ComplianceLegalFinanceDecember 19, 2020

Negotiated solicitations for government contracts require writing a proposal

When the government solicitation you are responding to is an Invitation for Bid, writing your proposal will basically consist of filling out the forms that the government provides. However, when the solicitation is a negotiated solicitation, such as a Request for Proposal or Request for Quote, you will need to create a proposal.

A Request for Proposal (RFP) is a negotiated solicitation or bid document that outlines a problem or requirement and asks companies to propose methods for solving the problem and to calculate what the costs might be.

Therefore, in addition to filling out any required forms, you will have to create your own proposal explaining your plan for meeting the government's particular need and provide your own documentation. You may be required to work up your own drawings, biographies on personnel, management plans, and other types of documents that demonstrate the company's capabilities to fulfill the requirements. The proposal must, at the same time, be simple, straightforward, concise, complete, and correct.

As you can see, an RFP can take a significant amount of time, effort, and money to create. (You definitely won't be able to get it done over the weekend between watching the kids play soccer and running errands.) So, before you even start, take some time to evaluate whether it is in your best interests to proceed with the proposal. To make your efforts worthwhile, the proposal should present a real opportunity for your company.

How can you decide whether to respond to the RFP that you are considering? Here are some questions to help you make a decision:

  • Is the Request you are considering an RFP or an RFI? In other words, is the government looking to buy or is it just taking a look at the product market? If the government is just taking a look, it will put out what is known as a Request for Information (RFI), as opposed to a request for products or services that it is looking to buy (RFP). Some people look at a request for information and think it's a bid. Take a close look and make sure you are considering the right one. In some cases, an RFI also may be a request that could end up becoming an actual contract. Respond to the RFI if you really have something to offer, giving the government any information they may need to use to put together a solicitation. But, don't give away the farm! Make sure you mark all information that might be considered private as "proprietary." Once you give it to the government, if it is not properly marked, it's theirs to use as they see fit.
  • Does the product or service required under the RFP fit your company? Some companies try to respond to every RFP that comes their way, hoping that, like the lottery, sooner or later they will win. Although this is great practice for when you find one that really fits you, it's not reasonable to respond to all of them. It is best to first qualify the RFP. See whether the requirements in the RFP are a match for your capabilities and whether the scope of work is within your technical abilities. If your company does not provide, or is not capable of providing, the needed product or service, you may do best to pass it up. On the other hand, don't fail to respond to an RFP that is a good match for your capabilities just because the RFP seems to be written to a specific company or specific technology or product. If you can demonstrate that you can make or do the same thing—and possibly even better (perhaps you can offer additional benefits, a lower price, etc.)—you still have a possibility of winning. So long as you meet the specs (that is the key), consider it as an opportunity for you.

Example: In one instance that we know of, the contracting agency actually used a particular company's brochure as the basis for the scope of work in its RFP. Although it certainly looked like the RFP was written to that particular company, that was not the case. The brochure happened to describe best what the agency wanted, but it in no way meant to exclude other companies that could match, or exceed, the features outlined in the scope of work.

  • What are the marketing considerations? Is this request something that is considered a new product for you? And, if so, can you leverage this into more business by selling to other customers? Also, consider whether winning will cost you an existing account or be at the expense of your other lines and services.
  • What about the customer? Is the government buyer someone you want to do business with? In other words, do you already have some kind of relationship with the buyer? Is it good or is it strained?
  • Is the project funded? It may be a good idea to find out whether the project is funded. (All you have to do is ask.) If there are no funds, the buying agency can't go to contract and you may end up putting a lot of effort into a proposal without a chance of getting a contract out of it. If you are told that there are reserve funds for the project, you could still end up without a contract because the government has the right to reallocate reserve funds if it needs the money for other priorities. You could meet all the requirements and even be low bidder, but the project is going no farther without funds.

If, after consideration of all the factors, you decide not to respond to an RFP, but you have had contact or discussions with the contracting officer prior to the RFP being issued, you should, out of courtesy, let the contracting officer know, in writing, that you are not bidding and the reasons why.

Keep in mind that the worse that could happen in taking a chance and doing a proposal for the government is that you win the bid but that the government cannot fund it and it won't go to contract. The most you will ever lose is the time and cost of preparing the proposal. If a project goes to contract, that means it is funded. Unlike a commercial contract, you never have to worry about not getting paid for work done under a contract with the government.

What to do before writing an RFP proposal

If you've made the decision to bid the RFP from the government, what should you do next?

Anyone who will be involved in writing the proposal (that may be just you) should do the following before you write the proposal:

  • Read the RFP again.
  • Make an outline of the RFP by section and decide who is responsible for responding to each one (if it is just you, note on each section anything you need to do to gather and prepare the required information).
  • Create a proposal calendar with timelines, milestones, and due dates clearly spelled out.
  • Review the evaluation criteria that the buying office will use to measure the proposals. Ask the buyer or contracting officer if there is anything else that you need to know and to clarify any criteria that you don't understand. Make sure that you understand all points so that you can address each and every one in your proposal. Do this before you begin to write. Here are just some of the common criteria that evaluators might use in evaluating a proposal and some of the points you should cover:
  • Is the proposal formatted according to instructions?
  • Is the project solution presented in the proposal plausible?
  • Is the proposal organized and is it responsive to the basic requirement?
  • Are the basic requirements in the RFP followed?
  • Is the company's delivery schedule acceptable?
  • Does the company demonstrate the capability to perform?
  • Does the company have related experience?
  • Has the company had past performance history?
  • Is the company financially stable?
  • Is the cost reasonable?
  • Is the costing method credible?
  • Are the company's personnel resources adequate?
  • Has a bill of materials been created?
  • Have you read the evaluation factors?

Warning: Don't make the mistake of many small businesses and just focus on the Scope of Work section in their proposal. Give as much study and attention to the evaluation section and write to that as well. While the Scope of Work may state the requirement for 100,000 rubberbands, it is the Evaluation section that will contain the requirement that they have to be delivered within 24 hours. You have to address both requirements. If you aren't familiar with the evaluation factors, you will have lost the game before you begin.

  • Gather and review any information (including marketing materials) about your competition. It is easier to communicate the superiority of your products/services if you are very familiar with the features and benefits your competition offers.
  • Gather information on any subcontractors you will need and use.
  • Create an outline for your proposal. Below are sample categories that you may want to consider for your outline. They will give you a general idea of the areas that need to be covered and how to organize them. (The outline is more applicable to contracts over $100,000, but can be a user tool for smaller contracts as well.)
  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • Benefits of the Proposed Solutions
  • Your Organization and Experience
  • Company's Project Management
  • Technical Methods
  • Explanation of the proposed project
  • Project overview
  • Proposed project configuration
  • Project requirement
  1. Standard products/services
  2. Maintenance
  3. Project characteristics
  4. Bill of Materials
  • Future enhancements
  1. Project growth
  • Cost Proposal
  • Cost basis
  1. Project procurement costs
  2. Operating costs
  3. Maintenance costs
  • Delivery and acceptance
  • Qualification
  • Pre-award considerations
  • Organization
  • Financial status

If, in responding to an RFP, you will be sharing proprietary technical information, you should include a Proprietary Notice in your proposal. The notice should appear on a separate sheet at the beginning of the proposal and should read something like the following:

"This proposal contains confidential information on ABC Company which is provided for the sole purpose of permitting the holder of this document to evaluate the proposal submitted to {fill in the blank}. In consideration of the receipt of this proposal, the buyer agrees to maintain the enclosed information in confidence and to not reproduce or otherwise disclose any information to any person outside the group or team directly responsible for evaluation of its contents."

It is best to get legal advice on the best wording for your situation. Each page that is proprietary should have "proprietary information" stamped on it.

Tips for writing an RFP or RFQ proposal

Your proposal to an RFP or RFQ should, at the same time, adequately address the government's requirements, be clearly written, and be persuasive. Here are some pointers:

  • Write your proposal like a sales document. Your proposal must sell your company's ability to meet the requirements, to fulfill all of the stated conditions, and to deliver on time. Be specific and direct, being vague will only demonstrate that you do not understand the requirement and will create questions in the minds of the evaluators. Substantiate your promises and assertions with facts and details. Your goal is to persuade evaluators that your offer is superior to those of competing companies and to prove that your company can do the job.
  • Demonstrate a complete understanding of the stated requirement or problem. This may sometimes be a challenge. While, in some cases, the government buying office will know exactly what it needs, in other cases, it may not know or may use conflicting or vague terminology. In either event, it is your responsibility to demonstrate your understanding of the requirement; it is not the responsibility of the buying officer to interpret your understanding. If your proposal does not respond to the stated requirement or responds to only part of the requirement, it will not be considered for a contract award and may not even receive a complete evaluation.
  • Demonstrate that you are qualified. This means that not only must you demonstrate your understanding of the problem or requirement, you must also demonstrate your ability to solve or meet it. Include your staff's qualifications, relevant facilities and equipment, as well as any other qualifications that are specific to the project you are bidding on. Your proposal should clearly communicate your ability to successfully perform the contract. Documentation of successful fulfillment of past contracts may also help prove your point.
  • Show your past performance. Give examples of good contract performance on past contracts; it will show experience in related areas and our ability to correct any problems or situations that might arise. If you are looking at a contract that is much larger than you have ever had before, show how you will manage it, what you are going to do, who you are working with (if this is a situation where you are working with another company) and how you will work together, who is responsible for what, and who will do the work.
  • Respond to the stated evaluation criteria. Section M of the solicitation identifies the factors that the buying office will look at when evaluating your proposal. Cost is but one factor. If your proposal does not respond to these criteria, it will be judged to be technically unacceptable and will not be considered for contract award.
  • Follow the required proposal format. Section L of the solicitation specifies which topics should be covered in your proposal as well as the order in which they should be presented. If you do not follow the required content format and organization, you risk neglecting or omitting important information, which will result in the rejection of your proposal.
  • Use a consistent writing style. Don't try to get wordy or longwinded, stay on topic and to the point. Read the evaluation factors and use that to make the reader's job easy. If there are areas that you might be deficient in, don't try to hide them, highlight them and show how you will "solve the problem." Use graphics sparely and only to show a point that needs to be made, don't get carried away with cut and paste. Use bullets and headlines that will help you keep on topic.
  • Provide adequate management and cost information. Demonstrate your ability to manage the work and account for all of the costs involved in performing the contract. Also, provide adequate cost and pricing data.
  • Proofread and critique your proposal. Writing an effective proposal requires time, patience, and care. Be prepared to write, evaluate, and rewrite, as necessary. Rewriting gives you the chance to improve the quality and responsiveness of your proposal. Pay attention to detail. Good grammar and spelling count. If necessary, ask another person with those skills to proofread the final draft for you.
  • Provide clear explanations. If you use abbreviations, acronyms, or in-house or trade terms, make sure that you spell them out or define them, at least the first time they are used. You might refer to something like "ASC II" and assume that all those who read your proposal will know what you mean. They may not. It could end up costing you some points since you are not being clear on what you are trying to say.
  • Attend a proposal-writing workshop. There are a number of good ones offered through Procurement Technical Assistance Centers.
  • Keep a database of all your project proposals. This can end up saving you time and money down the road. The next time you have to write a proposal, you can go back and perhaps use all or part of a proposal that you did in the past.
  • Make plans for an oral presentation. The government may require prospective offerors to give an oral presentation as part of the selection process. In the GSA, they record this on video for later review. When they request the officers to come in and do a presentation, that does not mean the sales manager; it usually means the president, and the vice-president of marketing if the company is big enough. If you're a woman-owned business, that means the "woman" not the male sales manager or husband. If you represent yourself as a certain business type, be sure that comes out at the presentation. This could mean the difference between being the winner or requesting a post-award debriefing. This is your opportunity to demonstrate why your company is the answer to their requirement.
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