Enter the Labyrinth
March 1, 2006
By Nerys Parry
You wouldn't believe how many consulting firms lose out on federal government contracts because of a little fine print. We're talking big companies -- and big money, too....
You wouldn’t believe how many consulting firms lose out on federal government contracts because of a little fine print. We’re talking big companies — and big money, too.
When I was a government project manager, I witnessed one incumbent consultant lose a $90,000 multi-year project because he faxed proof of his professional designation just a few hours after the bid closing. I saw another miss out on a $60,000 contract because she didn’t provide copies of her company’s clearance certificates. Then there was the $40,000 in outsourced laboratory fees that went up in a puff of smoke when the laboratory failed to provide the resumes of their staff.
All these bidders were well educated and well qualified. All had worked with federal agencies before, and all had received the same bid package as the other bidders. All could have been compliant and possibly successful.
So where did they and so many other consultants go wrong?
Enter here: First you need to know your customer
In a recent government-wide review of procurement practices,1 the Parliamentary Secretary task force interviewed a small sample of private companies. Most of these companies centralized their procurement activities and consistently tracked their performance. None had open competition policies, and instead sought best value by building relationships with their suppliers.
Then there’s the federal government. It has decentralized purchasing, limited purchasing data, and is almost pathologically committed to open competition.
In other words, you ain’t in Kansas any more.
As a result of the task force’s report the government is working to improve its procurement practices, but with 98 different contracting agencies, 23 federal Acts (and associated regulations), three international trade agreements, 22 management and procurement policies, 15 corporate objectives, and an unknown number of departmental policies to take into consideration2, don’t expect change overnight.
So before you embark on responding to any government request for proposal (RFP), remember that you’re entering a territory fraught with warring priorities and meddling mandates. You’re taking part in a process that has been described by suppliers as slow, complex, rules-based, inconsistent, unfair and lacking in transparency.3 (And I can only guess at the comments that the task force wasn’t allowed to print.)
With $13 billion to spend on goods and services, however, federal contracts can be tempting. So what can a consultant do to win some of that federal coin?
Check your passport — Read every RFP carefully
All the federal procurement officers I spoke with agreed on one thing: consultants should read the RFP very, very carefully. It’s the document that will tell you what the agency is looking for and how the contract will be awarded. It also — and this is critical — tells you how the contracting agency wants to see your bid, in what format, with what references, as well as how your bid will be evaluated.
Make sure that you fully understand what is being requested and don’t take anything for granted. Don’t assume that by submitting a previously successful proposal you will still meet all the agency’s requirements. Things may have changed.
And if there is anything you don’t understand or anything that appears contradictory, ask. Most public contracts tendered on Merx4 or issued competitively will have a specified amount of time for you to submit written questions. Don’t be afraid to use this tool, but just remember to get your questions in early to allow enough time for those government gears to grind out an answer.
Get your foot in the door –Nail the mandatories
Many bids never make it past “Go” in the federal procurement process, often because they missed a mandatory requirement.
There is nothing euphemistic in the government’s use of the adjective “mandatory.” You must have, and often must provide proof of, the mandatory requirements listed in the RFP to be considered for a contract award. These requirements are not rated; you either have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, then you may be kicked out of the bidding process, depending on how your RFP is written.
For example, a common mandatory requirement is to supply a copy of proof of professional accreditation with the bid. Key words here are “proof” and “with the bid.” Simply stating that you have accreditation and that the government can call to get a copy of your certificate is not enough.
Another example is that you may be asked for a mandatory number of years of experience. Your resume may highlight your various projects, but nowhere do you prove that the sum total of these projects will add up to the years required. Don’t make your reviewers guess or you may end up in the purgatory Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) calls “bid repair.” Don’t go there. If you have five years’ experience, say it.
Take the mandatory criteria literally; that’s how they are written.
Speak the language and stay with the program
I was once a consultant and had to prepare federal proposals, so I know how much work they can be. I’ve also sat on government evaluation boards and glumly pored through boxes, literally boxes, of 50-page technical proposals. All I can say is that the process isn’t much fun for anyone.
Keep in mind that your proposal is likely to be evaluated by three or more public servants, all of whom have many things to do other than to dig through your bid for hidden nuggets of information. The easier you make it for them to review your bid, the easier it is for them to award you the points you deserve.
Here’s my advice: when you write, write clearly and write well. Write so that your proposal is not only good, but also easy to evaluate against the RFP.
Use the government’s own terminology, and match it as closely as possible to the language used in the RFP. Often you will be required to submit under specified headings; make sure you do so. You can then use the evaluation grid to determine how to arrange your information under each of these headings to make it easier to mark.
Write and cost to the scope of work provided — even if you have a better idea — and understand that the evaluators are bound by their evaluation grid and can only give you marks on what is requested, unless there is a provision stating otherwise.
Another word of advice from one of my contract managers: if you are asked for detailed information on your experience, don’t skimp. Unlike in the private sector, there’s no redeeming value to a short resume or a minuscule project description (unless a page or word limit is specified in the RFP). So don’t be afraid to include everything that the committee needs to know in relation to the project in question.
Watch your manners — Check the fine print
I can’t say it enough: read the fine print. According to the contracting officers I’ve spoken with, many bids are deemed ineligible for minor errors, such as forgetting to sign the bid or mistakes in format.
Before you submit your bid, double-check for any changes that may have been issued in the amendments. Ensure that you have submitted the requested number of copies. Also, double-check the deadline. When they say 2:00 p.m. EST, they mean it.
When the door gets slammed in your face — Follow up
You have done everything right and still you don’t win the contract. What can you do?
One of the best ways to learn how to submit a good government proposal is to find out where you went wrong. You are usually able to call up the agency and request a “debriefing,” during which a designated contract authority will explain why you were not selected and what you could have done to improve your bid. They aren’t allowed to divulge your competitors’ pricing, but they can tell you if you priced too high.5
If you find that you are consistently delivering proposals that don
‘t win bids, Contracts Canada — recently renamed “Business Access Canada” — offers seminars to help you improve (see sidebar).
The way onwards — Standing offers
In April 2005, PWGSC issued a notice concerning changes being made to the way government buys goods and services.6 To meet the government’s commitment to “deliver services smarter, faster and at a reduced cost,” all government departments are now required to use standing offers as their “first method of supply” in the 10 designated commodity groups. These include professional, administrative and management support services.7
The standing offer system means that certain companies are pre-approved as suppliers for specified types of projects. If you already have a standing offer, that’s good news for you. If you don’t, it may simply be because no standing offer exists for the services you provide — a common enough occurrence. Keep your eye out for standing offers as they come up. They will usually be posted on Merx, and are similar to standard requests for proposals. Much of what is stated above applies to standing offers as well as standard requests for proposals.
Even if there is a standing offer for your services but you aren’t on the list, you can still subcontract for someone who holds an offer, or you can still bid to provide unique services outside the offer’s scope, or on projects that exceed the maximum call-up amount of the offer.
So, to those who dare enter the convoluted labyrinth of government procurement, a final word: keep the prize in sight. A slice of that 13-Billion Dollar Budget is worth it.
Nerys Parry has been technical authority and project manager for more than $1 million dollars worth of Canadian government contracts. She lives in Port Hope, Ont.
1 Parliamentary Secretary’s Task Force, Government-Wide Review of Procurement, Final Report, January 2005. http://www.pwgsc.gc.ca/ prtf/text/index-e.html
2 As reported in a presentation by the Task Force on Government-Wide Review of Procurement to the Material Management Institute, October 19, 2004, under “Facts About Federal Procurement, A Complex Process.” www.pwgsc.gc.ca/prtf/text/presentations/19oct04-e.html#6
3 Parliamentary Secretary’s Task Force, op cit.
4 MERX provides the platform for the Government Electronic Tendering Service (GETS), where contracts subject to trade agreements are posted (and, increasingly, other competitive tenders as well).
5 Contracts awarded by PWGSC for the last three years are posted on the Contract History Database, so you can always look up the contract value to ascertain the winning price. See http://csi.contractscanada.gc.ca/csi/prod/en/applctrl.cfm?cmd=start
6 According to Contracts Canada, a standing offer is “an offer from a potential supplier to provide goods and/or services at pre-arranged prices, under set terms and conditions, when and if required. No contract exists until the government issues an order or ‘call-up’ against the standing offer, and there is no actual obligation by the government to purchase until that time.”
Training for suppliers:
Contracts Canada now called Business Access Canada is “an inter-departmental initiative to improve supplier and buyer awareness and simplify access to federal government purchasing information.” The program offers seminars and a basic course on how to do work with the federal government and how to write an effective proposal. The website also provides information on the PWGSC bidding process and all the basic need-to-know information for those who want to contract with the federal government. http://contractscanada.gc.ca
Western Economic Diversification Canada has an interesting website on how to sell to government. Even though it’s written for the western market, it is full of information that is useful to consultants across the country.
Web-based Guide for Doing Business with the Federal Government. This was a guide written for aboriginal companies, but it has good information for others as well.
Public Works & Government Services Canada:
PWGSC Policies and Guides are downloadable files that include their supply manual, their standard acquisition clauses and conditions, policy notifications, acquisition forms and customer manuals. http://www.pwgsc.gc.ca/acquisitions/text/pg-e.html
PWGSC’s Plain Language Standard is “an ongoing initiative whose objectives are to standardize procurement terminology, simplify the language, and ensure more consistency and uniformity in acquisition documents issued by the Department.”
Government Electronic Supply Chain Program provides updates on the government’s electronic tendering process.