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4 ways RFP writing falls short

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It is no secret that solicitations can be hard to read. The language is technical and often convoluted. It can lead to confusion and misunderstandings — not to mentions delays and inefficiencies.

But just how bad is it? Well, maybe even worse than many of us thought, according to a report released this summer.

VisibleThread, whose software products use algorithms to analyze the language of documents and websites for updates and clarity, turned one of its tools loose on five solicitations for contracts worth a total of $7 billion.

The company's primary business is helping contractors track changes to solicitations. Its algorithms don't just identify changes in wording but also highlight changes in context and substance. A second product analyzes the clarity of the language used on websites.

It was the website tool that VisibleThread used to analyze the requests for proposals for the General Services Administration's Human Capital and Training Solutions; the Department of Health and Human Services' Unified Program Integrity Contractor; HHS' Research, Measurement, Assessment, Design and Analysis; the Air Force's Joint Range Technical Services II; and the Navy's Fielded Training Systems Support IV.

VisibleThread CEO Fergal McGovern said the RFPs were evaluated for readability, passive language, long sentences and word complexity density. The scores were then compared with results of Flesch-Kincaid readability tests, which the Navy developed in the 1970s to improve training manuals and other technical documents.

Each of VisibleThread's four categories had a target goal:

  • Readability -- a score of 50, which is about an 8th-grade reading level.
  • Passive language -- 4 percent or fewer of the sentences have passive construction.

  • Long sentences -- 5 percent or fewer have 25 or more words.

  • Word complexity density -- a score of 100. This scan looks for complex words and phrases based on the plain language guidelines the federal government has established.

VisibleThread did not review entire solicitations but instead focused its analysis on the statement of work, Section L (instructions) and Section M (evaluation criteria).

Those areas often cause the most confusion for contractors and result in plenty of back and forth between agencies and bidders, McGovern said. After a contract is awarded, those sections are often cited in bid protests and lead to delivery issues.

The company's analysis revealed plenty of room for improvement:

  • The readability score was 32.9, four grade levels higher than recommended for clear writing.
  • RFP authors used passive voice in 14 percent of the sentences, more than three times as often as recommended.

  • Twenty percent of sentences exceeded the recommended length.

  • The average complexity score was 3.67, suggesting opportunities to simplify word choices, according to the company's report.

Of the three parts of the RFPs that VisibleThread evaluated, Section M (instructions) scored the worst. The statements of work were poor performers as well.

One of the key takeaways is that the quality of solicitations can vary widely from one section to the next, which McGovern said suggests that different people write different sections and no one has clear authority to make them consistent.

The analysis wasn't just an intellectual exercise for McGovern and VisibleThread. He said he's trying to call attention to poorly written solicitations by giving concrete data on where improvement is needed.

If a solicitation is difficult to understand, it increases the cost for bidders and the government during the procurement process, McGovern said. Confusion during the bidding process leads to delays, which drive up costs. And then there is the issue of the contractor bidding and winning only to realize that what the government needs is different from what was in the solicitation. Again, there are more delays and costs overruns, McGovern said.

Improved writing will pay dividends for the government. "The better the RFP, the likelihood of success gets better down the road," he said.

A lot of the findings in the report underscore good basic writing and communications practices:

  • Active voice is better because it is clearer and more direct.
  • Shorter sentences are clearer and easier to understand.

  • Word choice can improve readability and clarity.

The government has tried to address those issues as recently as 2010 when the Plain Writing Act was passed, but the law has no real teeth, McGovern said.

He compared the current practice of developing RFPs to writing and releasing code and not testing it. "It should be a very simple step," he said.

Just think of the pain, heartache and wasted resources that could be avoided.

About the Author

Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.

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