By Brian Reilly and Jessica Cook
Good governance is increasingly associated with selecting cost-competitive and quality service providers. A common method to attract and select professional consultants—such as engineers, accountants, municipal advisors, planners, or attorneys—is to prepare a request for proposal (RFP). A good RFP can generate interest and provide key information to help you distinguish between responders and select a consultant that best suits your needs. Any RFP should include seven key points to maximize both the number and quality of responses.
#1 Why do you need to hire a consultant?
Tell the consultant why you are going out for proposals. This may be one simple sentence in the RFP if it relates to a specific project, such as developing a comprehensive plan, or if your incumbent consultant’s contract has expired.
However, if you are hiring a consultant to develop recommendations on setting utility rates, for example, tell the consultant what is prompting the community to re-evaluate those rates. Explain why consulting services are needed and the problem or project they may be hired to address. If proposing firms have a detailed understanding of the particular problem or objectives, they can offer specific, relevant experience and creative solutions to best meet your needs.
#2 What should the consultant accomplish?
Be specific about what outcomes you are seeking to achieve. If you have a detailed scope of work, provide it.
Sometimes, however, you are looking for the consultant to help define the scope of work. In that case, communicate important deliverables. For example, if a deliverable is to manage a public participation process, the RFP should ask the respondents to detail how they would solicit and incorporate public input.
#3 What is your time frame?
Specify the term of the engagement. Is it project-specific or for the next three years? If there are deadlines or other milestones for completing key aspects of a project, be sure to communicate those in the RFP.
#4 Ask consultants to share their approach.
Ideally, you will receive multiple responses from qualified firms all capable of completing the scope of work. How will you distinguish them from each other? One way is to directly ask the consultant what distinguishes them from their peers, but you are likely to get boilerplate language extolling their virtues.
A more revealing question is to ask the consultant to specify how they will approach your specific project. Ask the consultant to demonstrate, through relevant examples of work done with other similar clients, the qualities that you are looking for. As an added measure, follow up with those references and speak with them about past work with the firm and the individuals assigned to the engagement.
#5 Consider quality above cost.
Be honest. Isn’t the proposed fee the first place one looks when one receives a consultant’s proposal? And for good reason— price is an important component. But there is a difference between price and value. The lowest-cost proposal is not necessarily the best one, and price should not be the most important consideration. Be sure you know what you are getting for your money.
#6 Explain the evaluation process.
Specifically enumerate how proposals will be considered. Will there be a scoring process and, if so, how will different factors be weighted?
Reserve the right to conduct in-person interviews with finalists as a last step in the evaluation process. Effectively communicating the firm’s proposal and approach in person can be a distinguishing factor, plus you have the benefit of picking up on non-verbal cues throughout the interview.
#7 Strategically distribute the RFP.
Be sure to post the RFP on your city’s website and send a notice to the League of Minnesota Cities (learn more at www.lmc.org/rfp). The League will post your RFP on its website and distribute an announcement of your RFP to vendors across the state. In addition, reach out to reputable firms and send them a copy of the RFP.
Ideally, your professional consultants should be establishing a lasting relationship with staff and elected officials; gaining institutional knowledge of your community; and providing support, expertise, and work products over time. When evaluating the responses to your RFP, consider the consultant’s value, knowledge, level of service, and the quality of the consulting relationship.
Brian Reilly is a senior municipal advisor and Jessica Cook is a financial specialist with Ehlers (www.ehlers-inc.com). Ehlers is a member of the League’s Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).
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