By: Will Wright, Hon. AIA|LA, Director, Government and Public Affairs, AIA Los Angeles
Fair Warning: this essay has more acronyms than you can shake a stick at!Los Angeles is home to some of the top design talent in the world. As a region, we are widely known as a place that imports diversity and exports creativity. Yet, applying those creative design solutions here at home can often be either too cumbersome, tedious and/or expensive for many top designers to enter into local contracts to help shape LA’s public facilities.
Therefore, how do we make the City of Los Angeles’ procurement process for professional design services more inclusive? How do we encourage smaller, more innovative firms to compete for public sector contracts?And how do we make it easier and more cost-effective for the city to administer the contracts from a project management perspective?
Most importantly, how do we streamline the RFP/ RFQ process and re-calibrate the qualifications-based selection evaluation criteria? How do we ensure a higher value return to the public and prioritize design excellence as a chief outcome?
Fundamentally, how do we improve the city’s Business Assistance Virtual Network (BAVN) system so that it facilitates greater professional diversity and inclusion - and therefore promotes a healthier spirit of competition while simultaneously broadening the talent pool to represent the incredible range of talent we have here in LA?
Earlier this year, AIA|LA and SMPS-LA co-hosted a workshop at Los Angeles City Hall to identify ways to improve the procurement process for the Department of Public Works. With the leadership of John L. Reamer, Jr. (Director, Bureau of Contract Administration), Kevin James (President, Board of Public Works) and Deborah Weintraub, AIA (Chief Deputy City Engineer, Bureau of Engineering), the city expressed a strong commitment to integrate best-practices into the RFP/ RFQs for professional services and to improve the BAVN system so that the objectives of the Mayor’s Executive Directive #14 (Business Inclusion Program) are more clearly met.
Evolving from the feedback and recommendations heard at that workshop, the Bureau of Contract Administration set out to request from the City’s Information Technology Agency a variety of initiatives to enhance and streamline the city’s contracting process and to provide greater clarity. Excellent! Success. Now all we had to do was sit back and let ITA make the necessary improvements.
But implementing these improvements will require additional funding. Finding the extra money in the City’s already tight budget will be challenging, but I am confident that if enough of us prioritize this need as a constituency of business leaders concerned with the long-term fiscal sustainability of our city, then we’ll be successful in allocating the resources necessary to make the improvements.
At the same time as we focus on investing in improvements to the BAVN system, we can re-craft the Business Inclusion Program to make the procurement process for LA’s small, minority, women-owned and disadvantaged business enterprises easier to navigate.
Recently, this past August, the City of Los Angeles Department of Planning issued an RFQ for Urban Design and Planning. Although the original deadline to submit all proposals was originally set for September 30, 2014 (less than 60 days), the department quickly extended the deadline to October 10 once it became more obvious just how cumbersome it is to comply with the City’s Business Inclusion Program (BIP).
There is no argument here - the objectives of the BIP are laudable, justified and in today’s Los Angeles, perfectly in check with our collective zeitgeist. Yet, the reality of the program is that it just might do the exact opposite from what it was set out to do. Ah, the curse of the unintended consequence!
As a city, I strongly feel we need to coordinate a selection process to ensure that WBE/MBE/ SBE/ EBE and DVBE firms also have a fair chance at serving as prime contractors (not just sub-consultants that may or may not ever be utilized, yet just sit on the “list”). After all, making it on a prime’s list doesn’t necessarily ensure anything other than a ‘chance’ to participate. It’s not a given! So the effort to comply becomes a substantial business risk, especially impactful to the very firms it’s intended to help.
Instead of asking for every firm to comply with the Business Inclusion Program while responding to the RFQ with their Statement of Qualifications, my recommendations is to bifurcate that process so that the teams shortlisted, in turn, have to demonstrate compliance with the objectives of BIP - and if those objectives are clearly articulated in a separate, all-inclusive document, those compliance obligations will be less cumbersome and more relevant. This will also save substantial time and cost on the part of the City to administer the process. Additionally, it removes the redundancy of compliance for all the firms that aren’t short-listed, yet had to undertake the unwieldy process all the same.
Lastly, I do think some flexibility needs to be built into the process that will enable prime consultants to utilize the talents of emerging professionals as sub-consultants. Five years is a long time to wait for a “chance” to be on the next round of short-listed consultants. That means the firms of tomorrow and the next year never really have an opportunity to contribute. You’d essentially have to be a firm already in existence to qualify as a chance to serve as a sub-consultant, and that inadvertently excludes smaller/ younger firms, which we as a city are hoping to motivate the greater expansion of - these emerging firms are often the most innovative, as well.
Here are some ideas for how to improve BAVN, BIP and the city’s procurement process for professional services:
- The City of Los Angles would benefit from having a model/ template RFQ that integrates best-practices and remains a universally consistent document amongst all city departments seeking to procure professional services with a qualification-based selection process. This will nourish better in-house expertise within city departments and better serve the public with more transparency by consistently emphasizing the core values and benefits of outsourcing professional services.
- Streamline and improve the BAVN/ BIP process so it takes firms (and city administration) less time to respond to proposals. It often takes even the most experienced firm 80 hours ($4,000+) in raw labor costs to respond to a RFQ, which represents $12,000+ in lost-opportunity cost. Multiply that by 100+ firms responding to a RFQ and that represents a substantial loss to the regional economy. And then factor in the cost of the human resources the city itself had to supply to administer the RFQ. Once again, that is a substantial negative impact on the city’s budget.
- Re-craft the Mayor’s Executive Directive #14 (Business Inclusion Program) so that it achieves more impactful results to ensure diversity in city contracting.
- In the 2015 budget, prioritize investments to improve BAVN.
COMMENTS FROM THE FIELD:
- The BAVN online database is only as good as the data entered and searchable.
- BAVN interface, although less glitchy than before, is still cumbersome to search.
- Sheer number of required consultant outreach leads to lack of thorough investigation in each category; it’s simply not possible and is made worse by NAICS codes,
- NAICS codes are not very specific and qualifications are not uploaded / viewable
- This means you’re likely contacting subconsultants that you don’t need or who don’t need you.
- It also means if you’re looking for, say, a lighting designer, you have no idea where to find them.
- City staff in each of the departments don’t understand the process all that well, and so provide confusing answers to the multiple questions that inevitably arise with each RFQ/ RFP.
- There is no clarity as to valid criteria for not including a responding consultant on the required Schedule A form.
- This leads to an exhaustive Schedule A, in which many listed consultants are unlikely to be used in the future = wasted time for primes as well as subs when individual projects arise.
- The recent Department of City Planning RFQ was particularly confusing, as sub-consultants were priming for each other and vice versa.
While many companies want to learn of new opportunities through BAVN notifications, they should not be solicited for services they are not qualified/licensed to provide. A simple pre-qualification application could theoretically reduce this confusion, wherein consultants would need to provide evidence of appropriate licenses, etc.
Further, we had trouble locating some consultants in the categories we expected them to be listed and were only able to add them through their reaching out to us through the approved BAVN process. We were not able to "manually add" consultants until the outreach window had closed, thus limiting the time available for subs--many of whom are small businesses with limited resources--to respond, and also limiting the time available for proper documentation and inclusion in our submittal.
At the Department of City Planning RFQ pre-proposal meeting, a local notable urban designer noted the burden the system places on small businesses and suggested that the process, while well intentioned, actually deters small businesses from not only priming, but also subbing. In short, the BIP process is failing in its effort to create participation opportunities through its very design. Had I not had the benefit of a savvy administrative assistant willing to support our own outreach, I don't know how I/we could have completed the outreach by the deadline. (As it was, we were literally racing the clock to finalize the Schedule A post-RFQ deadline.)
In this case, with no list of established projects and no dedicated funding--local or otherwise--I question the need for the deadline to complete Schedule A being at this stage, instead of at the time of prequalification list announcement (within a set timeframe similar to standard public agency contract negotiation practices). After all, the City doesn't request the proof of completion until later anyway, so why all the fuss?
In completing the Schedule A, there where reasons for/against selecting a sub, one must go through each of the NAICS code categories and input reason for each consultant IN EACH CATEGRORY FOR WHICH THEY ARE REGISTERED. Why not input a reason ONCE for each consultant and enable the system to automatically update the data in all other NAICS codes where consultant is registered? And, I refer back to my first point: if the consultant was only listed in qualified/licensed categories, the task would be far less time-consuming, and far more representative of the real participation opportunities for subs.
Finally, I would encourage City departments/PMs/Contracts Administrators to thoroughly evaluate the proposed SOW for each RFQ/RFP and only require outreach to consultants in disciplines that might actually be required under the resulting contract. For example, the Department of City Planning RFQ required outreach to environmental/CEQA consultants; however, the environmental services would not be performed under this contract according to SOW and City clarifications at pre-proposal/Q&A. Why would a CEQA consultant spend the time and resources to respond knowing full-well no billable work would ever come of it?
Culturally, I think we are all on the same page. City staff is doing what they can to improve the procurement process. Everyone’s heart is in the right place. All we need to do know if partner more often, share more information about recommended best-practices with one another and make sure as we move forward, that we prioritize an investment in streamlining our city’s contracting process. We will be able to measure success by how much more visible the improvements will be on the ground and all around us in the shape of world-class public facilities. After all, the less resources wasted on an overly cumbersome process is more resources available to make the city more beautiful and higher performing.
And that is what our end goal is - a safer, healthier and more vibrant city.
Will Wright, Hon. AIA|LA
Director, Government and Public Affairs
AIA Los Angeles