California High Speed Rail Authority Chairman Curt Pringle has announced that the communications contract that caused some significant controversy last week when it was announced Mercury would be the winners is going to be rebid:
The California High Speed Rail Authority is scrapping a staff recommendation from last week that a firm with connections to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should receive a $9 million, five-year public relations contract, according to a memo sent today by Board Chairman Curt Pringle.
The authority will re-advertise the contract and start its selection process from scratch, Pringle said in the memo. He expects that staff will provide a formal recommendation with more transparency as soon as November.
This is exactly what I predicted would happen last week. The full memo from Pringle:
California’s high-speed train project ought to be an example of a government project done right – and that means being 100 percent open and transparent with Californians every step of the way.
In seeking out a new statewide communications and outreach contractor, the Authority followed the proper RFP procedures and made an objective recommendation. However, we realize we could have been more transparent about the process in order to more openly display that objectivity and strict adherence to state procurement procedures.
Therefore, following discussions with and recommendation from Executive Director Morshed and Deputy Director Barker, the Authority will re-advertise the solicitation and re-conduct the RFP process for this important contract in a way that more openly displays our procedures and sets a precedent for transparency in the awarding of government contracts.
Reaching out to the public as broadly as possible and ensuring access to information about the proposed high-speed train system is critical to the success of this project. I expect that a formal recommendation will be brought before the Board as soon as the November meeting.
CHSRA's critics won't be swayed by this, but this is an honest letter that admits a mistake and sets out how they're going to put it right. The Sacramento Bee article linked above added that the more transparent process used for the re-bid may reach out beyond the CHSRA:
Rail Authority Deputy Director Jeffrey Barker, one of the three staff panelists and a Schwarzenegger aide until Sept. 1, said the authority will use a larger review panel, possibly selected by a third party. Barker also said the authority will provide more information on its criteria for review.
That "third party" will be interesting. USDOT? Governor Schwarzenegger? Department of General Services? Of more importance will be the criteria for review, which enables the public to see the metrics by which bids are judged.
Ultimately this is something of a tempest in a teapot. Most PR firms are basically alike, especially in the relatively small world of California politics. All of them are politically well connected. And the communications strategy isn't quite the same as the all-important decisions about construction contracts, picking someone to supply the trains, and selecting an operator.
This may well be a good learning moment for the CHSRA. When those more important decisions are made, it will be to the CHSRA's benefit to use a very public process to make those decisions. That may or may not have been the plan all along, but this controversy is teaching them how to approach contract decisions the right way.
So we will see what happens in November!