The New York Times had an article yesterday by Ian Urbina, The Shopping List as Policy Tool, that analyzes the possibility of using the government’s purchasing power to cure a range of social challenges, including limiting harsh working conditions and even mandating a new minimum wage. Urbina cites the effectiveness of prior uses of such power, such as FDR’s mandate that defense contractors can’t engage in racial discrimination. Urbina wraps his analysis in a discussion regarding the tension between low bid and socially responsible procurement. Urbina missed an opportunity, however, to use two words that can go a long way towards reconciling that tension. Best value.
Responsible contractors favor best value procurements because they eliminate bottom feeder competition by enabling the government to award contracts based on a combination of technical qualifications and price, rather than simply price alone.
Government agencies often favor a best value approach because it gives them discretion. As government budgets have tightened, however, low bid procurements have proliferated, inviting in — not surprisingly — low-budget behavior. More best value procurements will not by themselves cure societies ills, and they certainly don’t make for the significant press that would come from issuing an executive order mandating, for example, a higher minimum wage in government contracts. But best value procurements will raise the procurement bar and result in awards to better qualified, more responsible bidders that treat (and often pay) their workers better.