I was recently at church listening to a sermon about the foundations of our faith. The pastor said, “Everything has a foundation: buildings, math, languages, and even countries.” While listening to this sermon, it occurred to me that Government proposals, responses to Request for Proposals (RFP), must have foundations too, without which they will crumble and fall apart. I found myself asking, “What are the foundational elements of a high quality proposal?” Many thoughts quickly went through my head: Sections L & M, administrative information, price, technical factors, past performance; they all made sense to me but are they all truly foundations for a quality, winning, proposal?
As I reflected, did some research, and conducted some critical thinking on this subject, I began to narrow down my personal belief of the foundations of a proposal. I started my intellectual journey with the assertion that the administrative information in all RFPs is essential and must be considered part of a proposal’s foundation. My logic was one cannot write a compliant proposal if the format, page count, margins, or font size and type are not correct. It made sense to me, but the more I thought about it the more I realized, although important, administrative information is not the foundation of a proposal. Using a construction analogy for building a house, the administrative information would be more like a blueprint. It provides the description of how a proposal is structured but is not the concrete and rebar required to establish the basis for a winning proposaI decided to do a little more research. I looked for key words in Google, read though the Federal Acquisition Regulation, and other Army policies to find something that talks about the basics or foundation of a proposal. It then occurred to me the place to look would be the source of RFP evaluation – the Department of Defense Source Selection Procedures. Sure enough, as I was reading through this document I found a statement directly from the Government telling industry what the foundations of all proposals are: price and quality. Nestled at the bottom of paragraph 2.3.1 is a sentence that states, “All source selection shall evaluate cost or price, and the quality of the product or services.”
So now I know all proposals must have a price and have a description of the quality of the product or services. How the Government defines quality and determines price reasonableness depends greatly on the complexity of the product or services and the type of contract the Government uses, but in its simplest form (its foundation) the Government needs to weigh both quality and price to determine an award for a proposal. Section 1.2 of the DoD Source Selection Procedures describes the two most fundamental acquisition process and techniques as: Tradeoff Source Selection Process (better known as Best-Value) and Lowest Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) Source Selection process.
- Tradeoff Process (FAR 15.101-1): This process allows for a tradeoff between non-cost factors and cost/price and allows the Government to accept other than lowest priced proposals or other than the highest technically rated proposal to achieve a best-value [emphasis mine] contract award.
- LPTA Process (see FAR 15.101-2): This process is appropriate when best value is expected to result from selection of a technically acceptable proposal with the lowest evaluated price.
Both techniques balance price and quality; however, in LPTA price is king. In these types of proposals the winning vendor must not only be compliant with the technical requirements, but also propose the lowest price. In a best value tradeoff the Government reserves the right to award the contract to the best balance between price and quality. In other words, the Government may elect to pay more for superior quality in a proposed solution. In all cases of best value tradeoff proposals, however, the Government sets forth in the solicitation “the evaluation factors and subfactors, their relative order of importance, and the importance of non-cost or price factors to cost or price factors… in enough depth to communicate what will be evaluated.” – Section 2.3.1 of the DoD Source Selection Procedures.
The purpose of this article is not to make you an expert in pricing or responding to quality in a proposal but to share with you that the foundation of every winning proposal is to propose a high quality service or product at a competitive prove. Both quality and price must be evaluated by the Government regardless of award methodology. I recently spent some time with a number of Army Acquisition professionals discussing source selection and here are a few tips from those conversations:
- More than one Government leader has told me they would like to see the calculations behind all prices. Evaluators do not want to see an Excel spreadsheet with a number in the cell or a lock cell. The quote to me from a Government evaluator was, “How can I evaluate a price if I don’t know how the vendor came up with the price.”
- Be realistic with your price. Too low of a price in a best-value solicitation can cause a perceived increase in risk to the Government.
- A Government evaluator told me once, “Focus on Section M in the RFP when writing a proposal but ensure compliance with Section L.” All proposals must be compliant; however, evaluators use Section M to determine best-value. Their evaluation ratings (i.e., significant strength verses acceptable) are defined in Section M and will be used by the evaluator when determining a proposals ratings for each volume.
- Stay away from unsubstantiated claims or ambiguous phrases. As an evaluator once told me it is impossible to rate quality if the clam is ambiguous or unsubstantiated. Be specific with the claim, describe how this is a significant strength to the Government and site an example from a past project where the claim was used successfully.
For more information on pricing and quality in proposals please read Sections 2 & 3 of the DoD Source Selection Procedures, FAR Subpart 15.4, FAR 15.304(c)(2), and other FAR references listed in this article.
As the pastor stated when talking about foundations, “You don’t get what you wish for, you get what you plan (build) for.” There is much to consider when building the foundation for a proposal but it all starts with the quality of your solution and your ability to price it competitively.
Let us know how we can help you succeed in this or any other business effort!
-J. Michael Courtney