Proposal writers should do the work too

Blogger Steve Kelman takes a dim view of the practice of having professional proposal writers who are not involved in carrying out the work they bid.

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.

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.

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