Innovations in School District Procurement
Three years ago, I received a call from an excited district leader who wanted to chat about student data (of all things)! He dreamt of building a digital “learning ecosystem,” (think instruction/LMS, assessment, IEPs, grading, attendance, transportation, etc.) to serve as the information backbone for his district’s vision to personalize the learning environment for every student. What he didn’t know was how to make that ecosystem a reality.
He questioned whether their existing Student Information System was able to grow beyond state reporting and truly track individual student progress towards graduation while supporting anytime/anywhere learning across campuses. And most of all he feared that a public procurement process would take two years and involve 3,000 lines of requirements, like a similar district had just experienced. He confided in me that if he followed a standard RFP process, all of the joy would immediately get sucked out of his dream.
Making big changes to achieve our dreams can cost money. Districts look to vendors, whether for products or services, to expand and enhance current capabilities while bringing a fresh perspective. Maybe this means engaging a new standards-aligned curriculum provider, implementing a new student-focused technology platform, or even getting assistance in developing a strategic plan. Ultimately, these large purchases are regulated by states and local education agencies, requiring district leaders to follow prescriptive and controlled procurement processes to ensure that public schools are responsibly spending taxpayer dollars while preventing fraud and waste.
When I speak to leaders about their school district procurement processes, I often hear that it’s a ‘necessary evil’ with only a small number of knowledge holders who actually understand the complicated schedules and requirements. Often these procurement teams and processes are hyper-focused on the compliance aspects of selecting, evaluating, and eventually purchasing new products (e.g. finance thresholds, cones of communications silence, lengthy requirements lists). I rarely hear that district leaders are confident that procurement processes helped their team to identify the best partner or select the best product to solve a critical district issue. I almost never hear that a procurement process incorporated the “voice of the customer,” which translates in our districts to the needs of students, teachers, and school leaders.
This leaves me puzzled - if we aren’t involving our users and aren’t focusing on solving our problems, then how can we expect that we are buying things that students and teachers not only need, but that they will actually use? Well, the short answer is, we’re not. Just take a look at ed tech utilization: less than 10% of users who have paid licenses for core math and ELA products actually use the product with fidelity.
I believe that district leaders can actually leverage the required school district procurement process to support innovation and transformational projects. These leaders take time to work with procurement/purchasing leaders and teams to understand the requirements that drive their typical district processes and schedules. And they ask, “Why? Just because it’s always been done one way doesn’t mean that it’s the only way, or the right way.”
I’ve seen leadership teams co-design an inclusive evaluation process that not only meets regulatory requirements but also ensures that vendors and their products address “customer” needs and support the achievement of district goals. Evaluation criteria, beyond just lists of requirements, can be used to compare how well products and services match academic and technical requirements, along with implementation and cost considerations. District leaders are even starting to use their procurement process to engage stakeholders (think 30% of all teachers!), build trust early, and increase awareness of an upcoming transformation.
As you work with your leadership team to build a budget for SY 2018-2019 and start planning for a big public procurement, here are five tips:
Start with a problem, not with a product. Take a moment and define what strategic issue you are looking to solve. Even better – imagine with your users and for your vendors what the future-state will be. This visioning can result in a variety of formats: maybe a list of goals or a visual such as a future-state journey map. Refocusing your team and users on what problems you are trying to solve will help them innovate when selecting a new service or product – and not just looking for something that replaces their current tools (and encourages current inefficiencies). We’ve even seen this vision replace the need for hundreds (or thousands) of requirements. And it’s a great way to gut-check whether or not this aligns with your overall district strategy.
Knowing your customers and/or users is good, but involving your users is great. Be clear about who exactly you are targeting – along with their wants, needs, and preferences. Consider building personas (or proto-personas) to keep your stakeholders at the front of your mind and to identify similarities and patterns across behaviors, motivations, and commonly held goals. Don’t keep these internal, and instead share these as part of your “why” to vendors. Personas help to humanize your needs to vendors and support a user-focused approach (e.g. demonstrations, role-based training, support models). As you design an evaluation process, creatively identify ways to involve your users and get their honest feedback on the services, products, and vendors.
Get your board and leaders “on board.” We all hate being brought in at the last minute for a big decision. Think about what ‘skin in the game’ these leaders have or how this purchase could have a rippling impact across your community – i.e., how could a new curriculum further marginalize English language learners or how could a new technology wreak havoc on data security? Carve out an advisory role for your trustees and cabinet members so that they can represent their teams and communities. Identify existing communication channels to provide updates and keep them abreast of things that matter to them (e.g. their schools that may be pilots). Build shared objectives so they become just as focused on solving the problem, as opposed to focusing on the product you are selecting.
Be realistic about what your team can handle (and afford). Ask yourself, can we seriously make our vision a reality? Do we have the resources? Do we have the skills? Many times the answer to this question is no. Find help – and if resources are scarce, have your vendor find them. In our experience, contract costs are just the tip of the iceberg and a critical planning activity is for teams to take a moment and evaluate the total internal and external budget necessary to make this purchase successful. If you need to train teachers, what will be the costs of securing subs? If you need to make packets for teachers, what will be the cost of printing materials? As you perform reference checks with other similar districts, find out what they wish they had done differently – maybe they would have included different perspectives on their team, organized their rollout to teachers differently, or written a different requirement into their vendor contract.
Your vendor relationship, like any relationship, will only be successful if it’s built on trust. If you are out to pinch a vendor for the purposes of getting a good deal, it will backfire in the end. It’s only fair to approach the relationship with the goal of creating a win-win scenario for both the district and the partner. This will nurture a cooperative spirit during the process of planning and negotiation, and vendors will be more enthusiastic about offering information and working hard to provide what you need. Creating a positive and fruitful environment for both parties will also strengthen the ongoing relationship – it’s easier and much more cost-effective to continue to work with someone who understands your needs and goals, than to start all over with someone new, and do so repeatedly. Always think critically about the process, but a certain level of trust is necessary to get the most out of your relationship with your vendors.
The school district procurement process can be intimidating and exhausting. It can be riddled with false-starts and unexpected stalls. It’s easy to become frustrated with every aspect of it, from comparing vendors to identifying the products and services you actually need. We hear from district teams who invested in the wrong services, when it turned out they really needed something else, or others who have a hard time getting stakeholder buy-in. It’s a tough task, but when approached strategically, there could be a huge pay-off waiting for you in the end.