If you needed major surgery and had to choose a surgeon, would you make that choice based on the lowest cost? Probably not. Most people, when making a medical decision, consider the degree of specialization, reputation and expertise, and sometimes even the “bedside manner” of the doctor first, before considering the cost.
That’s a wise decision. Making major decisions based on cost alone doesn’t guarantee value. When bidders know that cost is the predominant differentiator in a bidding situation they could be tempted to cut corners to win business opening the door to potential safety, quality and environmental issues with the project.
That’s why federal and California state law require that federal, state and local public agencies use Qualifications Based Selection (QBS) to select engineering, land surveying and architectural services. The purpose of the statutes is to make sure that public agencies, and thereby the general public, receive design services from the best qualified design professionals for a particular project, not simply the cheapest.
It’s a competitive contract procurement process, but one that isn’t predicated on price. QBS typically involves a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) segment in which firms are invited to submit their suitability for the project along with credentials. Unfortunately, too often we’ve seen some RFQs in California that require a fee submission and even some that specifically say that fees will be used as the basis for assigning points in the selection process. This violates state law which dictates that price not be used as a comparison tool when public agencies select engineering, architectural or land surveying services.
QBS is used throughout the country and at the federal level because it is sound, cost effective public policy. Professional services for design of a project can’t be priced upfront in the same way that construction services can. With construction, there exists a set of plans and specs upon which all bidders can base their cost estimates and compete on price as well as other factors. That’s just not feasible for professional services firms competing to come up with those plans and designs and to introduce cost as a competitive factor in the selection process is not only poor public policy, it is potentially hazardous. Engineers shouldn’t be encouraged to cut costs just to be part of the selection process. Public agencies should pick the best firm or firms for the job and then negotiate on price. If agreement on price can’t be made, the selection committee should have a short list of candidates culled from the RFP process to go to.