When it comes to reviewing bids for work from vendors, a major division of the U.S. Department of Education “is not looking for any old proposal,” a representative of a major government contractor told a gathering of companies recently.
Proposals to the agency’s National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance need to have a strong work chart and management plan, Jessica Heppen, a senior vice president at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit that does a lot of work with the department, often in partnership with other vendors.
Heppen, speaking at the recent ED Games Expo in Washington, told attendees that proposals to the national center also need to have a clear breakdown of the specific roles and responsibilities of different vendors doing the work.
Part of Heppen’s job is to think through those arrangements, because she leads AIR’s efforts to plan and bid new projects, including establishing and supporting partnerships between her organization and large and small partners.
Housed within the department’s Institute of Education Sciences, NCEE conducts large-scale evaluations of education programs supported by federal funds, provides technical assistance, and supports development and use of research and evaluation throughout the U.S.
In addition to bidding on many NCEE evaluation contracts, the AIR also helps small businesses look for good contract opportunities with the agency, sometimes as a prime contractor that partners with small businesses and other times supporting small businesses that are prime contractors.
NCEE plans to award two contracts this fiscal year, including one for evaluation of the implementation of the Education Department’s statewide family engagement centers program valued between $500,000 and $1 million, and one for an impact evaluation of Title I school improvement practices valued between $10 million and $20 million, an NCEE spokesperson said in an email.
When small businesses partner with AIR in bidding for NCEE projects, it helps to have some redundancy between the AIR and those smaller companies, she said. Doing so helps those firms build capacity, but not so much redundancy that it would raise questions of efficiency, added Heppen, in speaking at the expo, a yearly showcase of government-supported educational learning games and technologies organized by the U.S. Department of Education and hosts dozens of companies.
It’s important, “as we enter into these partnerships, to really be very honest…about what we each bring to it,” she said.
“We have multiple ways of doing that. We can carve up tasks so that individual partners take up specifically carved-out pieces of work, or we can overlap and be integrated into tasks.”
Small businesses could have opportunities to expand their range of expertise over the life of a contract when they partner with larger firms, Heppen said.
AIR is incentivized to partner with small businesses because NCEE has a benchmark for contracting with small businesses, Heppen added.
Startup education companies potentially have a lot to gain, financially and in terms of reputation, in doing work with the U.S. Department of Education. The NCEE is motivated to work with them: For fiscal year 2019, the NCEE had a goal to award 29 percent of its contracts to small businesses.
“As you think about the federal forecasts and the opportunities with IES, the larger businesses are always thinking about [which small businesses] might be the best fit for a given opportunity,” Heppen told attendees at the expo.
Sherri Lauver, senior program associate for Synergy Enterprises, a small business consultancy that does business with NCEE, during the expo urged small businesses to deeply focus on being data-driven and evidence-based.
“What’s your niche going to be?” Lauver said. “And how can you continue to grow?”