Government Solicitations, Contracting, and Bidding
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1 Building a Foundation .
A solid foundation with a good support network is imperative. A foundation for navigating government proposals and bidding is necessary to withstand any stress and ambiguity that may come. Before even considering a government request, a prospective applicant must define their business. Individuals with novel ideas and innovations are good, businesses employing these individuals is great, but a business with a mission and driven individuals is terrific. A more defined business should subsequently register in the System for Award Management, or SAM, including the Dynamic Small Business Search, or DSBS, in order to be considered and application processed correctly in the federal system. The SBA recommends to “treat your SAM and Dynamic Small Business Profile as your business resume” . A compelling small business profile coupled with a succinct capability statement is a must. Government agencies and contractors reviewing these items must be able to gather a clear picture of business strengths, capabilities, personnel resumes, performance history, and awards.
The final piece of building a solid foundation for government contracting is finding where these opportunities lie. There are resources available online like the SAM that provide open federal contracting opportunities . There are also subcontracting opportunities listed by the SBA . Contractors and subcontractors can be utilized to assist your future project. Typically, keep in mind contractors and subcontractors will be specialized towards a field of expertise, and not all opportunities are equally dispersed geographically. Many government agencies, and specifically the Small Business Administration, have people and resources dedicated to helping businesses navigate the pre-application process.
2 Solicitations .
The US Federal Government communicates interest in buying a good or service for innovation through the release of solicitations. The solicitation is a formal document that provides information and requirements so that interested parties can bid on the project. Solicitations are released as bid packages. Bid packages contain documents that are required to be included by law for business to respond adequately. The bid package is likely broken down into various sections, and understanding these sections can be overwhelming.
The first and foremost piece of information to consider when researching bid packages is the solicitation type. There are two overarching types of solicitations: a request and a program announcement, or PA. A request solicitation is typically a one-time offer, whereas a PA typically pertains to ongoing longer term solicitations. There are three different types of PAs: Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), Program Announcement Reviewed by an Institution (PAR), and Program Announcement with Set-Aside Funds (PAS). FOAs are general announcements for funding opportunities and can also be further defined as a PAR, PAS, or RFP. A PAR applicant can expect the research institute to review their application rather than a government agency review center. A PAS applicant can expect to have funding set aside by the research institution.
There are five different categories of request solicitations: Request for Application (RFA), Request for Proposal/Request for Tender (RFP/RFT), Request for Quotations (RFQ), Request for Information/Sources Sought (RFI), and Invitation for Bid (IFB). A RFP is used to communicate requirements to interested parties and solicit proposals resulting in a negotiated contract. A RFQ is used to obtain information and quotations without considering responses as offers, commonly used for projects valued under $150,000 and simplified acquisition is applicable. An IFB is also known as a sealed bid solicitation because commonly no negotiations are done on the bid package. IFB applicants must realize the price and responsiveness to the details within the bid package are critical here compared to other solicitations. A RFA is similar to an RFP but will specifically indicate the number of awards and funds set aside. RFAs usually involve a single deadline for application and will be reviewed by a research institution rather than a government review center. A RFI is not an offer proposal but simply an announcement of interest and focus on a topic to determine industrial input and gauge where more focus is needed. A complete breakdown of the different solicitation that can be encountered is compiled in Table 1.
Table 1: A breakdown of solicitation by request and program type and their subcategories [1,4]
Each solicitation has a filing number that also provides some details about where the offer originates, the year the solicitation was issued, and the unique identifying number of the specific contract. For example:
From the example above, NSF indicates the solicitation is coming from the National Science Foundation. RFA indicates this is a request for application. The two digit marker indicates the year the solicitation was published. The final set of numbers indicates the specific contract identifier. The reader should note, the numbering format for solicitations is not standardized and can vary from the example given.
Once a solicitation bid package of interest has been identified, understanding the package is the next step. While bid packages can vary, a solicitation like an RFP typically includes multiple sections from the Uniform Contract Form such as :
Section A – Solicitation/Contract Form
Section B – Supplies and Services and Prices/Costs
Section C – Description/Specifications/Statement of Work
Section D – Packaging and Marking
Section E – Inspection and Acceptance
Section F – Deliveries or Performance
Section G – Contract Administration Data
Section H – Special Contract Requirements
Section I – Contract Clauses
Section J – List of Attachments
Section K – Representations, Certifications, and Other Statements
Section L – Instructions, Conditions, and Notices
Section M – Evaluation Factors for Award
The reader should note that the sections for a solicitation may also be broken up further into Parts. For example you may find descriptions such as Part I Section A and Part V Section M rather than just the section descriptions. Workshops, conferences, and online resources are available to educate prospective applicants. Familiarity with government nomenclature is beneficial to comprehending the requirements and information described in each section. Once a business has found a viable solicitation, a crafting the response is the next step.
3 The Response .
The best practice of crafting a response to a government solicitation is to read the solicitation carefully. Bid packages can be lengthy and errors may be present. If a question arises, ask the publisher for more information. Applicants must be wary of question periods, as there may be a time window for when questions will be accepted. A business’s response to a bid request is the first impression stage. Diligent effort towards crafting a superb will go a long way in proving your merit before any technical work has been completed. A good proposal writer will take care in aligning the response to the needs of the respective government agency. A prepared business will be better prepared to articulate the best solution that meets the government’s needs. The following are useful pointers towards improving your response :
General Best Practice Tips: .
Ask Questions! Some applications allow for question windows, take advantage of the opportunity to answer all questions one might have
Listen to the questions of others, they may have a unique perspective
Align response to the government’s needs
Meet all solicitation and regulatory requirements
Prepare accordingly, deadlines are important
Socialize and network, wisdom can serendipitously manifest
Common Pitfalls: .
Using complex language and explanations with lengthy sentences and paragraphs. Concise thoughts using easy-to-understand language are beneficial.
Placing other contracts at risk by overwhelming the business. If the applicant business already is busy with other contracts, recognize the time and energy necessary to successfully complete a contract.
Avoiding credit cards. While this may be a business strategy, more and more contracts utilize credit cards and the lack of ability to process digital transactions can hamper your application.
Watch the units! A foot is a foot, and a meter is a meter. A meter is not a foot. This is an easy error to make, but will relegate an application to non-responsiveness.
Messy documentation. Appearances matter, but cleanliness is another factor. Reviewers will only ever see the effort you put into the proposal if the documentation reflects that effort.
Too many frills. A proposal should be rejection-proof rather than immaculately pieced together and sold. The gravity of interest is pulled by ideas with weight than hot air with no substance.
Time-keeping. Timing is everything for government deadlines, and each day brings a business closer to submission. Remember to keep a schedule and adhere to the goals.
Dismissing competition. Be careful to understand how and why any competitors in industry are priced and valued the way they are.
Inconsistency. For a large report or proposal, it can be easy to lose track of the bigger picture. Make sure the individual pieces of the proposal connect with one another in a consistent manner.