Transparency success stories: Tacoma Public Schools

Published: April 22, 2013

Contract AwardsForecasts and Spending

The first step in determining what a government is going to want to purchase in the future is to get a good sense of what it purchased in the past. For this reason, the transparency initiatives undertaken by the Tacoma Public School District over the past few years should be encouraging for vendors.
According to Stevel Demel, contracts and warehouse manager, the impetus to make existing contract information more readily available stemmed from a desire to proactively respond to frequent information requests from the vendor community that bogged the procurement department down in paperwork.
“Prior to 2011, the Tacoma School District Purchasing Department would typically get 3 – 5 public disclosure requests for information per month,” said Demel in a written response to Deltek. “As a result, we spent hours copying and preparing documents for disclosure.”
The idea of making all contract information available online came after the district began utilizing online bidding technology for open procurements. This system already allowed the district to automatically post bid tabulations – a fine feature since one of the most frequent requests Deltek gets from members is who they are competing against for a particular procurement. In late 2011, the district was able to pay for the ability to upload its contracts database to the Web for public viewing, which Demel said has dramatically cut down on ad-hoc public disclosure requests.
Tacoma Public Schools provides contract transparency in three forms: inter-local, inter-district and current public contracts. This provides vendors with more or less visibility into all contracting activity for the district, past and present. Additionally, you can filter your searches to search for all contracts set to expire within the next year, making it handy for quick, lead-generating searches. In 20 minutes, I was able to assemble a table of active IT contracts the district currently holds:
“We are convinced more bidders means more competition and better prices, so ultimately our customers are benefitting from our transparency efforts as well,” said Demel.
However, the drive for transparency does have limits, and Demel is skeptical about openly discussing upcoming projects to foster competition.
“We tend to avoid [pre-RFP discussions] if doing so would limit competition or drive the specification,” he said. “We want to strike a balance between fairness and the need for discussions/information.”
Further, Demel said the best thing a vendor can do to win a contract is homework. Doing so will ultimately help them develop the best value proposal or bid. He also said the worst things a vendor can do are assume that the last bid submitted will win and failing to read the bid document carefully enough during the RFP process. Purchases below $75,000 can be limited to a list of pre-identified companies; anything over that figure should be competitively bid.