We live in a world of missed connections – and Government Contracting (GovCon) is no exception to this phenomenon. It is no secret that the Federal Government and the GovCon Industrial Base are consistently speaking a different language, and our fundamental truths are disjointed. Whether it’s the disconnect between you and your Federal buyer, or best practices and operational reality, these fragmented concepts are quietly impacting your bottom line. The Pulse of GovCon, Lunarline, and Public Spend Forum have come together to discuss the actual value of three pertinent GovCon elements and evaluate Industry’s ROI: 1) key personnel, 2) government market research, and 3) best in class contracts (BICs).
We’ve invited three representatives of our market to share their ruminations and opinions on these areas: Amber Hart and Lisa Mundt of The Pulse of Government Contracting and Spence Witten of Lunarline, a cybersecurity firm. Amber and Lisa will offer their first thoughts on each element, with Spence’s response to follow. We asked that all parties speak candidly and, most importantly, to have fun with it!
Key Personnel: What are we missing?
Lisa & Amber
The Staffing section of a proposal is [probably] full of lies. Does your company really follow that in-depth process that you provided in your narrative on how you will constantly “source, attract, recruit, on-board, retain, etc.” in order to “maintain” that already “deep bench” of twenty different labor categories?
This is a funny piece of puffery that affects both large and small tier GovCons. And don’t even get us started on this whole “submit your key personnel then make them wait six months (or longer) with a non-binding Letter of Intent/Commitment” – and think they will still be available. GovCon as an Industry has a habit of pulling a “bait-and-switch” with resumes and names, but the Federal Government needs to humble themselves if they think anyone is going to wait six-months or longer living on just a prayer and a contract under protest.
Is name recognition on a submitted proposal resume really all that important? Is “deep bench” just code for “job portal”? And does the Federal Government really think you will be following that staffing approach you laid out nicely in your proposal?
To the first point on puffery, yeah it’s bad, and in my defense, while I whisper a lot of sweet nothings in my proposals, general staffing puffery is something I’ve gotten better at NOT doing. We’ve come up with techniques that do quantitatively improve our ability to staff. So I wish we could come together as a community and help develop evaluation criteria that actually do measure a contractor’s ability to staff effectively. Because we have data on what works and what doesn’t.
Second, I bait and switch key personnel all the time. But I always make an effort to bid in good faith, even though I know it’s all a mirage. Three reasons, and a philosophical thought:
- To be blunt, if you’re three months late with award AND expect a kickoff meeting within days of contract signing, then I have no clue who’s showing up day one. Those folks we submitted ages ago? They’re busy now. Sorry.
- Structuring Key Personnel Teams is a delicate pricing balance. Incumbent capture – often effectively forced, sometimes even at a loss – throws that balance out of whack. As long as coerced incumbent capture remains the norm I’m not going to feel guilty about bidding somewhat phantom KP Teams (now if we could all just be honest about incumbent capture…).
- I’ve never gotten burned for it. Never once. The Government’s not going to go through a painful acquisition process to then rescind award just because half my KP Team is now no longer available. Partly because a lot of clients get #1. Partly because see #2. And also because at least in my experience, clients just don’t care. It’s a very rare – and frankly extremely high risk – project that hinges on a specific person(s). Clients understandably fret about getting skilled folks on project ASAP after award. If the name differs from the resume originally submitted, no one cares, at least not enough to pitch a fit for more than, like, five minutes or so.
Philosophical musing: One of my very least favorite things about Govcon projects is that so many engagements are effectively personal services/staffing contracts in disguise (FAR Part 37 be damned). Those projects always manage to be the worst of both worlds, taking all the negatives of the private sector and mashing them up with all the negatives of the federal world. Obsessive focus on KPs is a symptom – we must get away from that.
TAKEAWAYS & LESSONS
- Evaluate your proposed staffing plans and approaches to ensure they match your internal operational tempo or you could be setting yourself up for failure – even if you win
- De-emphasize the value you put on a KP’s actual identity, and focus on the key skills or attributes that a KP is required possess when the contract starts (like certifications, degrees, and demonstrated experience)
- Incumbent capture is not a strategy
- Beware of unicorns – what I mean is, you can jam all the certs and quals into a labor category description, but if the person you are trying to hire does not exist, there’s not much we can do
Market Research (RFI’s, Sources Sought, etc.): What’s the endgame?
Lisa & Amber
There’s nothing like free labor with no direct ROI. A large enough proposal effort can eat up a contractor’s entire bid and proposal budget just like that – but as an Industry, we are willing to take that hit because at the finish line there is the possibility for real, funded government contract work.
But between the massive undertaking of responding to a half-baked Request for Proposal (RFP), where do government contractors find the time to respond to market research that ultimately ends up in no-man’s land? These realities perpetuate the unhelpful market research cycle and have become worthless for Industry and the Federal Government alike. Is market research worth providing? Does the Federal Government even read your response? And how can you leverage your opposition’s lack of submittal strategy into your own?
I hate RFIs. I have a standing order to not respond to an RFI unless 1) a valued customer specifically asks us to or 2) it actually asks interesting questions that suggest the Government really is curious about approaches. Even in those cases, writing that RFI is getting staffed down to my junior staff, where I’m treating it like a training exercise.
Also, the Government market is so big and set-aside rules so generous that, with relatively few, highly-specialized exceptions, market research for set aside purposes is pointless. You want to set aside for Hubzone? SDVOSB? 8(a)? WOSB? Great. Do it. For almost whatever you’re buying there’s enough of insert-socio-economic-category-here companies. Don’t waste everyone’s time – including your own – with 30 page RFI responses to questions you already [should] know the answer to.
TAKEAWAYS & LESSONS
- Be mindful about the repetitive information you are requesting in that RFI, because they take a LOT of time and energy away from contractor’s daily bottom line
- If you’re using an RFI to support a set-aside decision, you’re doing it wrong
- SOO’s and Draft RFPs are a better way to get feedback on your requirements
Best-In-Class Contracts (BICS): The Good, Bad & Ugly
Lisa & Amber
When historians look back at 2016 to 2019 – they might be perplexed by scoring-sheet driven GWACs and amused at the vague, half-baked federal BIC initiative. All our careers we’d been told a Federal Proposal is a (compliant) story and then boom – the General Services Administration turned it into a numbers game.
What are the pros-and-cons of a Federal Proposal scoring sheets? Alliant 2 SB proved there are still kinks in the system, and so is still an unfortunate subjectivity behind these contracts? Have these “best-in-class” contracts ended up being the dunces of GovCon?
First, I pride myself on turning in noncompliant proposals and winning. In fact, I think it’s the secret to my success! Second, I LOVE the scoring system that GSA came up with for their Alliant II BIC (read my blog post all about it here).
But, the BICs are a problem. Every BIC I’ve competed on is structured to favor diversified commodity product and service providers. And yet a lot of specialized bids end up on those vehicles, thus freezing out the best-suited companies. It’s a huge problem.
TAKEAWAYS & LESSONS
- Scoring sheets have their place in GovCon but we still need to iron out the kinks to make it a truly level playing field
- BICs might be “best” suited outside of specialized bids
- Agencies should have their own “BICs” list which fit inside the entire Category Management enterprise (because different agencies do different things)
- However, and as we all know in federal contracting, no effort at innovation shall go unpunished!
For more discussion on these topics from Lisa, Amber & Spence, watch our recent webinar!