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.