When our work as the engineering consultant is done, the project has really only just begun since the municipality has to select a contractor to build the water, wastewater or stormwater design solution we’ve developed. The procurement process is one of the most challenging and important steps in a project and can have a significant impact on the project’s outcome. Traditional procurement involves a few can’t miss steps, including advertising the project, the pre-bid meeting and bid opening, the bid submission and review, and the final decision, and I’d argue that the first steps are the most significant in setting the project up for success.
The pre-bid meeting is typically conducted in person and requires all interested vendors to appear to receive the details about what the job entails. Sometimes the bid opening even includes a tour of the project site to clearly convey the scope of work. We join our client in the pre-bid meeting to relay pertinent information about what we’ve designed and our team typically gives a visual, in-person presentation to all interested contractors.
The pre-bid meeting and bid opening set the stage for the rest of the project. However, as we comply with social distancing guidelines and stay safer at home, the first steps of the procurement process look a little different these days. I recently chatted with three of my colleagues, Senior Engineers Justin Avent, Hal Humphrey and Tim O’Brien, to learn how they’re helping their clients navigate the procurement process during the pandemic and what they think the future of construction contracts looks like post-coronavirus.
Craig Parker: Each of you work with municipalities in different states. How are our clients keeping the bidding process moving forward during this time?
Hal Humphrey: In recent years new technologies have helped streamline the bid opening and bidding process, however the pandemic has pushed us and our clients to more quickly embrace the programs. Here in Alabama, I work very closely with Jefferson County on a number of projects and they’re implementing a bid-management software called “QuestCDN.”
Quest houses all documents, addendums and plans, keeping everything in one central location. The software also allows contractors to print everything for themselves, ultimately saving the County printing costs which are non-reimbursable expenses.
Tim O’Brien: I work closely with the City of Dallas and while we haven’t implemented any new software on our current projects, we have relied on video. I recently visited the Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant and filmed my visit using my iPhone and a gimble, giving contractors a virtual tour and highlighting each item on the scope list. It was interesting to put myself in the contractor’s shoes as someone seeing the job site for the first time. It gave me a fresh perspective for the project!
Craig: That’s great to hear that we’re implementing new technologies and finding new ways to use existing ones to get the job done. I’ve also been a part of several pre-bid meetings that were done via video conference. At Gresham Smith we’re relying heavily on Microsoft Teams to meet with our clients and partners face-to-face and I know other organizations are using additional platforms as well.
Craig: Have you run into any challenges since implementing virtual bid openings?
Justin Avent: On the City of Memphis Sewer Assessment & Rehabilitation Program (SARP10), attending pre-bid meetings is mandatory, so it’s extremely important that we capture everyone who attends the session. It’s easy to have everyone sign in when attending in-person, but a bit more difficult during a virtual meeting. Participants aren’t allowed to hang up until we have their name on the list!
It’s also difficult to share visual aids with those who call in to video conferences from their phone, rather than join on their computer. However, we’ve been doing our best to over-share our presentation with attendees before and after meetings, posting it on the SARP10 website and sending it out via email prior to the pre-bid meeting.
Craig: You bring up a good point—It’s a good policy to over-share and over-communicate right now.
Craig: Transparency has always been a concern throughout the public bidding process. How can our clients address this issue?
Justin: While the degree to which different cities share information varies, I think they all recognize the importance of transparency in the contracting process. Bid openings are typically a public process and anyone can walk in off the street and listen in on the meeting, which obviously isn’t an option right now due to social distancing protocols.
As much as possible, the City of Memphis has been including a bid opening dial-in number on project advertisements so that the information is as widely available as possible. Additionally, they have also been posting entire bid tabs on the SARP10 website, something they’ve never done before. By showing the amount bid by each contractor, they’ve added another layer of transparency to the procurement process.
Tim: The City of Dallas has been using their website as well. Previously all bids were submitted on paper and in person, but now bidders are required to upload their materials electronically.
Hal: I also think the programs I mentioned before can help with transparency as well, since it’s easier to catalog, organize and share data with the software as opposed to trying to do it all manually.
Craig: One last question and then we’ll wrap it up. How do you see the processes implemented during the pandemic affecting our practice and the industry as a whole moving forward?
Tim: Since the pandemic started I’ve discovered the value of capturing project sites on video. I’ve started taking videos on our team’s site walks to capture the areas we’re working on and I’ve found that as a byproduct I can capture the conversations happening on the site walk too. Not only is it helpful to reference later, but I can share the video with teammates in other offices to give them a better understanding of the project.
Hal: I think our industry will continue to increasingly implement an online procurement process. Not only do new technologies help us stay more organized, but they also save time and money—two things everyone would like more of.
Craig: Great points. Thanks to each of you for joining me today and sharing how you’re helping clients with procurement during the pandemic as well as how you think the process will change after the coronavirus.