What we love, what we don’t, and the red flags that make us steer clear
Writing a public library website RFP is like writing a dating profile. There’s pressure to communicate what you’re looking for in a partner, to present yourself in a positive but realistic light, and to project what a happy future might look like. No wonder it can feel overwhelming.
We want to make it easier. For over a decade, we’ve analyzed hundreds of RFPs each year for public library, city, county, and municipal websites. We only bid on a select handful, and we’ve noticed some important characteristics that can make an RFP stand out … or make us pass it by.
Since we only work with public libraries and municipal governments, we have deep insight into the unique aspects of this process. And since we believe there’s no better way to learn than from real-life examples, you can even download the complete RFPs for each example mentioned here, complete with our embedded analysis.
If you want to provide your public library with the best chance to have qualified vendors bidding on your website project, read on.
What we love in public library website RFPs:
- A clear, up-front scope of work. For example, Dallas Public Library created a three-page scope of work and placed it on the second page of their RFP. This lets our sales team quickly assess if the work is something we can do (or not).
- Budget guidance. For example, Kansas City Public Library provides, in the first few pages, clear budget guidance (in their case, about $100,000) for all the services they desire. We understand that public libraries want competitive dollar amounts and may not feel comfortable disclosing their budget. In our experience, public library website RFPs get plenty of responses and price points from bidders. Providing general budget information gives us a good idea if we can be in a competitive range or not.
- Clear input from different voices throughout the organization. For example, Howard County Public Library provides a list of sites they found inspiring and went so far as to list what they like on each site. That kind of attention to detail typically means a public library has done the work internally to understand the needs of different departments. Being aligned internally on the scope of work and getting those voices involved in the drafting of an RFP makes a difference in the bidding process and in reaching a successful outcome. A public library website has to serve the needs of its community and of the library staff supporting and maintaining it.
- Brevity. For example, in just a few pages, St. Louis County Library includes a crisp list of features they desire on their new website and straightforward evaluation criteria. Knowing what’s needed and what is being evaluated allows us to create a proposal that directly targets your needs.
What we don’t love in public library website RFPs:
- Downplaying the scope of work or providing redundant/contradictory information. For example, Dallas Public Library included a clear scope of work statement, but later in the RFP, a table presents much of that same scope of work, sometimes verbatim but sometimes with contradictory interpretations. The table was created to prompt required responses, but there were enough differences between the information in the table and the information earlier in the RFP that we essentially had to write to very similar but slightly different sets of answers.
- Overly-detailed and unrealistic checklists of technical requirements. For example, Dallas Public Library required vendors to submit a lengthy security checklist, including whether or not drones (you’re reading that correctly) are part of the project. Save the security checklists and detailed technical information for shortlisted vendors.
- A lack of background information. For example, In St. Louis County Library’s RFP, vendors get a little bit of background information about the library and its needs, but certain key information (like usage statistics) are missing. These instead appear as part of a later-released Q&A document. Broad website usage data and information about how the site is used and by whom is useful in the RFP itself because it helps vendors gauge the size of impact and population served. This in turn correlates to budget expectations and what kind of support the site will require.
- No or overly broad evaluation criteria. For example, Howard County Public Library provided evaluation criteria that are overly broad. Although their requirements are written clearly and separated by phase (discovery/design vs. development), it is not clear how each will be evaluated. While the organization by phase did help us structure our response, we cannot effectively prioritize our responses to suit the RFP readers’ needs without more information about what they will look for.
- A lack of vision. For example, Alabama Public Library released an RFP last year that was shockingly brief. It made clear that they wanted to upgrade the software of the site … but why? Is the current software out of date? Are communities not being served well? Both? A lack of vision and information about what is needed in the future is a red flag because it typically implies to us a customer who’s looking to “check the box” of having a website, versus an organization that wishes to fulfill important needs in their community. Sometimes, it might just mean someone relatively inexperienced wrote the scope of work for the RFP, but even so, it’s a cause for concern as we evaluate which RFPs we will respond to.
- No electronic submission. For example, St. Louis County Library required the submission of five copies of the proposal, printed and bound, plus more copies for public examination. Look, we get it. In some cases, your hands may be tied if your jurisdiction has public procurement guidelines that require hard-copy submission. But the expense and waste this incurs can often tip the balance when we’re deciding if we should respond. Ideally, save the paper-based submission for the minimum required forms and allow electronic proposal submissions that save resources on both ends.
Embarking on the RFP process shouldn’t be something you dread. Hopefully, with the help of these pointers, you can craft an RFP that will not only attract highly qualified vendors but also energize your organization as you look toward future improvements and upgrades.