What Are the Steps in the Proposal Process for the Federal Government?

by Liz Lawler

Introduction

There are several steps that take place during the proposal process with the Federal Government.  These steps are taken to ensure that the best provider of the goods and services is chosen to provide the goods and services needed.  The first step in the process that a contractor will see is the Sources Sought, the next step would be a Draft Request for Proposal (DRFP), then a Request for Proposal (RFP).  Once the decision process has narrowed down the number of competitors, a Final Proposal Request (FPR) may be requested by the Government to help in the final selection.  In some cases you may hear of a Best and Final Offer (BAFO), instead of an FPR.

Once the proposal responses are evaluated, then the winner is notified and contract award is made.  Occasionally a company will protest the decision made by the Government and a Protest is filed, but that’s another story.  After contract award, a debriefing may be requested by all of those that submitted a proposal response.  Each of these processes is described below and the usual timeframes in which they take place.

Sources Sought:

When the Government is trying to determine if a small business (such as an 8(a), HUBZone, or Small Disadvantaged Business (SDB)) is qualified to provide the goods or services requested, it will release a Sources Sought.  In the Sources Sought they will request information on the company, such as current and past work providing the same goods or services.  At times these will be a very formal document laid out for the respondent to answer very specific questions, such as past performance on other contracts, and references, with specific page limitations.  Other times they are more casual and simply request information such as name, address, email and an outline of the services your company can provide.  The agency in question will give a deadline for submittal.

Timeline:      After a Sources Sought is submitted it may be 3 – 6 months, or longer, before the DRFP is released.

DRFP

This will be your first look at the new contract, its requirements and work that will be expected during its period of performance.  The DRFP is released for potential contractors to read and review, and if planning ahead, to start their strategy for responding to the RPF.

The DRFP will have contact information to enable you to submit questions to the Contracting Officer regarding the DRFP for clarification and to question possible requirements conflicts within the document.  There will be a deadline for submittal of questions and the answers will be posted on the same website as the solicitation.

Timeline:  Generally the DRFP will give you 30 days to ask questions.  Answers to questions will be posted anywhere from 30 – 60 days after they are received, depending upon the number of questions and the issues/problems they raise.  After the questions and answers have been released, it is usually 30 – 60 days before the RFP is released.  Upon occasion it may be longer and there may be more than one set of Questions and Answers released.

Each DRFP/RFP is laid out in the same manner – Sections A – M or 1 – 5.  Those proposals with Sections 1 – 5 are considered commercial and will be slightly different in design and response than those with the A – M designation. Certain of these sections (A – K) will be made a part of the final contract so it is very important to read each section and understand the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) and requirements in each one.  Sections A – M are described below, followed by Sections 1 – 5.

Sections A – M

Section A – Solicitation/Contract Form

Section A has the formal contract forms (original contract Form 1449 and amendment forms SF30) and the table of contents.  If an amendment to the RFP is released, it will be returned in the model contract in Section A.

Section B – Supplies or Services and Prices/Costs

Section B will have forms regarding prices/costs that will need to be completed (and must match any pricing templates submitted) at the time of response submittal.  The exact requirements will vary depending upon the type of contract that is being offered – Firm, Fixed Price, Time & Materials, etc.

Section C – Description/Specifications/Work Statement

Section C will outline the requirements for the work to be performed on the contract.  This is extremely important to read and understand it will give you a great deal of insight into the contract and how it will work.  A clear understanding of this is necessary for your response.

Section D – Packaging and Marking

Section D will list all of the clauses that are incorporated by reference for packaging and marking.  Be sure to read which ones are included and understand their impact on the contract. This will affect your response in certain sections of the contract.  This section also includes instructions for packaging, handling and transportation, if any.

Section E – Inspection and Acceptance

Section E will list clauses incorporated by reference for inspection and acceptance.  There may or may not be any clauses here, but if listed, again, be sure to understand their impact on your response.

Section F – Deliveries or Performance

Section F will include any clauses that are incorporated by reference for deliveries and performance.  This section may also show the period of performance for the final contract (warning – this date will change if the RFP release and award are delayed).  There may also be an Option to Extend Completion Date and Shipping Instructions.  These Shipping Instructions may not match those for the proposal response, so, for delivery of your response follow those specifically addressing that delivery (see Section L).

Section G – Contract Administration Data

Section G will include any clauses that are incorporated by reference for contract administration data.  It may also describe the process for submission of vouchers for payment, technical direction, contractor request for Government provided equipment (GPE), list of installation accountable Government property, physical inventory of capital personal property, contract management requirements, security/badging requirements for foreign national visitors and employees/representatives of foreign contractors, and identification of employees.

Section H – Special Contract Requirements

Section H will include any clauses that are incorporated by reference for special contract requirements.  It may also include administrative leave; representations, certifications, and other statements of offerors; task ordering procedure; key personnel and facilities; limitation of future contracting; and observance of legal holidays.  All of these articles must be taken into account in both the written and cost response.

Section I – Contract Clauses

Section I will list all of the contract clauses that have been incorporated in previous sections by reference; approval of the contract ; personal identity verification of contractor personnel, notification of ownership changes; order limitations, a section describing the type of contract such as FFP or IDIQ, payment of overtime premiums, etc.

If the contract is specifically set aside for a special contract group such as an 8(a) it may describe the special 8(a) contract conditions and notification of competition limited to eligible 8(a) concerns. If the contract involves union staff, it will document the specifications for the union and payment of union dues or fees.

This section also includes the statement of equivalent rates for Federal hires, security requirements for unclassified information technology resources, Ombudsman, access to sensitive information, and release of sensitive information.  The sections regarding information technology and sensitive information are important as you will probably have to have an Organizational Conflict of Interest (OCI) Plan and these sections must be taken into consideration.

Section J – List of Documents, Exhibits and Other Attachments

Section J is very important for the preparation of your response.  This section will have the Data Requirements List (DRL)/Data Requirement Descriptions (DRDs) and all other attachments.  A complete review of this list is crucial to your response as it will describe what documents and plans may be due either prior to award, at the time of award, or due shortly after award.  It will also describe the types of reports that will be due to the Government after contract award and during the life of the contract.  These reports must be addressed in the proposal response – either in the technical volume or in the management plan.  Neglecting to refer to this information in your response will lower your final score and may ensure you do not make the final cut.

Some of the plans that may be included in the DRL are:  Safety & Health Plan, OCI, Quality Plan, Contract Phase-In Plan, and the Management Plan.  Generally there is a FAR reference or outline that you must follow when writing your response.  Be sure to follow the format in the exact order that is in the FAR or outline – make it easy for the Source Evaluation Board (SEB) to see that you have answered each requirement, even if it doesn’t apply to what service the contract may be providing.  For example – in a Safety & Health Plan there may be a requirement for asbestos abatement and the contract is for providing office supplies.  You must still respond to the requirement, but a simple statement such as “There are no requirements for this process under the current Statement of Work in this contract.” will meet the requirement.

Other documents that may be included in Section J are the Personal Identification Card Issuance Procedures (this document placement varies from RFP to RFP so you may need to look for it elsewhere); the acronym list; and if the contract is Service Contract Act procurement, then the Wage Determination will be here also.  Depending upon the type of contract you may have sample task orders or service requests, property that is accountable under the contract, etc.

Following the DRL will be copies of all the DRDs and the requirements for each one – how often they are to be done, due dates, in some cases specific layout of the document, and who they are distributed to.  Once you have won the contract it is important to meet these deadlines and have reports submitted on time.

Section K – Representations and Certifications

This section has documents that must be completed if you are not registered with the Online Representations and Certifications Application (ORCA) website.  It will also include clauses included by reference and may request information regarding previous contracts and compliance reports.

Section L – Instructions, Conditions and Notices to Offerors

It cannot be stressed enough that Section L will be your guide, template and reference for your proposal response.  This section will describe in detail how your response is to be prepared – size of margins and font; number of pages, and in some cases how many pages for each section of the response; contents of spines and covers for the binders; cover sheets; and exact delivery instructions for the response, to the way the boxes should be marked for delivery.

The instructions will also include how the binders are to be sent up – 1, 2 3, 4 or more volumes and how many copies of each volume.  How is the volume to be divided with tabs? What is the layout of the volume as regards sections for response, and when each volume is due – the Past Performance Volume and Past Performance Questionnaire may be due prior to the rest of the response.  There may also be a requirement for CDs to be furnished with the final submittal.  Instructions will be very specifically detailed and it is essential to follow the instructions as completely as you can.

Included in these instructions will be the scoring system that will be used to evaluate your response.  Usually it is based on 1000 points with the technical and management volumes carrying most of the weight.  The Safety & Health Plan may be worth as much as 100 points, sample task orders, videos, or service requests may be given a point value.  For example:

In this case the Technical Approach carries more weight than the Management Plan and Safety & Health

Technical Volume 

Subfactor – Management Plan       350 points

Subfactor – Technical Approach    550 points

Safety & Health Plan                        100 points

Total                                                1,000 points

In this case the Technical Approach carries more weight than the Management Plan and Safety & Health Plan combined.

After the general instructions regarding response limitations, copies and set up – there will be several sections explaining by volume and subfactor, in detail, specifics that the Government is looking for.  When formulating your answer be sure to follow the “outline” of each section and respond in the same order.

The first section will generally explain the management or technical section of the response and what is required; it may be one or two volumes depending upon the work required in the contract.  This may include the technical approach you will take to managing the contract, provide the services or goods required, a management plan, staffing/retention approach, total compensation plan, phase-in plan, information technology security plan, sample task orders you have to respond to, etc.  This will be your most detailed volume and the one you will spend nights writing in your sleep.  In the scoring factor for the contract, this volume usually has the highest point value and therefore doing a poor job can cause the most damage to your final score.

The past performance section will also detail what information is required  You may have to explain how your past performance proves that you have the experience to perform the work required on this contract, provide contact information for each contract you have used as a reference, and how does this past performance apply to the current Statement of Work (SOW).  This section may also request some information on quality and export control.  Additional documents such as OSHA logs, first pages of Past Performance Questionnaires, etc., may be included.  This volume is judged with an adjectival rating such as High Level of Confidence and will not receive a numerical score.

Key Personnel Resumes are usually required and the location for their placement will vary from contract to contract.  There will be specific instructions as to layout and page count – often just one or two pages.

The cost instructions will follow the general instructions.  These will explain the cost/price templates and how they are to be completed, plus what they expect to see discussed in the cost write up.  Typically the templates include Overhead, G&A, Conversion Factor, Cognizant Audit Office, Phase-In, Compensation and Supplemental Cost Data.  The cost volume has no scoring value as the Government judges this strictly on the cost submitted.

Section M – Evaluation Factors for Award

Section M will explain exactly how the Government will evaluate your response.  What volume carries the most weight; what components added together outweigh the others; and if there are subfactor, which ones will be considered more important and how do they effect the overall scoring.  It will explain the adjectival rating they will be using for past performance.  It will include the evaluation technique that will be used on the cost/price, including a cost realism analysis.

Sections 1 – 5

This format is not as common as the A- M method, but it is occurring more and more so it helps to be familiar with it.

Section 1 – Continuation of SF 1449

Section 1 will include the clauses incorporated by reference, scope of work, place of performance and services, period of performance, phase-in, type of contract, value of contract, and pricing tables.

Section 2 – Addendum to 52.212-4, Contract Terms and Conditions – Commercial Items

Section 2 will include all of the clauses that are included in the contract.

Section 3 – 52.212-5 Contact Terms and Conditions Required to Implement Statutes or Executive Orders

Section 4 – Contract Documents, Exhibits or Attachments

This section is similar to Section J in the A – M solicitation.

Section 5 – Addendum to 42.212-1, Instructions to Offerors – Commercial Items

This section is similar to Section L in the A – M solicitation.

Section 6 – Evaluation

This section is similar to Section M in the A – M solicitation.

Section 7 – Representations, Certifications and Other Statements.

This section is similar to Section K in the A – M solicitation.

RFP

The RFP will be released once all the questions and answers to the DRFP have been addressed.  There may be changes made from the DRFP and these will be addressed in some manner, either in a matrix or within the document itself.

Once the RFP is released you will have 30 – 45 days to complete your response.  The length of time for the response depends upon the complexity of the goods or services being requested by the Government.

There may be amendments released during the response period. These may include changes to the RFP, extensions to due dates, updated cost/price templates, etc.  There may also be a “library” set up on a special website that will contain all the technical documents that are referenced in the RFP.

The Government does not hesitate to return any proposals they find non-compliant.  Non-compliant would mean that you did not return the correct number of volumes, you went significantly over the page limitations, you did not respond the cost templates as instructed, or even neglected to respond to a subfactor within the RFP, etc. There are no second changes, so you have to get it correct the first time.

Things to watch for in your proposal response:

l  Be sure to watch the page count and do not turn in anything the Government does not ask for – they will remove the extra pages and extra items and return them to you without an evaluation.

l  Deliver on time!!  No exceptions are made unless the delivery location is forced to close due to extenuating circumstances, such as a hurricane, blizzard or act of terrorism.  They will post an amendment should that be the case.  This doesn’t happen often, so don’t plan on it.  Should you deliver via Federal Express or some other method, plan on it being delivered the day before – that way if it doesn’t show you have another chance to arrange delivery.

l  Follow the directions – don’t be creative with the way the response is laid out, be creative with your ideas.

l  Give specifics – if you have 10 PhDs with an average of 5 years experience in nuclear fission and each of them has been published in multiple journals, say it.  DO NOT mention your world-class cadre of professionals!  Be objective, not subjective.  The SEB does not want to read a lot of fancy words that don’t really say anything – state your facts and then prove them.

l  Do NOT assume the SEB will understand what you mean.  They won’t – have a non-writer read the response, be critical and give back notes, notes, notes, notes.

FPR – BAFO

There may be two or three contractors who are very close in scoring and response so the Government may request an FPR/BAFO.  This gives each of the contractors a chance to refine their response by responding to areas of concern within the response.  The Government will give each contractor a document with questions for each section that needs clarification and a Weaknesses Report.  There will be a page limitation for your response and a deadline for the due date, usually two weeks.  It is important that the response to the FPR receive as much attention as the original response.  This will be your chance to strengthen your response and change a weakness to strength.  You will not be told what parts of your response are considered a strength at this point – that will occur with the debrief.

In the questions, the Government will ask a question, state where the area in question is located in the RFP and where it is located within your response.  The Weaknesses Report will list specifics for section of the document where it feels the response did not fully clarify what you intend to do.  It will give the exact location within the RFP and your proposal that it feels the response was not clear and fully explained.

Award

The winner of the contract will receive a call from the Government announcing they have won.  This will be followed by a letter with the formal announcement.  Those who did not win will also receive phone calls and then may request a debrief to learn how their responses was rated.

Debrief

Each company that responded to the proposal may request a debrief.  At a minimum this will include the SEB’s evaluation of significant weaknesses or deficiencies, the overall evaluated cost/price and technical rating, the overall ranking of all offerors, a summary of the rationale for award, for commercial items the make and model of the item to be delivered by the successful Offeror and responses to questions about the source selection procedure.  You will not be given the particulars of your competition’s response, just where you rated in relation to them.

The SEB will have rated particular sections of your response as Significant Strength, Strength, Significant Weakness, Weakness or Deficiency. These will be listed in detail by volume and their rationale explained for the rating they have given it.  A sample definition of these is in the table below.

Rating Definition
Significant Strength (SS) An aspect that appreciably increases the confidence of successful contract performance.
Strength (S) An aspect in the proposal that increases the confidence of successful contract performance.
Weakness (W) A flaw in the proposal that increases the risk of unsuccessful contract performance
Significant Weakness (SW) A flaw in the proposal that appreciably increases the risk of unsuccessful contract performance
Deficiency (D) A material failure of a proposal to meet a Government requirement or a combination of significant weaknesses in a proposal that increases the risk of unsuccessful contract performance to an unacceptable level.

The more significant strengths and strengths you have, the more points you will receive.  The more significant weaknesses and weaknesses you have, the lower number of points received for that section.  Deficiencies, needless to say, will receive no points.  The scoring system for this particular response will be explained.  As an example of what you might see:

Excellent will score 91 – 100 and means that you presented a thorough and comprehensive response of exceptional merit with one or more significant strengths.  No deficiency or significant weakness exists.

Very Good will score 71 – 90 and means the response had no deficiencies and demonstrates an overall confidence.  One or more significant strengths are in the response and these outbalance any weaknesses that have been found.

Good will score 51 – 70 and means the response had no deficiencies and shows a reasonably sound response.  There may be strengths or weaknesses or both.  Any weaknesses found that are not offset by strengths do not detract from the Offeror’s response.

Fair will score 31 – 50 and means the response had no deficiencies but has one or more weaknesses that outbalance any strength found.

Poor will score 0 – 30 and means the response had one or more deficiencies or significant weaknesses that demonstrate a lack of overall competence or would require a major proposal revision to correct.

As stated earlier, the Past Performance Volume will receive an adjectival rating such as Very High Level of Confidence, High Level of Confidence, Moderate Level of Confidence, Low Level of Confidence, Very Low Level of Confidence or Neutral.  This ranges from the offeror’s relevant past performance is of exceptional merit and is highly pertinent to the acquisition; indicating exemplary performance in a timely, efficient and economical manner; very minor (if any) problems with no adverse effect on overall performance to relevant past performance does not meet minimum acceptable standards in one or more areas, remedial action required in one or more areas; problems in one or more areas which adversely affect overall performance.

Protest

Upon occasion a competing contractor will file a protest with the Government when they feel that the contract award was made in error.  Generally protests must be filed within 30 days of contract award.  Protests may be filed for a variety of reasons – including, the protesting contractor may feel that the winning contractor does not meet with size standards of the NAICS code; they may feel that their price was better; they may feel they have more experience and have written a better response.  There are any numbers of reasons why a protest may be filed.

Once a protest is filed, the winning contractor has to stop all phase-in activity at the Government site and prepare to defend themselves.  This involves a great deal of time and money on the part of both parties and extends the life of the existing contract.

After a decision is made regarding the validity of the protest and depending upon the result of the protest, either the winning contractor may resume phase-in processes or a recomplete will be done.

Conclusion

Writing a winning proposal is truly a team effort, taking time, personnel and patience to complete.  Once you start on the process, you will do little else during the entire response period, you will work long hours, write sections in your sleep and rewrite up to the last minute.  Remember – be flexible, patient and accurate.

Liz Lawler

Director of Operations

June 2009

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One Response to What Are the Steps in the Proposal Process for the Federal Government?

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