have been boxed out of the competition doesn't make you feel any better. It just pisses you off.
And that's true even in the minds of even politically progressive business people (I vote for Democrats, Greens, and other parties, and will vote for the occasional Republican only if he or she is running against an odiously corrupt Democrat) who in end may be trying to effect social change, just through entrepreneurial means (see "Market Rebels" and "Social Movements" from the Stanford Business School Magazine).
Especially because there tend to be no repercussions for failure**:
1. for the agency and contracting personnel who screwed up in setting the unrealistic deadlines;
2. for the people who refused to acknowledge the challenges to the timelines;
3. for the companies who misrepresented their capabilities in the winning bids;
4. for the winning company's failure to meet the terms and conditions of the contract and deployment schedule.
And equally frustrating, other cities don't take the previous experiences elsewhere into account when they create their own RFPs and processes and deadlines and requirements.
** The reason that I get so pissed off with the trope that "failure is good for business, that you learn from it" ("Not So Sorry: Kathryn Schulz, 'Being Wrong,' at Politics & Prose" from the Express) is not because it isn't true, provided that you are capable of learning and generating meta-lessons from analysis of the process and your participation in it--which many people aren't capable of doing, it's because a lot of failure is predictable and avoidable.
It certainly is in the bike sharing arena.
See the past blog entry, "Helping Government Learn." from 2009 and "System transformation or people vs. systems and structure" from 2007.
Frankly, the Chicago and Chattanooga systems ought to be have been rebid because of the failures to meet the original terms and conditions on which the bid was deemed winning.
The song doesn't really make me feel better, but it does make me laugh at myself and the process.