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Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Brooks Act -- who you know and what you know


One of this blog's readers sent me an email with a simple question: "Do you know about the Brooks Act?" It is perhaps the most important element in considering who wins architectural and engineering projects at the federal level -- and in many states -- and creates a major barrier to entry for outsiders, and a real competitive advantage and power-base for design firms with solid Washington connections and relationships.

I discovered this 'old' (2002) reference to the Brooks Act on the American Society of Civil Engineers site. If you are thinking of competing for federal work as new infrastructure funds are available, read it carefully.

Brooks A/E Act Turns 30

This week marks the 30th Anniversary of the Brooks A/E Act, mandating the use of Qualifications Based Selection (QBS) for federal procurement of A/E design services. Rep. Jack Brooks (D-TX) introduced the Architect-Engineer Selection Act after a GAO report pointed out that there was no statutory basis for use of the QBS method of selection. The bill was signed into law on October 27, 1972 (Public Law 92-582).

Congress later expanded the act to include surveying and mapping as well as architecture and engineering services. Since 1972 the QBS method of procurement has been extended to include highway, mass transit and airport grant programs as well as prime and subcontracts under the Superfund program. In 1988, Congress amended the Brooks Act and supplied a new definition of covered services.

The Brooks Act has set the model for procurement acts in over 35 states as well as the ABA Model Procurement Code for State and Local Government.
So what does that tell you?:

You are not going to walk in the door and pick up Washington business unless you know -- and have relationships -- there.

Say as an outsider you submit a bid; you might have the lowest price because your cost structures are really under control -- or you are simply desperate to win the work. Your bid will be passed over for the design firm or contractor with a solid work experience and credentials, and these subjective measures will be strongly influenced by personal relationships and experience between the design professional or contractor and government officials -- in other words, they will almost inevitably select incumbents they like, over strangers they don't know.

With several years experience in the Washington, D.C marketplace (I broke the 'rules' and as a Canadian started Washington Construction News in 2000 -- the former print publication has evolved to become The Design and Construction Report), I've seen how insiders get the business, and outsiders wonder why they lose -- and how insiders in one element can be outsiders in others. Take one contractor who almost always wins certain military contracts, but can never get any business at the Post Office. "The building designs and standards are virtually the same," the contractor told me as we drove around Washington's suburbs. "But we can't get our foot in the door."

So, how do you break in and get this work?
  1. You should waste no time establishing relationships with AEC firms connected already in the Washington area. Here, your membership in local Society for Marketing Professional Services or relevant trade association chapters may be helpful. You'll learn which members are already established in Washington, and can begin building your connections with them. This is vitally important in gathering intelligence and connections for opportunities where local procurement is possible
  2. If you have lots of money, and know your way around, you could buy or joint venture with an established AEC firm/consultant serving the DC area. Their value has risen in recent weeks, of course, so be prepared to pay. Alternatively, you could hire (at some cost) key people with knowledge of the local industry.
  3. In your local market, get to know the movers and shakers within the federal system; then connect the dots and find out which companies have established relationships, and figure out a way to connect the dots. One Florida based architect, for example, won a major design project after receiving a call from "Washington" -- then used local knowledge and skill to capture and exploit the opportunity.
  4. Naturally, you should be wary of scams -- some consultants will purport to have Washington connections which are more flim-flam than substance.
(Blatant sales message to follow . . .)

You may find value in participating in The Design and Construction Network (http://mydcn.com) and promoting your business through the Design and Construction Report. The DCR evolved out of relationships established in the Washington, D.C. area and the network traces its roots and home base to the national capital area. You may find the connections you need to build or enhance relationships for federal government work both in the D.C. area and your own region through connnections developed here.

4 comments:

Auburn Engineer said...

I think you are confused about the importance of the Brooks Act. This law is not some subjective way to keep a “good ole boy” selection process in place. But rather a way to make sure the people building the bridges your children cross on the way to school are designed and built by qualified individuals. Without the Brooks Act, those bridges would be built by the lowest bidder, regardless if they have no experience in bridge building. This is an issue of public safety, not “personal relationships.”

Auburn Engineer said...

I think you are confused about the importance of the Brooks Act. This law is not some subjective way to keep a “good ole boy” selection process in place. But rather a way to make sure the people building the bridges your children cross on the way to school are designed and built by qualified individuals. Without the Brooks Act, those bridges would be built by the lowest bidder, regardless if they have no experience in bridge building. This is an issue of public safety, not “personal relationships.”

Mark Buckshon said...

I don't doubt the intent of the Brooks Act is as you describe, but still assert that it facilitates ongoing relationships with incumbents and discourages and makes it difficult for newcomers to enter and win in the marketplace.

As this, after all, a marketing blog, I focus on barriers to success in marketing and how you can best overcome them.

BStump said...

Auburn Engineer said it correctly. This process is the best way to select a qualified firm when this process is followed as is/was intended. I have used it many times at the City, County and State level and it works very well. Your argument really should be that the process sometimes doesn't work because sometimes people don’t really follow it and instead guide the results so as to award work to their favorite firms. That really isn't a knock against this process but is instead one against those unscrupulous persons subverting the process. No selection process, no matter how good, can defeat persons who are dead set on circumventing the intent. As such I really believe your arguments against this process are unfair. Instead you really should be proposing some solution(s) to address this problem, if any such solution can be found.