Choosing the right firm for your COVID-19 response

Choosing the right firm for your COVID-19 response
By Audrey DeLucia
May 15, 2020
The urgent need for robust contact tracing operations requires procurement professionals to think carefully—but quickly—about what to look for in a consulting firm. These five tips will help.

As COVID-19 changes the way we live, U.S. state and local governments seek some sense of normalcy. This may require rapidly hiring consultants and staff to bolster the workforce.

Right now, procurement departments are searching for qualified bidders to get their contact tracing projects up and running. But the scope and scale of the need is dramatic: over 100,000 workers will be required according to a recent estimate. With the nation’s public health infrastructure stretched beyond capacity, government agencies are under enormous pressure to find qualified firms to support an atypical service of extraordinary magnitude. With stakes this high, your partner should be able to provide maximum protection to your community—and position your agency for long-term success.

As states deploy their own contact tracing workforce, without proper planning and guidance through direct experience with these issues, agencies could end up with differences in methodologies, levels of staff expertise, and ways of storing and maintaining data. This could result in contact tracing programs that don’t serve long-term needs.

Procurement agents should consider five things when selecting the right partner.

1. Start with your end goal

A firm should provide a set of services along the entire public health continuum—of which contact tracing is one element.

It’s not like finding a generic call center or staffing agency. It’s finding a firm that supports your public health needs. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are you trying to achieve, and how does your approach make you more resilient over time?
  • What types of expertise are you looking for, and how can you integrate the response elements to give you the most holistic solution?
  • How can you maximize available COVID-19 funding streams and comply with funding rules and guidelines from multiple grantees and funding sources?
  • How will you know when you’ve achieved your desired outcome?

Given how interconnected the answers to these questions are, procurement agents will likely want to zero-in on full-service firms that put any piece of the COVID-19 response solution in context.

Specific to contact tracing efforts, look for firms that have existing personnel, are able to hire personnel rapidly and train them to do the work the right way, and that know how to analyze and store critical data for future use.

2. Find the right workforce

Procurement agents should select a firm that gives them a stable workforce and has experience staffing projects with significant variability in how many (and what type of) people they need. Some health experts predict another surge of COVID-19 cases in the fall and winter. By collaborating with a full-service firm with this type of expertise, you can benefit from procurement flexibility without managing the variability in your own workforce.

Additionally, look for firms with services across the continuum of your long-term needs. If you hire for just one service at a time, you’re going to be sending out RFPs by the dozens. With a few well-placed contract vehicles that you can access across a set of services, you save time and money. You also add continuity to your response by partnering with firms who share your institutional memory and can help you look around the corner for what’s coming next.

Here are some things to consider to determine if a firm is bringing the right workforce to solve the problem:

  • Does the firm have experience working on public health issues at the federal, state, and local levels?
  • Do they have the ability to support multiple types of activities, including workforce development, data collection, and grants management?
  • Does the firm have ample capacity to support your ability to ramp up and down as your needs evolve?
  • Can the firm help you integrate various work streams to ensure a long-term beneficial and holistic solution?

3. Secure the lowest cost over time

Procurement staff are frequently measured against their ability to control costs. Given the immediacy of the COVID-19 pandemic, securing help may supersede the lowest cost in the short-term. In the long-term, however, conducting work in the most cost-effective manner is critically important, particularly in today’s economic environment. Assessing cost effectiveness in this situation may need to be measured differently.

Consider the following:

  • Look for experienced firms, as the cost and public health implications of hiring firms that need to learn on the job are too high.
  • Do things right the first time, and look at a firm’s effort levels in addition to its rates and overall cost.
  • Consider that really low bidders may not understand what it takes to do the job correctly, and try to get apples-to-apples bids.
  • Consider the firm’s reputation, particularly given the amount of public scrutiny on key leadership decisions.

4. Choose a firm that works along a continuum

As mentioned above, hiring a firm that provides multiple public health and emergency response-oriented services is critical from a workforce perspective. But choosing a firm that works along a continuum has another important benefit as well—it limits the number of individual procurements an agent has to manage and control.

The hardest thing for procurement agents is to get simultaneous procurements out the door where the turnaround is immediate. Most agencies are not set up for that volume. Some take months to as long as a full year to send one RFP, and now they’re tasked with sending out multiple RFPs yesterday.

Regardless of an agency’s size or capability, keep these considerations in mind to put you on the path of least resistance.

  • Take the time to plan, even if it’s within a shortened window.
  • Issue RFPs for contracts with a set of services you can use over a longer period of time.
  • Allow for different pricing options for services that are commodities versus those that require skilled labor.
  • Establish a set of selection criteria that allows you to easily justify your choice of vendors without major roadblocks.

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5. Consider firms that handle monies across agencies

Given the enormity of the COVID-19 situation, multiple federal agencies are funding state and local agencies, either through the CARES Act, stimulus money, or grants through the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Securing and recovering the maximum amount of money possible is critical.

Look for firms that have experience working with both state and federal agencies. You’ll want to assess their ability to apply for, use, and effectively navigate the rules associated with how money is being spent to ensure the maximum match on formula funding. With so many agencies involved, a firm that works across that agency set already has the experience and the relationships in place to better ensure your success.

Keep your ultimate goal in mind

Holistic methods are integral to any successful plan for overcoming the economic havoc of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we’re in for the long haul—this makes finding the right firm perhaps one of the most critical decisions an organization can make right now to set itself up for future success.

Following these five steps will put you on the path to a successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Always keep in mind your ultimate goal: to find a firm comfortable working across the spectrum of your COVID-19 response plans.

Meet the author
  1. Audrey DeLucia