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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!

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. Of the lettered sections, the key ones to focus on are:

  • 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.
  • 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 put in it. 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 do to win.
  • Section C. This is where they say what it is they want you to propose (often called the "Statement of Work"). This tells you what you need to offer, but it's the combination of Sections L and M that tell you what to write about in the proposal.
  • Section B. This is where they tell you how to format your pricing and what the contract type is. The same thing delivered as fixed price units vs. a time and materials service impacts how you do things, which impacts what you say in the proposal. It also may impact your profitability. 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 (like the Statement of Work) in Section J, attachments.

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.

The best approach to reading a Government RFP isn't to read it sequentially from start to finish the way you would a book. Instead, first look at Section A (usually the cover page). In a box on this page is the due date. Now you know how much time you have to prepare your response. Next jump to Section L and focus on how they want the proposal organized. Whether you think it makes sense or not, you absolutely must follow their outline. Then go to Section M and find out how you will be scored and what they think is important. Now go back to Section C and find out what you have to propose doing or supplying. To really understand how and what to offer, you'll also 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.

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 C: 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.

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 Section L). 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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Carl Dickson

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

Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, 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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