When was the last time you read an inspiring response to a Federal Request for Proposal (RFP)? How about merely informative? Tolerable?
Yeah me neither. Even the ones I write are pretty horrid.
And yet we’ve created a federal acquisitions and sales process that in large part revolves around writing and evaluating these universally reviled documents.
Luckily it won’t take an act of Congress to make things better. There are lots of steps federal buyers can take within the current rules to improve the acquisitions process, select better vendors, and yield better outcomes.
The easiest way? Better Evaluation Criteria.
The federal government buys big, complex stuff. So federal RFPs will always be big, hairy affairs.
But as vendors, we feel bound to respond to a solicitation’s every twist and turn. If we don’t, we fear having a proposal tossed out as “non-compliant.” And on the vendor side, even just one strike may be career ending.
So responding to a federal solicitation becomes a verbal contortionist act. We’ll rehash every word in the RFP, while digging deep into the bag of rhetorical tricks to make it seem like we’re not. We’ll wax poetic on even the most minor, trivial bits of a Statement of Work (SOW). And we’ll present convoluted outlines, trying to match each section of our proposal to the one in an RFP, section-by-section, line-by-line.
The result is a mish-mash of corporate English that no one wanted to write and is miserable to read. Worse it does little to help an agency identify and select the vendor with the highest probability of success.
So I’ve got an idea. Let’s carve out a section in a federal RFP where buyers can describe what they really care about. And then vendors can respond in a really focused way to those specific pain points.
We can even give it a section letter, to make it official. Maybe something like “M”?
Federal RFPs almost always include a section – often marked “M” – that details the Evaluation Criteria that the buyer(s) will use to evaluate a proposal. This is essentially an open mic, where buyers can ask for what they want, how they want it.
Yet very few federal buyers take full advantage of this section to direct vendors to write documents that are actually worth reading. Often the eval criteria just restate the instructions. This is a missed opportunity to take control of the acquisitions process.
There are exceptions though.
I regularly respond to Department of Defense solicitations that creatively use Evaluation Criteria to zero in on the issues those buyers care about. As an example, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) will often specify the subtasks within a Statement of Work (SOW) that they intend to evaluate. They will then invite vendors to write only to those elements.
I’ve also responded to a number of Navy solicitations – even big ones – that explicitly direct vendors to ignore SOWs and write only to focused sets of eval criteria.
These proposals are always better (and shorter!) because we zero in on what evaluators actually care about.
Suggestions for Evaluators
It’s easy to get stuck in a federal acquisitions rut. There are so many rules and so many speed bumps that it’s easier to simply cut and paste instructions, evaluation criteria and SOWs from past solicitations. Regardless of whether those solicitations actually led to the selection of successful vendors.
But acquisition professionals can follow the rules while still changing the process to yield better outcomes. Acquisition rules allow the government a great deal of latitude in how it structures solicitations. This gives federal buyers enormous power to shape the process, experiment with new approaches, reduce evaluation costs and improve the Government’s ability to select the most capable vendors. Here are some tips:
Figure Out What You Want: An ideal set of evaluation criteria would be based on quantitative insight into the vendor attributes that provide the greatest predictors of success against the solicitation’s specific requirements for that specific agency. We’re not there yet (though tools like GovShop can help you do some great initial research).
But you can still spend time thinking about what kind of vendor you want for an effort based on lessons learned and your understanding of your agency’s unique requirements. Then write evaluation criteria that focus specifically on those areas.
Center Proposal Instructions on Eval Criteria, Not SOWs: SOWs are critical contractual elements that govern execution. But somewhere along the way both vendors and evaluators got the idea that solicitation responses need to address every single element of a SOW.
This is silly. By contractual necessity, SOWs contain a lot of functionally trivial stuff. Minor deliverables, basic ad hoc reports, trivial subtasks, etc. Things that have no bearing on project success but that we still feel like we have to respond to.
Here’s an example. A few years ago I responded to a solicitation for a cybersecurity operations effort. This was shift work, and each shift required, in addition to security stuff, a massive number of simple tasks. The bulk of the SOW described emptying garbage, clearing whiteboards, and basic IT administration tasks that, while important, had no bearing on our ability to execute a critical mission successfully.
And yet because of how the solicitation was structured, we had to address these tasks in-depth. Had the Government explicitly instructed us to center our response on focused Evaluation Criteria instead of an overloaded SOW, we could have focused on presenting the Government with solutions to real challenges. Instead, we burned page count taking out the trash.
Deconflict Instructions: If you decide to get creative with your eval criteria, make your intentions clear in the proposal instructions. If you’re like me and think that comprehensive responses to SOWs are silly, awesome! Make that explicit in the instructions and emphasize the importance of the evaluation criteria. Do you want to see a prototype instead of reading a proposal? Great! Make that clear in the instructions and forget about all the rest.
But whatever your intent is, do make it super clear in your instructions. Instructions that conflict with other solicitation sections tie vendors in knots, causing a flood of panicky questions and ultimately lead to protests. So be bold and creative in how you approach evaluations. Just also be clear in your instructions.
Remember Why We Do This
With so many rules and regulations, it’s easy to forget that the purpose of the acquisitions process is simple: to select vendors with the highest probability of success supporting a specific agency’s unique requirements. Federal buyers have enormous latitude to shape how solicitations are evaluated to help achieve that objective. Take advantage of this power in your next solicitation to improve outcomes. After all, that’s why we do this.