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September 2012

Planning for an edtech RFP: Technical vs. functional specs

Michael Trucano's picture

should she be more interested in ensuring that he meets her technical or functional specifications if this partnership is to work?ICT-related procurements in the education sector, especially large scale ones, are not easy.  A recent World Bank Internal Evaluation Group report noted that "ICT procurement has been highlighted as a major implementation constraint in several country and regional portfolio reviews and is a critical dimension of design." Rapid changes in technology mean that many ministries of education have a hard time keeping up with what's current in the market, let alone what might be coming next.

Even in places where anti-corruption measures are well considered and implemented, government auditors and external watchdog groups may be challenged to identify dodgy practices in some ICT-related areas.  (Have you ever read the fine print on large scale bandwidth contracts for schools? Such things are often not for the feint of heart.) It is not unknown to hear whisperings about vendors -- or consultants close to them -- providing 'assistance' of various sorts in writing a request for proposals (or certain technical specs that appear in such RFPS), and of course vendors often hope that their showcase pilot projects may inspire ministries of education to think in certain ways about what is possible, and even desirable. For many ministries of education, the line between 'influence' and 'undue influence' in such cases can be very clear in some circumstances, but rather hazy in others.  

As part of a very interesting Q&A period after a presentation at the World Bank a few years ago, mention was made about some of the challenges faced in a state in southern India which was exploring whether so-called thin client solutions might be worth considering in its schools. Essentially, the issue was this: Traditional practice when procuring computers for schools had focused on ensuring that each computer met a defined set of minimum technical specifications. In an alternative, 'thin client' set-up, it was possible to use workstations that had less robust specifications, provided they were connected to a powerful server whose processing power substitutes for that of the client computer. To oversimplify:

[-] 'traditional' approach: lots of pretty powerful computers
[-] 'alternative' approach: lots of relatively underpowered computers, connected to one very powerful computer

The point here is not to imply that one type of arrangement is on its face better or worse. Rather, it is to highlight that, if you write an RFP in a certain way -- in our example here, requiring that *every* computer meet a certain relatively high technical specification (processing speed, hard drive size, etc.) -- you may exclude proposals that feature non-traditional or 'alternative' or new approaches.

One way around this is to put more emphasis on functional specifications, rather than technical specifications, in certain components of your RFP. Not sure what this means in practice? When discussing such issues with ministries of education, I often point to an RFP at the heart of a procurement process in the U.S. state of Maine as a way to highlight an approach to procurement that is, at least in terms of most of the places where the World Bank works helping to advise education leaders, rather rare. While I am certainly no procurement expert -- thankfully we have plenty of very good ones at the World Bank to whom I can refer people -- I offer the comments below based on many discussions with ministries of education about their  challenges in this regard, in case doing so might be of any interest.

Friday Roundup: Post-2015, Benchmarking Global Poverty, Small Farms and Other Links

LTD Editors's picture

As the 2015 deadline to meet all the MDGS draws near, many are asking what comes next, including a recently appointed 26 member panel of development and political big-shots.  The high-level panel, which met last Tuesday for the first time, faces huge pressure working on a post-2015 “development vision.” 'Stakes are high,' says Paige McClanahan in an insightful post on the Poverty Matters blog.&

Does Richard Gere Have the Right Political Risk Mitigation Strategy?

Michel Wormser's picture

In the new film “Arbitrage” the character played by Richard Gere thought he had made a highly profitable mining investment in an Eastern European country with a “friendly” government. But suddenly things are not working the way they were supposed to. He cannot access the returns from his investment —the government will not let him take them out of the country.

Putting the patient first in Haiti's health system

Maryanne Sharp's picture

También disponible en español y en francés

The tree provides shade but scant respite from the heat. Chantal, four months pregnant, has just returned from washing her family’s clothes in the nearby river.

Her small village, just twenty houses and a single dirt road located about 60 kilometers north of the capital Port-au-Prince, has no health facilities of any kind. The nearest health post (staffed for two hours a day by a high school graduate) is an hour’s walk away while the nearest health center is two.

Prospects Daily: European stocks slipped on Friday with the benchmark index falling to a three-week low

Global Macroeconomics Team's picture

Financial Markets…European stocks slipped on Friday with the benchmark index falling to a three-week low as early optimism on Spain’s new austerity measures was short-lived.

Spanish 10-year bond yield rose back above 6% amid uncertainty over its troubled banks before stress test results, fading optimism on the country’s debt cutting plan, and a looming Moody’s rating review which may cost the country its investment grade rating. 

Prospects Weekly: Latest bout of G3 monetary stimulus is likely to increase capital flows to developing countries

Global Macroeconomics Team's picture

The latest bout of G3 monetary stimulus is likely to increase capital flows to developing countries, but may be limited by lingering economic uncertainty, and lower interest rate spreads. Notwithstanding the recent easing of financial market tensions, the anticipated rebound in real-side activity is lagging behind.

Migration, Sir Duncan, Instant Spouses and Inflight Barry Manilow: Final Impressions of the Philippines

Duncan Green's picture

As always after an intense ‘immersion’ in our programme work, I left the Philippines with my head buzzing. Here are some impressions, memories and ideas that don’t fit into a more structured blogpost:

Migration: One in 9 Filipinos are outside the country, constituting a major export sector (the government deliberately trains more nurses than the country needs, to encourage outmigration). On the way in from Qatar, I sat next to a Filipino gold miner, working for an Australian/Filipino company in Tanzania, 2 months on, 1 month off. OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers – this country loves acronyms) even have their own immigration channels at the airport (see pic).

The Story of Resilience

Maya Brahmam's picture

In less than 3 weeks, TEDxSendai will bring together an interesting group of thinkers and doers to focus on the theme of natural disasters.

Moderated by Toshi Nakamura, Co-founder and CEO of Kopernik, a technology marketplace for the developing world, TEDxSendai will explore this theme from the lens of a survivor, a historian and gender specialist, a CEO with a supply chain, an innovator of  new technologies, a doctor working on emergency evacuation, a classical pianist who plays on a piano that survived the tsunami, a global expert in sustainable development, a specialist in reconstruction, and an inventor of engineering prototypes.

Two sessions -- Cherry Blossom Indomitable in the Aftermath and The Bouncing Ball: Building Resilience – will pull the varied strands of these different perspectives together and share ideas about disasters –recovery, resilience and hope.

Textbooks of the future: Will you be buying a product ... or a service?

Michael Trucano's picture

tell me again why we didn't buy the digital version?The World Bank is currently working with a few countries that are planning for the procurement of lots of digital learning materials.  In some cases, these are billed as 'e-textbooks', replacing in part existing paper-based materials; in other cases, these are meant to complement existing curricular materials. In pretty much all cases, this is happening as a result of past, on-going or upcoming large scale procurements of lots of ICT equipment.  Once you have your schools connected and lots of devices (PCs, laptops, tablets) in the hands of teachers and students, it can be rather useful to have educational content that runs on whatever gadgets you have introduced into to help aid and support teaching and learning. In this regard, we have been pleased to note fewer countries pursuing one of the  prominent worst practices in ICT use in education that we identified a few years ago: "Think about educational content only after you have rolled out your hardware."

At least initially, many education authorities in middle- and low-income countries seem to approach the large-scale procurement of digital learning materials in much the same way that they viewed purchases of textbooks in the past.  On its face, this is quite natural: If you have tried and tested systems in place to buy textbooks, why not use them to buy 'e-textbooks' as well? (We'll leave aside for a moment questions about whether such systems to procure textbooks actually worked well -- that's another discussion!) As with many things that have to do with technology in some way, things become a little more complicated the more experience you have wrestling with them.


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