Vendors expend valuable resources on market research efforts for agencies, without knowing whether there's a business opportunity in the offing.
All too often I hear stories of how federal agencies issue requests for information simply as fishing expeditions with no real intent on following up with a formal solicitation. I believe RFIs are a critical tool in helping agencies conduct market research, identify interested companies and eventually narrow the pool of potential bidders, but if the RFI doesn't turn into a contract opportunity, is government living up to its end of the bargain? The same might be said for BPAs, IDIQs and other contract vehicles that are "awarded" but not used to their full potential post-award.
I'd be the first one to tell you government should interact more with business to better understand innovative service offerings or emerging technologies. RFIs are one tool to do that, but when an RFI is released and companies scramble to respond, they expect a contract opportunity at the end of the process.
When RFIs are released, companies start working on how they can best address the real needs of the government in innovative, cost-conscious ways, often based on prior thought leadership. Understanding the agency mission and developing solutions to address that takes effort which, ultimately, greatly benefits the government. However, when a pattern of "RFIs to no procurement" develops, companies tend to expend their resources elsewhere, which ultimately hurts the government.
Furthermore, if agencies don't follow RFIs with RFPs, they are wasting bid and proposal resources at these companies, many of which are small businesses. These actions are harming, rather than building, relationships. Nothing is worse than spending time, money and effort chasing an opportunity that never pans out.
To build trust between contractors and government, government must be more transparent with data about how many RFIs led to RFPs, how long the process took and what factors affected these results.
In researching this topic, I discussed the issue with a number of businesses, both large and small as well as with some government contracting officials. No one could tell me what percentage of RFIs actually turn into RFPs. In this day and age, I find that surprising. Maybe they don't want us to know?
A related issue is the underuse of certain contract vehicles. BPAs and IDIQs because of their "hunting license" nature are serial offenders. I hear all the time from companies that they invested tens of thousands of dollars in B&P cost, were awarded a spot on a multiple-award contract and watch helplessly as no work comes their way. Or worse yet, work that could go on "their" vehicle, goes to a broader, more popular vehicle like OASIS or CIOSP3. What message is that sending?
So, how do we turn the tide? Rarely is government willing to make "minimum commitments" for contract vehicle use, but maybe we need to start thinking about whether or not that makes sense. What else? More information about how many RFIs lead to RFPs would go a long way to helping restore trust for bidders. Using the contracts that have been awarded, especially agency-specific ones where there is an implied agency commitment, is a must. Let's get to work.
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