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The Art of Procurement: Balancing Price and Performance

The learning environment is changing in our schools, and technology is playing a big role. How schools are acquiring their resources can be as affecting as the changes in instructional practices used by teachers. Better prices mean savings, and those dollars can be used to support a school's other needs. But price isn't the only factor to consider.

Here are eight recommendations for school technology procurement:

1. Remember that purchasing and procurement are not the same.
Procurement is the process that leads to the acquisition of goods and services, which typically ends with purchasing — simply the exchange of money for those good and services. It's important to focus on the procurement process first and not fixate on purchasing too soon. Doing so can sometimes make the purchase price too great a factor in decision-making.

2. Seek solutions, not equipment or software.
Understand the difference between commodity purchasing and solutions procurement. If you need 100 USB flash drives, one brand is probably as good as another, and a commodity purchase would be fine for almost any occasion. But procuring a literacy-intervention software suite or a device to support a 1-to-1 learning program can't be easily distilled into a simple list of specifications. That is a solutions procurement, and you're likely going to need to do a lot of research and potentially make a competitive bid.

3. Be descriptive, not prescriptive.
When issuing a request for proposal or information (an "RFP" or an "RFI"), use descriptive language to frame the challenge you're attempting to solve. Use prescriptive language to establish the hard limits and requirements. Avoid setting minimum technical requirements when possible; instead, consider describing the successful outcome.

For example, if you know you want students to be able to create and edit video, you know you want a device with enough storage capacity and processing power to store the content and manipulate it. While you may think you know how much storage space you need or how fast a processor your device should have, in today's world of tablets, laptops, and Chromebooks, the ways in which these platforms solve for this task are very different.

Instead, use descriptive language to explain the types of video creation and editing that you want students to be able to do, and allow the providers to propose a solution that meets the need you describe. Don't solve the problem for the provider.

4. Language matters — a lot.
It's important to use language that clearly lets bidders know what's a requirement (e.g., "Provider must ..."). But avoid ambitious language such as "Provider should...." Additionally, when describing the challenges you want your bidders to solve, include qualitative language and instruct them to be descriptive. Consider the difference between "The Bidder must include the capacity for student to ___ " and "The Bidder must describe how it will provide the capacity for students to ___."

In some instances, particularly for services such as repair or replacement of equipment, include quantitative language. It isn't enough to ask for an easy process to get repairs completed. When time is critical, you will likely find that prescriptive language is better. For example, "The Bidder must describe how it will provide warranty repairs at no additional cost in no more than two school days. The process must be easy for school technicians to initiate and complete."

Lacking qualitative and quantitative measures in your requirements may lead a bidder to respond, "We understand and will comply with this requirement" — a perfectly adequate response if you don't ask for more.

5. Flexibility can allow for innovation.
Directing bidders to provide descriptions of their solutions and setting clear requirements is important. But it's also important to include a way for bidders to propose innovative solutions that may not fit the expected description. When I issued RFPs for the state of Maine, part of our template included:

"If a Bidder cannot provide something as described in the Scope of Services section of this RFP, then that Bidder may propose something that is functionally equivalent, and provide an explanation of that equivalency. Functional equivalency will ultimately be determined by the Evaluation Team."

This allowed a bidder to propose an out-of-the-box solution that didn't strictly fit the requirements established, while clearly stating that the Evaluation Team maintained the final word on determining whether that solution was sufficient.

6. Data privacy trumps performance.
It's critical that we consider data privacy. So much of the promise and potential of ed tech is the capacity to better understand what our learners know and need. With that knowledge comes great responsibility to ensure your solutions providers are good stewards of your learners' data.

Require that your providers disclose in plain language what they are and are not doing with student data. You can learn more about student data privacy and review in-depth privacy and security evalutaions at commonsense.org/education/privacy.

7. Give structure to your price quotes to allow for easier comparison.
How you structure a pricing proposal and how you actually purchase can have a big impact on your overall procurement. If you don't provide clear and explicit guidance to your bidders on how to provide you pricing information, comparing pricing between bids may be difficult. You want to ensure your price proposals allow you to do an apples-to-apples evaluation. If you intend to lease equipment, and you intend to buy the equipment at the end of the lease, then you need to know the lease buyout cost as well. Don't forget the good work CoSN has done on Total Cost of Ownership.

8. Involve your users in the process.
Finally, gather information and feedback from the primary users of whatever it is you're procuring — that usually means your teachers and your students. Without their input to help you determine the real needs, the day-to-day usage concerns, or the training and professional development needs for implementation, your RFP or RFI will be incomplete. It's also advisable to include at least one teacher on your proposal evaluation team.

Procurement for the classroom has become increasingly complex because the solutions we seek for our learners are no longer limited to static finished products. Edtech solutions require the support of a multitude of departments in a school system. Take the time to involve your community in determining the needs.

The crafting of procurement documents such as RFPs and RFIs are an opportunity to deeply consider how your teaching and institutional practices affect learners and teachers. They are also a way to express to the providers your best thinking on what's needed to support learning. If no products or services fit your needs exactly, by issuing the RFP or RFI you let providers create and innovate to meet your needs. It establishes a dialog and a two-way street. In the long run, this is beneficial to all.

For more information about how to balance price and performance, please see our archived webinar, "The Art of Procurement: Balancing Price and Performance."

About the Author

Jeff Mao joined Common Sense Education in the fall of 2014. He provides strategic consulting to states and districts on the effective implementation of digital learning programs. Prior to joining Common Sense Education, Jeff served as the Learning Technology Policy Director for the Maine Department of Education. In that role, he provided leadership and education technology policy support to four Commissioners of Education, and he was directly responsible for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI). He oversaw all aspects of the program including vision, implementation, policy, professional development, procurement and contract management. Jeff has keynoted international events sponsored by UNESCO, World Bank, InterAmerica-Development Bank, and the Korean Education and Research Information Service. He served on the Board of Directors of the State Educational Technology Directors Association for six years including two as Chair of the Board. Common Sense Media named him Educator of the year in 2012, and SETDA named him Leader of the Year in 2013.

Common Sense Education helps educators find the best edtech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Go to Common Sense Education for free resources including full reviews of digital tools, ready-made lesson plans, videos, webinars, and more.


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