New Insights About Qualifications Based Selection (QBS)

May 23 2016 GFOA TorontoThe Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) Annual Conference was recently held in Toronto, Canada. The association focuses on financial issues (including procurement) of importance to governments of all sizes, from around the globe. I was invited to speak on Qualifications Based Selection along with American QBS expert Tina Borger of the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing (NIGP) on day two of the conference.

A recent presentation I delivered on QBS in Toronto has lead me to three distinct insights about changes coming to the ways with which governments hire professional services firms. I’d like to share those with you.

QBS Is in the Spotlight

I’ve been speaking about QBS for almost 15 years now, long before I even knew what QBS was. For example, several years ago I was invited to speak at the American Public Works Association (APWA) conference in Columbus, Ohio. My topic was “How to Buy Professional Services”. At that time, I had no idea what QBS was, nor was I aware of the Brooks Act, or it’s history, but in hindsight given the content I was sharing, I was effectively talking about QBS without even realizing it. I said basically the same words and gave the same advice I give today but without the label “QBS”.

During that conference I believe I had about 25 people attend my presentation, well short of the room capacity of about 200 (I always count the chairs in the rooms I present in).

The presentation got a great response judging by the questions during and after, but it was obvious that back then there was not this wide interest within the procurement community in methodologies other than the price based Request for Proposal (RFP). (Ironically one of the first people to approach me with questions was a procurement person from Selkirk, Manitoba about 20 minutes north of where I live in Canada.)

Fast forward to May of 2016 where I presented along with Tina Borger from NIGP at the GFOA conference in Toronto. A room with approximately 300 chairs was completely full, every aisle packed with cross-legged attendees on the floor and both entrances propped open with people stacked 4 deep trying to hear the presentation. For the record, in 15 years of speaking at conferences I have never seen anyone sit on the floor to attend a session. (Coincidentally one of the first people to come chat with Tina and I after the presentation was a procurement person from the City of Winnipeg, where I live.)

So that’s the first lesson: governments are interested in new procurement processes, particularly around procuring professional services. Or in other words, it’s a good time for professional associations to be speaking about QBS. Governments might be listening.

The Price-Based RFP Continues to Fall Out of Favour

The second lesson might explain why governments might be listening. The lesson I learned dining with folks from the conference, just before my presentation, was that people who work in government, hate the RFP process. When I asked my lunch colleagues if they could tell me about their experiences with RFPs, representatives from Ohio, Texas, Alabama, Illinois, and Louisiana all expressed the same frustrations – it takes too long, it’s way too complex, it’s very subjective, it’s easily manipulated and it doesn’t get good results. Exactly what I have been hearing from mid-level, non-procurement, government department people for a while now. The difference today is that increased awareness of QBS in general has provided the “I hate RFPs” crowd a structure for proposing an alternative, as opposed to the past where the “I hate RFPs” argument usually ended at “I hate RFPs”, without anything productive coming out of the complaining.

QBS Still Has A Long Way to Go

And finally the third lesson is that even in the United States where QBS is required by federal legislation, and also by legislation in 46 states when hiring architects and engineers, there seems to be very little cross-over of QBS into the procurement of other professional services such as advertising, market research, law, graphic design, IT, interior design, etc. This tells me that in order for QBS to grow, it has to have an active advocacy campaign driving it, the way the architects and engineers have been doing.

And furthermore, even with the legislation requiring the use of QBS, what I have heard is that in many states, the architecture and engineering professional associations still have to act as a watchdog to ensure RFPs don’t slip back in through the cracks.

So if government is exploring new ways of procuring professional services, and there is significant opposition to the RFP within government, I say it is the perfect time for professional associations – especially those outside of architecture and engineering − to increase their QBS advocacy and leverage the gains that have been made so far.

So what does this mean for professional associations? How can they take advantage of this opportunity to have government clients shift from a low-bid RFP process to a qualifications and value based QBS process that costs both clients and vendors far less during the procurement process and results in far better long term projects?

  • Start by creating a local sub-committee dedicated to QBS, with a mandate to advocate at the municipal, civic, and provincial (or state) governments for QBS.
  • Then contact your national association and let them know what you are doing, and ask if they can assist your local chapter. Some national associations are ahead of the game on QBS and might have resources they can share. If not, ask them to create a national QBS sub-committee and get in the game.
  • Step three is to contact the other provincial associations in your profession and in related professions to see what they are doing and how you might collaborate.

You can start simply by sharing info about QBS within your profession, and within the procurement associations in your region. A good place to find QBS info is – a site I have created to provide a quick snapshot of the QBS scene in Canada, along with information about QBS from other countries as well.

If you’re thinking about advocating for QBS in your area, give me a call or email me at and let’s see how I might be able to help you bring QBS to your province, state, city or municipality and make selling your professional services a whole lot easier.

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The Consultant with Pink Hair

"This should be required reading for consultants AND their clients - especially the part about RFPs." - Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching

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