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How to read a Federal Government RFP

Knowing how to read an RFP is the first step towards knowing how to respond to it

rfp-cover-med.jpgThe first thing to realize when reading a U.S. Federal Government RFP is that you don’t have to read the whole thing! And you definitely don't want to read it page-by-page like a book. It's easy to feel intimidated by an RFP that’s hundreds (or even thousands) of pages long. But when you know how to read an RFP it's not nearly so bad.

The format for most Government RFPs is fixed by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). The FAR mandates that Government RFPs be divided into sections A through M. Each of these sections has a certain purpose and must contain certain information. But only a few of these sections relate to what to bid and how to prepare your proposal. The rest relate to the contracting process. Of the lettered sections, the key ones to focus on are:

  • Section A. First look at Section A (usually the cover page). This section is actually a form. In a box on this page is the due date. Now you know how much time you have to prepare your response. There are other details there, but they are usually reference information or details like where to submit the proposal that you may need, but aren't your first priority when trying to understand the RFP.
  • Section L. This is where you’ll find the instructions for formatting, organizing, and submitting your proposal. This tells you how big and complicated your proposal will be, and what your high-level outline should be. If you are wondering about what will go into preparing the proposal, this is where you should start. Whether you think the outline makes sense or not, you absolutely must follow their outline. It is what the evaluators expect and your proposal may get thrown out if things are not where they expect to find them. Even if you think you have a better way to organize things, you can't be smarter than the RFP. It is better to treat RFP compliance as an absolute.
  • Section M. This is where you’ll find the criteria and scoring system that will be used to determine whether your proposal wins. This section tells you how to write your proposal in order to maximize your score, as opposed to what to propose. Think of it as how they tell you what they think is important. Once you've read Section L and know what needs to go into your proposal, read Section M to find out what you need to say and do in each section to maximize your chances of winning.
  • Section C. This is where they say what it is they want you to propose (often called the "Statement of Work") and what their requirements are. This section tells you what to offer, but it's the combination of Sections L and M that tell you how to present it. Don't just assume that you should write about what they want to procure. They may be more concerned with how you're going to manage the work or your qualifications, credibility, experience, risk, quality, or other things. 
  • Section B. This is where they tell you how to format your pricing and what the contract type is. To really understand how and what to offer, you'll need to look at Section B, so you can see whether they want it priced by the hour, in fixed price units, or some other way. The same thing delivered as fixed price units vs. a time and materials service may have very different proposed approaches, which impacts what you say in the proposal. It also may impact your pricing and profitability. The pricing model and your pricing strategy are often a major part of what you propose and your likelihood of winning. Some people will want to read Section B first, especially those involved in making bid/no bid decisions.
  • And sometimes, Section J. Sometimes they hide important stuff that is critical to figuring out what you should propose in Section J, attachments. I've even seen the Statement of Work provided as an attachment in Section J.

This doesn’t mean that the other sections are not necessary. Contract terms and conditions might not be exciting, but they can have a big impact on your proposal. You can read a description of the other RFP sections here. Some may have things that you must respond to, like Section K, where they put the “Certifications and Representations” (where you may have to “Certify” or “Represent” things like whether you are a U.S. firm, a minority firm, that you haven't defaulted on previous contracts, etc.). But the others are part of the legal form or contract boilerplate, and you won’t have to read them the same way you will the Statement of Work and Evaluation Criteria. They also may provide things as attachments in Section J that are critical to figuring out what you want to propose.

Keep in mind that how you present the proposal will be bound by the instructions in Section L and how you will be scored is in Section M. Section C may take 50 pages of RFP to describe something that is only 10% of the score, and only 5 pages to describe something that is 50% of your score. Read Section C with the evaluation criteria in mind.

Here are some additional things to look for:

  • When reading Section L: Look for instructions regarding page count, page layout (margins, fonts, page sizes), submission method, and outline/content.
  • When reading Section M: Look for scoring method, score weighting, evaluation process, past performance approach, and “best value” terminology.
  • When reading Section 😄 Look for requirements (are they explained, understandable, and/or ambiguous?), contradictions (between requirements as well as Section L and M), feasibility, and opportunities for differentiation between you and your competitors.
  • When reading Section B: Look for correspondence to the requirements and evaluation criteria.

Solicitations vs RFPs

RFPs are not the only way the Government buys things. They have other ways of requesting bids and procuring things. They use other contract vehicles like Blanket Purchase Agreements (BPAs) and Task Orders issued under Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts. For commodities these can be as simple as placing an order. But for services and other things that aren't commodities, they may issue a solicitation that resembles an RFP. These solicitations may only go to certain pre-authorized companies instead of being publicly announced. They also do not have to have the same lettered section organization as an RFP. However, they will still have instructions, evaluation criteria, and performance requirements, just like an RFP. Only they may be labelled differently or not at all. The key to reading a solicitation that is not an RFP is to look for the instructions regarding how to respond and in what format, the method and criteria to be used during evaluation, and of course, the requirements that define what they want to procure.

When you are done, go back and read it again

While you don't have to read everything at first, you really should at some point read the whole RFP because sometimes you'll find something important hiding in those other sections (maybe an insurance requirement, a deliverable schedule, etc.). Once you've read a few government RFPs, you'll be able to do it quickly because you'll know where to skim and where to focus.

Different sections of the RFP are often written by different authors, and sometimes boilerplate is inserted without adequate review. Do not be surprised to find contradictions and ambiguities. Ask questions (you should find a deadline for them in the instructions). Sometimes the interplay between the various sections can provide valuable insight into what they have in mind. Make sure you comply to the letter and give the potential customer what they want instead of what you want for them.

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More information about "Carl Dickson"

Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing, with more than 30 year's experience. He's written multiple books and published over a thousand articles that have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

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