Qualifications-Based Selection

Much has been written about the advantages of Qualifications-Based Selection (QBS) for professional services. The Brooks Act, passed by Congress in 1972, prohibited lowest-bid-based procurement of A/E services by various federal agencies, and many states followed with similar measures. Compliance with the mandate has been spotty at times, but generally most agree that the process has enhanced the design procurement process.

In short, QBS requires selecting the most qualified firm for the project before discussion of the fee is begun. The theory is that for professional services the scope cannot adequately be defined at the initiation of the contract. (And because fee-based proposals depend on a specific scope, insistence on such proposals encourages the bidders to presume the smallest scope, in the hopes of adding extra work orders during the course of the project.) In contrast, selection on the basis of the lowest bidder focuses entirely on the fee and ignores the qualifications (if any) of the bidders. The lowest-bidder paradigm assumes that all bidders will render identical service. For many tasks, including most design and most opinion-based services, this is unrealistic; personality factors play too important a role.

But although many clients have been convinced of the advantages of QBS, there is a curious undercurrent to the process. It seems that after the prime is awarded the contract, many times the subconsultants are selected on the basis of the lowest bid.

Here is an example: the client hires an architect after evaluating proposals from three architectural firms and negotiating a price with the most qualified of the three. During that process, all firms stress the unique aspects of their design approach and the intangible benefits of using their firm. And all firms discourage using fees as a significant factor in the selection process. So far, so good. The winning firm, in turn, acts as a project manager and procures, on behalf of the client, the services of subconsultants—but using, as often as not, a competitive bid process! The same happens when engineering firms and surveying firms are the prime consultant. The logic of this escapes me.

Split Personality

I am reminded of the story Ralph Waldo Emerson related concerning Philip of Macedon. A woman knelt before his throne awaiting a ruling from the king, which, when it came, was completely unreasonable. Upon hearing the decision, the woman exclaimed, "I appeal!" Astonished, the king asked to whom she appealed. The woman replied, "I appeal from Philip, drunk, to Philip, sober!"

Thus it is with our handling of QBS. Up the "food chain," we insist that qualifications count more than price, that there are differences in capabilities segregating the offerers that, for some, may disqualify them from competent participation. Down the food chain, however, we seek the lowest bidder. How can we justify that? Implicit in the practice is the notion that what we provide requires specialized expertise, but what we procure is merely a commodity. This is completely illogical.

Sometimes the prime apologizes by saying that the client "insisted" on getting prices from three potential subconsultants. This is little consolation. Prime consultants have a duty both to recognize that subconsultants generally do not offer a commodity and to inform their clients of that fact (because in most cases they have the only contact with the client). Undoubtedly, the QBS process demands more time investment from the client than does lowest-bidder selection. Having expended the time necessary to select the most qualified prime consultant, the client may not be inclined to repeat the process with every subconsultant. Nevertheless, someone needs to evaluate the capabilities of the team members. If it is necessary to engage the services of a subconsultant, it is necessary to ensure that the subconsultant will render acceptable service—which leads us back to QBS.

Lest we piously claim that we are always the aggrieved party here, remember that surveyors are as guilty as anyone else. We routinely request fee-based proposals from photogrammetrists and environmental consultants.

It could be that we have not been as diligent as we should have been in explaining our practice to potential clients. We know that there are significant differences from surveyor to surveyor, but does the average architect know? Probably not. Although it is easy to visualize differences in practitioners who specialize in imaginative solutions—creating, as it were, something from nothing—it is more difficult to distinguish between offerers who presume not to create anything, but merely to depict the existing state of affairs. Yet, differences remain. Some surveyors have specialized expertise in particular jurisdictions whereas others are expert, in general, at boundary or easement law; some surveyors focus on the unique requirements of certain public agencies while others concern themselves with GIS. Presumably every firm has strengths and weaknesses. Selecting a firm for a project concerning an area in which the firm is weak makes no sense.

Lifecycle Costs

One of the selling points of QBS to consumers is that although design services comprise only a small percentage of the Total Lifecycle Cost of the project, poor design can result in hidden costs that plague the owner for years. Cheap design, ultimately, is expensive. Similarly, cheap surveying is a time bomb that often explodes when none of the original players are around to pick up the pieces. Thus, as in everything else, it pays to do it right the first time, which, for intellectual services, means done by the right people. Prime consultants, no matter what discipline they represent, must be sensitive to the ramifications of lowest-bidder procurement within their team. Only after assuring themselves that the potential subconsultants have the qualifications and expertise to carry out the project should they consider them for the job. Anything less will result in just that: less.

Copyright © 1999 By Joel M. Leininger, LS