There was a time when the lowest bidder on a government construction project almost always got the job. But last year, Utah implemented a performance-based procurement system that introduced new factors besides price.

To date, six major state projects have been or are undergoing construction work with contractors chosen this way.The system was designed by Dean Kashiwagi of Arizona State University. It employs such things as interviews, evaluations of contractors and reviews of past performance. Bidders also are expected to provide answers about solving problems that could crop up. Responses receive scores that are put into a computer program that is expected to find the best value in a contractor.

Richard Byfield, the director of the Division of Facilities and Construction Management, implemented the program last year and is a great supporter of the way it works, although he believes modifications must be made to smooth out real and perceived problems.

As far as the actual construction work on the six projects so far, Byfield says the quality is "phenomenal" and the taxpayers will benefit financially by having better buildings that will need less maintenance. Byfield said the system has allowed the division to find the best-performing contractors. "Has it been perfect? No. We are trying different approaches and we have modified as we have learned."

Suggestions for improvements in the system were to be the focus of a Wednesday morning public hearing in the State Office Building auditorium behind the Capitol, he said.

There is already a concern the reference checking part of the procedure might tempt some people to coax -- or even bribe -- others in order to get a good reference, which would get the bidder a higher score.

"Those are the rumors. No one has come forward and said that to be true," Byfield said. But because this apprehension exists, "we have to find a way that everybody comprehends how this goes together and what is fair and appropriate."

Another fear is that the state might end up paying too much for construction work under this system.

"Yes, that can occur. We control it by saying we will spend no more than 'X,' " Byfield said.

Under the lowest-bid system, the architect draws up plans, specifications are written and the lowest bid is accepted. "Sometimes in this market, we find the price to be below cost. Two things occur then. They will not necessarily provide the best quality, they'll go with the cheapest. Or when there's a flaw in the drawings or the site conditions, they'll go for change orders and try to obtain as much as they may have lost taking the project," Byfield said.

"From an owner's perspective, we're always hoping we can get what was specified, but we may not be getting that. We have to be more policemen or enforcers," Byfield said. "The result is we don't always end up with the package or answers that we would like to have."

There are no change orders under the performance-based system. Byfield said the state hires the best performer it can under the existing budget. A project is bid as a complete project, no change orders allowed, and there is no haggling. "They understand it and don't go seeking additional money," he said.

Projects run smoother and, to date, the state has gotten the lowest price because contractors don't have to build "hassle time" into the job, he said.

Bidders also are asked to anticipate where architectural drawings are incomplete and build that into their bid. "They will look at items on a longer-term basis, so they will define quality on a longer term outcome rather than trying to determine the cheapest quality. They're more inclined to give us better equipment, better answers, better solutions than someone who had to keep the project so low they have to find out how to take those dollars back."

This system also has attracted new and different bidders, which Byfield thinks is good for the state.

"More critically, on something like the P.E. building at Southern Utah University, we had eight bidders. Five had either never bid state work or had given up on state work 10 years ago. Because we don't have that 'low-bid mentality,' we end up with a different quality provider of construction services. Those are the advantages that performance-based procurement is bringing to the table," Byfield said.

John Cox, marketing coordinator for Hogan & Associates Construction, which is doing three of the major projects, said the sheer newness of the program has been unsettling for some people in the industry.

"Previously, there were very few requirements as to how you were awarded a job. Namely you got the lowest number. That is changing with this system," Cox said. "Anytime you have a change that drastic, you're going to have complaints."