Ask any company that does business with any government agency - whether federal, state or local - and you'll surely hear stories about moments of frustration where company execs have wanted to just want to bang their head against a brick wall. When you work with government, frustration sort of just comes with the territory.
Google is getting some hard-knock schooling in government process as the company cries foul over a bidding process to host the e-mail infrastructure for the State of California. A Los Angeles Times report today explains why the state, as part of its effort to revamp its e-mail system, will be choosing a Microsoft offering instead of Google or other providers: three vendors who offer Microsoft services were the only ones to bid.
Google, which says it could have saved the state about $16 million more than the Microsoft offering, says it could not submit a formal bid because the requirements listed in the state's request for bids were written with language that was vendor-specific to what Microsoft offers, an allegation that state officials strongly deny.
Google submitted a 142-point list of requirements in the state's Invitation for Bid (IFB) document that Google felt were in need of revision so that it could put forth a truly competitive bid - but the state rejected more than 80 percent of the recommendations.
In a letter to state officials, Google Enterprise President David Girourard said:
...the general language of the IFB reflects an intimate knowledge and preference for Microsoft products and functionality and therefore raises an organizational conflict of interest. Google raised the concern regarding the organizational conflict of interest with the State of California CIO’s office and was advised to follow the process and respond to the “spirit” of the IFB. Google has done so, as requested, but the process is structured in a way that is unduly restrictive because the timeline is both unnecessarily short and the IFB language is overly restrictive and slanted...
Google has participated in the IFB process, as requested, and in a consistent fashion the State has failed to respond to the concerns raised. The nature of the IFB itself is strictly written that bidders can comply with the IFB in its entirety or they will be deemed non-responsive. Therefore, the IFB is too narrow to interpret its “spirit” and to allow Google to provide a timely response request to the IFB.
For example, the state requires that "(T)he service providers native desktop client should include the ability to sort messages in the mailbox. (e.g., by recipient, date, subject and category)," according to documents. But that becomes problematic for Google because the company does not use a "native desktop client" but rather utilizes the Web browser for its user interface. More importantly, the company does not use the "sort" feature in mailbox but rather offers a search capability that it considers to be superior to sorting. In a document requesting a re-wording of the requirement, Google offered the state the following explanation and suggestion:
Sorting is a relatively limited method by which users are able to find information. The state should consider and weigh equally or greater more effective means of locating information such as the ability to search. The ability to sort tends to be more effective when users are in an exploratory mode, e.g. they don't know what they're looking for. In the context of email, however, users typically know what they're looking for. Search capability, on the other hand, is more effective at locating known information. Additionally, search has the added benefit of allowing users to narrow queries to pinpoint subsets of information. Email users are influenced by internet search engines such as Bing, Google and Yahoo and tend to prefer this method of find-ability due to its efficacy, pervasiveness and simplicity.
The state's short answer was "No change" but also added: "The sort requirement is separate from the search capability... Sorting AND Searching capabilities are desirable requirements." Translation: Search is great, so if you want to give us that, too, then that's even better. But sorting will be required.
In the end, Google did not submit a final bid because it felt that it could not win in a contest where the state was crafting its requirements to fit what Microsoft would offer - and without a final bid from Google, the state has nothing to approve or reject. In an interview, Bill Maile, director of communications for the Office of the State Chief Information Officer, said:
We believe (Google) would have offered a competitive solution. It's a great California company and we wish they would have been a bidder. We went to great lengths to ensure we had as many bidders as possible.
Why would Google want to submit a bid for something that it knows it will lose - especially given the competitiveness between Google and Microsoft? That would give Microsoft the ability to publicly announce a major win over Google's services and suggest that it offers what customers want.
None of this suggests that Microsoft is ill-equipped to handle the state's e-mail infrastructure or that Google's is somehow better. It also shouldn't suggest that the state isn't seeing cost savings with a Microsoft offering. Maybe Microsoft does have the better offering to meet the state's needs. But without bids that allow the state to consider alternatives to Microsoft, there's no way of knowing whether the state could have saved even more money or energy.
In that sense, Google should have submitted a final bid for consideration. After all, if Google truly wanted to challenge the state's decision to go Microsoft - potentially even in court - it would have needed to have its bid rejected. Such a move, however, would have allowed the state to show that it conducted an open, competitive process.
In some ways, Google should be thankful that it was never in the running for a contract from the State of California, one of the largest but also one of the most financially and legislatively inefficient and troubled states in the union. Today, for example, marks the 44th day of a budget stalemate - and that's not even the worst in state history.
Even if Google had bid on and won the state's contract, it probably would have been handed an IOU at some point.