The excitement of finding a government solicitation quickly fades when you realize that you don’t know how to bid on government contracts. Not to say you don’t know how to write a proposal, or that you don’t understand the needs of the customer. You don’t know how to bid on a government contract because the process is unique, specific, and tightly controlled by procedure and regulation.
Fortunately, submitting a compliant proposal in response to a government solicitation is a skill you can acquire with grit, determination, and a little help from your friends at Public Spend Forum. We’ll start with a focus on the key sections of every government solicitation, survey the different types of bid packages you’ll encounter, and discuss some tips and tricks for how to respond to them.
How to Bid on Government Contracts: Key Sections of Every Government Solicitation
Government solicitations are written by contracting professionals who follow internal policies, procedures, and regulatory guidance. This creates a lot of diversity in the types of bid packages you’ll read. You could say that if you’ve read one government solicitation, you’ve read one government solicitation.
But there are some basic sections that you’ll see in nearly every solicitation, especially in federal contracts that use the Uniform Contract Format (UCF). The UCF is a good way to review the key sections of a bid package, even though the section names and titles will vary from agency to agency.
Forms, Fill-Ins, and Schedules
Experienced business development people can learn a lot about solicitation from these sections. The interval between bid release and offer due date gives clues about the level of competition you can expect for the opportunity. Shorter intervals may suggest the government has a vendor in mind, or that they are buying commodity goods and services that don’t require complex evaluation. Longer intervals may suggest more formal solicitation procedures and potentially a larger competitive field since interested vendors have more time to review and prepare a response.
The federal government uses standard forms on all of its contract and solicitation documents. State and local agencies use forms as well, but they aren’t standardized. Either way, scan these forms for sections like a schedule of contract line items that convey the scope of the contract. The standard forms used by the federal government can tell you whether or not the opportunity is set aside for small businesses, and whether you’re eligible based on the NAICS code selected by the contracting office.
Scan the forms, fill-ins, and schedules first, looking for items that impact your eligibility for the opportunity such as a specific socioeconomic designation that you may or may not have. The bid submission date is another important factor. If the bid is due within a few days, do you really have time to put in a competitive offer? Trust us, there are so many open government opportunities to review and you’d never be able to respond to them all. When building the pipeline, you’re well-served to quickly rid it of dead ends.
Descriptions, Specifications & Statement of Work
The description, specification, or statement of work (also known more generally as a “requirements document”) can come in many forms. Product descriptions or specifications are common in the acquisition of physical goods; statements of work are more often used when acquiring services. Whatever type is being used, it’s crucial to read it thoroughly and be honest about whether you have the capabilities to deliver what is being requested.
Fair warning; the government doesn’t always do a great job of writing requirements. That can make it difficult (but not impossible) to win solicitations about which you don’t have prior knowledge. Business development experts know how important it is to inform the government’s requirements, which can only be done early in the acquisition planning or market research phase of government contracting.
An example of informing a requirement might be to demonstrate to a program owner or potential client the problem-solving value that a key feature of your product or service will provide them. If you are compelling (and persistent) enough, the program owner and team may reflect attributes of that feature in their requirement, thus creating an advantage for you in the resulting solicitation.
Administration, Clauses, and Special Requirements
These sections go into detail on everything from packaging and shipping physical goods to how the government will determine whether (or not) to accept what you provide under contract. They are absolutely essential to submitting a qualifying bid, so read them carefully if you decide to pursue the opportunity.
Read the table of contents and look for sections under headings like standard clauses, bidder certifications, attestations, and vendor responsibility. Getting deep with these sections is tedious and time-consuming, so it’s best to validate the opportunity first by reviewing the schedule, scope of services, and the next section in our discussion before you tackle them.
Evaluation Method and Bidding Instructions
A principle of government contracting is a fair and open competition, which means that responsible companies should have every opportunity to compete for and win contracts. That means government buyers are required to describe how they will make their award decisions.
These principles are seen most demonstrably in Sections L (Instructions, conditions, and notices to offerors or respondents) and M (Evaluation factors for the award) of the UCF, which explain to potential offerors what they need to submit and how they will be evaluated in the subsequent competition. They will appear in some form or fashion in every bid package you review, so find them, read them, and make sure you understand them.
In non-UCF contracts, look for sections like the format of bid submission, bidder qualifications, or award criteria. If the requirements are in your wheelhouse and you are capable of delivering the quantities stated in the schedule, the opportunity may be a strong candidate for your pipeline.
How to Bid on Government Contracts: Different Types of Solicitations
A government solicitation goes by a few different names. They are all similar in that they invite prospective bidders to submit an offer to the government, but they have nuances that you must understand. The below chart is a useful snapshot of four main methods of solicitation: government purchase cards, simplified acquisition procedures, competitive contracts, and consolidated purchasing vehicles. You’ll see as you move from the left axis to the right, the methods get more specific, the requirements more complex, and the evaluation and proposal instructions more formal.
These different methods will use one of four primary bid packages, by which we mean the literal assembly of documents, forms, and attachments that a government buyer will release to the industry when they want to receive bids and proposals for a contract opportunity. Let’s review the four main types of bid packages you’ll see in the public sector, and what you need to know about them.
Request for Quotations (RFQs)
RFQs are the most informal type of bid package and are used for low-dollar procurements. In federal contracting, that means purchases at or below the simplified acquisition threshold of $250,000 (or $7 million for commercial items). Per the chart above, RFQs tend to be easier to respond to because they use these simplified methods. You may only need to provide your pricing and fill out a few attestations in order to submit your bid.
One critical thing to understand with RFQs is that what you submit back to the government does not constitute an offer. You’ll see why this nuance, called the legal effect of quotations, is important as we describe the next type of bid package.
Request for Proposals (RFPs)
RFPs are typically a more formal, complex form of bid package and are used for larger dollar purchases like those over the simplified acquisition threshold. Most federal RFPs use the UCF and call for detailed technical volumes, management plans, and detailed cost and price breakdowns.
Their formality can lend more structure to the bidding process, but with that formality comes stricter processes to follow and more work required by the offeror. If you are brand new to the government market, think twice about RFPs and whether you have the knowledge, expertise, and capabilities to respond. If you have any concerns, consult a government contracts attorney or consider hiring a proposal management expert who can assist you with the submission.
RFPs vs RFQs
As opposed to the quotation you will submit in response to an RFQ, a proposal submitted in response to an RFP constitutes a legal offer. The government contracting professional can accept your proposed offer without discussions or negotiations, which by all accounts is a good thing so long as you are still able to deliver when they finally make a contract award.
A quotation, on the other hand, is not a legal offer. The government cannot just accept your quote and then demand delivery under contract. It has to be accepted by your firm first, so if the items you quoted in your submission are no longer available when the government wants to make an award, you have no ramifications.
Consequently, if the government accepts your proposed offer but takes 3 months to complete their evaluation, you will be under contract to deliver at that time. This can be challenging especially when bidding on services contracts, or in-demand physical goods. Suppose you bid on four labor resources in January, but the government doesn’t make an award until April. Are you able to keep those resources on staff until then, or do you have a letter of commitment that they’ll join your team if and when the government awards its contract?
Same story for in-demand goods. If you propose in January but another buyer comes calling (and offers a higher price) before the government makes an award decision, you could be at risk if you sell those and cannot replace them before the contracted due date.
Invitation for Bids (IFBs) and Requests for Bids (RFBs)
IFBs and RFBs are primarily used at the state and local levels of government. You will need to review them carefully to determine things like expected award amounts, the degree to which your offer or quotation is binding, and any other special terms and conditions imposed by the contracting office.
Bottom line, IFBs, and RFBs should be treated like standalone bid packages and read carefully to gain a complete understanding of how to respond.
Task or Delivery Order Request for Proposal (TOPR or DOPR)
These types of bid packages are opportunities for one or more companies that have already won a master contract with an agency. They are requests for goods or services based on pre-negotiated terms and conditions against a master contract often known as an Indefinite Delivery Vehicle or multiple award vehicle.
While they may look attractive to your business, you can only bid on these if you have already been awarded that master contract. TOPRs and DOPRs are usually sent directly to the contract holders instead of being publicly released, so while you shouldn’t see these in your opportunity search it’s still a good idea to be familiar with them.
Now that you understand how to find and read government solicitations, continue your journey with these tips and tricks for reviewing government solicitations and building your pipeline!