A guide to better industry communication to get the most out of your contracting outcomes
It’s a well-known problem in the government contracting industry that the lines of communication between the government agencies and the suppliers bidding for their business don’t always flow freely. While information permeates the government and the industry surrounding it, there’s very little actual communicating going on.
One reason is a risk-averse culture inside government procurement. We follow the playbook, say what we’re supposed to, and protect what we fear could be too much information. We’re afraid sharing too much information could create an unfair advantage for one supplier or another and possibly lead to a protest. When communication doesn’t occur, the relationships between buyers and suppliers are not as productive as they could be, and neither party is able to achieve the outcomes desired by the contract.
For this reason, we’ve consolidated our top 5 tips for better communication with your potential and prospective suppliers. Inside this guide to better industry communication, you’ll find the following tips:
- Release Information Early and Often (before solicitation)
- Be Mindful
- Share Everything* (*almost)
- Use Common Sense
- Intel Doesn’t Mean OCI
Incorporate these tactics into your communications with industry and you’ll find not only that your relationships with industry improve, but your contracts improve as well. But don’t take our word for it.
Those are the words of retired General Wendy Masiello in a podcast interview last year with Public Spend Forum’s own Raj Sharma. In the interview, Gen. Masiello talks about her time as a military procurement leader in the DoD and how she brought change and improvement to a $30 million budget by shifting the culture and focusing on communication.
The interview, part of the Public Procurement Leaders Podcast, is full of great advice, but the above quote is a perfect launching point for our guide to better industry communication. As we said, government & industry communication is suffering. Before we can do anything about that we have to be sure we’re open to change, so take Gen. Masiello’s advice; be sure you’re looking for a better way to do business, always.
With this in mind let’s get into our guide to better industry communication with our first tip.
Release Information Early and Often
One of the ways we can promote better government and industry communication is by constantly doing it. Instead of keeping information about your agency needs, long term spending priorities, or upcoming solicitations that are still in the early planning phases (pre-solicitation) protected from the public, make it available for all to consider.
Releasing information pertaining to your agencies needs, market direction, business updates, goals, etc allows the marketplace to better plan for your future needs. Suppliers and contractors get a better understanding and appreciation for what your needs are and are better prepared when the solicitation does come out.
Before the release of the solicitation is when procurement professionals have the most flexibility to share and communication with industry. Once the solicitation is posted, the “quiet period” sets in, which is defined by the need for formality and caution during communications with industry, which may constitute exchanges or discussions. So take advantage of the pre-solicitation time and think of it as your way to “prime the pump” by putting information that will help prospective vendors deliver better solutions for your needs. Allow vendors to have a look at what you’re doing so when the time comes they are more ready than ever to help you with it.
- Basic ideas about acquisition strategies and ask for feedback
- Draft solicitations
- Draft statements of work
- Requests for information & sources sought notices
By sharing this information, you allow vendors to see what they’re going to need in order to win your business. Allowing vendors time to prepare their bids can only result in you receiving better, more specialized proposals when the time comes. Moreover, sharing information like your draft scope statements allows experts the opportunity to extend advice. Is that requirement a good one to have? Have you missed something important? By communicating early and often, you allow yourself time to revise as well, so when the time comes for you to release your solicitation, you aren’t putting something uninformed into the marketplace that could embarrass you or your agency.
As is true with communication in any context, it’s important you understand both sides of the conversation. An underrated tip in this guide to better industry communication: it’s good to consider the other party’s motivations, goals, expectations, and needs.
Prospective contractors are people too, and they have the same doubts, fears, and excitements about a new business opportunity as you have when you set out on the acquisition process. They also stand to gain or lose, based on how well they position their firm to be competitive, so everyone has skin in this contracting game.
Don’t treat the “other side” as if they were simply money-making, report-generating drones. Have compassion and empathy for your suppliers and those who work for them. By showing respect and signaling that you understand the difficulties of their role, you can foster the type of relationship with a prospective supplier that can sustain throughout the performance period, a time during which you will inevitably experience the highs and lows of any business relationship.
These aspects of the communication process can only bring everyone on to the same page and allow for more productive and effective communication. Here are just a few things to keep in mind:
- No one’s a mind reader: if you have a question, just ask it
- Contractors have skin in the game and want the contractual relationship to go just as well as you do
- Shared understanding is the foundation of interpersonal success in business
As our mothers used to say: “honesty is the best policy”. And so is frequent and abundant sharing of information. Keep this in mind as you move through our guide to better industry communication and as you try to guide your procurement through the process. The more information the supply base has about your agency, the better equipped they will be to accommodate you.
Again, take advantage of the informality of the pre-solicitation period. Information can be released to the entire contracting industry via electronic communication channels like mass email, webpage news sections, and appropriate network forums. Business relationships are like regular ones, they become closer the more information is shared. Vendors can sense when things are hidden and can become suspicious, so an open information policy can only be beneficial.
This advice comes with a warning, however. There is some information that should not be shared. Information about other businesses, for example, is not yours to share. This may be referred to as “business sensitive information” and can include anything related to a supplier’s pricing or approach to delivery. A good way to test whether the information is proprietary is to ask yourself if you were the owner of that business, would you want information of that nature to fall in the hands of a competitor? If the answer even feels like a “no,” it’s probably sensitive and you should be careful not to divulge. This usually occurs when forwarding emails with lots of replies and back and forths between multiple parties; scrub those forwards for sensitive information before you hit send!
While we encourage the free flow of information between government and industry, there are times when mistakes can be made. For instance, if you share some valuable information about your evaluation approach or a juicy tidbit about your acquisition strategy that could help a party better prepare for the solicitation, the best way to neutralize that advantage is to share it publicly. Include the information in your RFIs, announcements, and/or solicitations to level the playing field. If you fear what you shared is more serious than this remedy, or might have included business sensitive information, then it’s best to confer with your chief counsel to determine the best remediation strategy.
Use Common Sense
Along with this same vein of thought, our guide to better industry communication would be incomplete without urging so good old common sense. We’re talking about better, frequent and open communication, not bad business practices. With this in mind, it’s important to use your best judgment when attempting to open up the communication channels between government and industry (and, if that fails, the judgment of your chief counsel). To get you started here’s a list of Dos and Don’ts for when you aren’t sure what to share.
- Draft Procurement Requirements
- Draft Terms and Conditions
- Evaluation tactics to get input and feedback from industry
- General solicitation strategies prior to the release of the solicitation
In essence, anything that can help contractors and private vendors strengthen their bids and better position themselves to being effective for you and your agency’s needs is worth sharing with the entire marketplace.
- Information About Other Businesses or Agencies
- Non-Public Information
- Anything that has a hint of Quid Pro Quo
- Your Incumbent Contractors’ Processes/Pricing/Etc.
It’s also good policy to be personally familiar with the Procurement Integrity Act and the Trade Secrets Act so you can be sure the things you share aren’t going to wind up hurting you or your agency in the future.
Intel Does Not Mean OCI
If a vendor receives information on an upcoming procurement that is not available to other vendors, that vendor will no longer be eligible to bid because of a possible Organizational Conflict of Interest.
This is not true. While it is true that OCI would be a concern if a vendor were to draft a list of requirements that were used by an agency during the solicitation process, communication prior to the solicitation release is, as we remember, much less formal and much less likely to cause any kind of conflict of interest concerns.
Still have doubts? The Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) released memorandum in 2011 and 2012 specifically aimed at dismissing common myths and fears with the hope of bolstering better and more effective communication. In the “Myth-Busting” memorandum released in February of 2011, the OFPP specifically addresses this myth by saying,
When a vendor, in its role supporting the government, is drafting specifications for a future acquisition, the government is relying on the vendor to provide impartial advice regarding the requirements needed to meet the government’s future needs.
Impartial here, being a keyword. The idea is that the vendor should not be motivated by a desire to win the future bid with this advice and is rather more interested in improving the agency’s practices that improve the competitive solicitation field as a whole. Good advice raises all ships, and as long as this is the case, communication with an agency pre-solicitation is encouraged.
With these tips in mind, it’s time to reshape the way your agency or business communicates with the industry around it. Come back to this guide for better industry communication and its resources whenever things seem hazy. Change can be difficult, but it’s necessary for growth. A good place to start is a profile on Public Spend Forum’s GovShop.
Public Spend Forum and GovShop offer a govcon-specific knowledge and research platform forum that helps to connect buyers and suppliers in the public sector. Create your free profile today and see how the world of contract procurement opens to you when you start communicating frequently and effectively.