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By Steve Kelman

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Proposal writers should do the work too

I was talking recently with a senior government IT manager who was doing his first stint in government after lots of commercial experience in a non-government context. He was complaining about the performance of a vendor to whom his agency had recently awarded a contract.

"Didn't they read their own proposal?" he exclaimed. He was upset that the contractor had not done the work that the proposal detailed.

Unfortunately in government contracting, I explained to him, the people who write the proposal and the people who do the work are often entirely separate. Indeed, there even exists an entire professional association, dominated by people who work for government contractors, called the Association of Proposal Management Professionals. These are not doers, they are proposal writers.

Ralph Nash, the dean of public contracting legal academics, has long lamented government source selection as an "essay writing contest." Traditionally, bidders could be evaluated only on these essays, due to a perception that this was the only fair way to do it. Any other approach, it was argued, created too much discretion for government contracting officials.

The procurement reforms of the 1990s were aimed squarely at shifting the focus away from just looking at an essay written by a professional proposal writer and towards assessing actual achievement and performance. This was the thought behind introducing the use of past performance data in source selection.

Additionally, an innovation actually pioneered by frontline staff at the departments of Energy and Treasury -- the use of "oral presentations" -- was championed and spread. The idea was to require that the people who would actually be the bidders’ program managers to answer questions about how they would deal with the work -- and with problems -- in an interactive setting. By the end of the 1990s, oral presentations had become extremely common as part of the source selection process for important contracts or task orders.

Where are things at today? I'm not sure. I am guessing that a fair number of oral presentations still take place -- am I right? -- but you don't hear much about this idea anymore, perhaps because of staff shortages. (The IT manager I spoke with didn't seem to know this was an option.) Past performance works better than nothing at all, but well below its potential because of problems with relative lack of differentiation in grades between outstanding and mediocre performers, a separate topic that requires another blog post (or several). The focus on performance rather than essays seems not to be as strong in the system as it was for a while.

Results-oriented managers who want to avoid having someone complain about them can do several things. A simple one is to specifiy in the initial request for proposals that proposals submitted must include the names of the people who wrote it, what their role was in writing it and what their role would be in the project if their bid wins. (This is likely to be gamed somewhat, but is better than nothing.) Second, bring back oral presentations! And, above all, revitalize the past performance system, which is about deeds rather than words.

Posted on Sep 14, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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Reader comments

Fri, Oct 8, 2010 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Oral presentations are a great tool, and should be use more often. However, the one tool that I have found extremely effective is the post-award contract conference (e.g. kickoff meetings). This activity should be first and foremost for any engagement. What happens now is that the government and industry PMs shake hands, and off to the races to waste taxpayer money. These discussions should be a meaningful exchange to ensure requirements and service delivery are understood, project plans and personnel decisions are understood, and cost, schedule, and performance goals are understood. Both parties do themselves a disservice without a thorough post-award conference, and we all know who gets left holding the bag.

Thu, Oct 7, 2010

Do government contracts not have a performance clause? I agree that the proposal writers may not be able to do what is in their proposal, but that may not be their job. I have known many very capable contactors that could not write a proposal worthy of reading. I think that a SHORT interview, between the actual end user and the contractors should be done prior to the awarding of any contract. Who would know better what was expected from both entities?

Thu, Sep 30, 2010

The Government should do oral presentations more often. The OPM TMA contract vehicle requires a short (5 page) response to a Statement of Objectives and a 1-hour oral presentation. The oral presentation is a 45-minute presentation against 7 evaluation criteria. The last 15-minute block allows the Government to ask the delivery team questions. This is an excellent approach that could be used more often and would save the Government time.

Thu, Sep 23, 2010 Flaherty DC

Proposals that win in my are normally a team effort, unless they are price based, The proposed operation team, Team partners, and SME's all work closely with a Capture Manager to build the solution prior to any proposal writers being involved. Proposal Managers are invaluble because many of these proposal team members do not understand the complex RFP requirements. Proposal Managers respond to the CO's, technical team members respond to the COTR's.

Mon, Sep 20, 2010 Steve Kelman

Thanks for this comment on barriers to oral presentations! It is really unfortunate if people hesitate to do oral presentations because of fear of protest. Does anyone know of bid protest defeats for the government that have been based on oral presentations? Also, my own view is that the questions are the key part, and if it's just a slide slow, you might as well not do it. I would also guess that in the RFP you could state that the government reserves the right to ask for oral presentations either from all bidders or just from finalists.

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