Home » cyber security » Fixing a Broken Federal Proposal System
broken proposal system

Fixing a Broken Federal Proposal System

Throughout Washington and across the nation there is unanimous consensus.

Writing proposals for the federal government is no one’s idea of a good time.

For a small to mid-size company, even a basic federal Request for Proposal (RFP) response is a 200+-hour adventure in sleep and social deprivation. If you’re a large business chasing big deals — or if you insist on piling on proposal processes — that number can easily triple. Or more.

Sorry Federal Friends…

The only people who have it worse than federal proposal writers: federal proposal evaluators. Those poor people actually have to read all that proposal blabber. Between my linguistic contortions in the name of compliance, and my stressed, sleepless attempts to navigate the English language, I’m pretty sure that I’ve driven more than a few evaluators into early retirement.

First World Problems

This post isn’t just a vent after yet another weekend spent jamming on a last-minute proposal. The federal government spends $530 billion annually on contracts for goods and services. Many of those dollars are only allocated after long, intricate, multi-volume proposal efforts. Proposals that some sad, overworked saps have to write and that other sad, overworked spas have to read.

I don’t have exact numbers, but a little back-of-the-envelope math shows that it’s likely that the federal and private sector spends tens of millions of hours annually preparing statements of work, responding to solicitations and evaluating responses.

Systemic Inefficiency

Take Lunarline. We run about the most efficient proposal team possible. We (mostly) dispense with color team reviews, opting instead for an agile-inspired process. We have a huge library of winning content to draw from. And we have a team of executives and business development folks who’ve worked together for so long that we might as well be telepathically connected.

With these advantages, we find that we can produce winning proposals in about the two-thirds the time of our competitors.

Yet despite all of Lunarline’s advantages, our bid and proposal cost is still one of our most significant indirect rate drivers. In other words, the cost associated with responding to federal proposals drives up our rates, making it more expensive for us to serve our clients.

We Have to Make this Process…Harder?

Yeah. Harder.

Most of what we write in our proposals isn’t really of any value to the government. Don’t get me wrong, at Lunarline we write awesome, targeted and sometimes even funny proposals.

But even our best props have little if any predictive value.

A contractor’s ability to churn out 20 pages of management approach fluff or do a find-and-replace for clients’ names on a technical section tells the government absolutely nothing about their ability to execute. And these days many of us outsource our proposal writing entirely.

What does that tell the government?

Absolutely nothing.

But what if we could identify some proposal factors that correlated with truly successful contractors? What if rather than inviting contractors to churn out (or buy from a content farm) page after page of random dribble, the government demanded that contractors prove themselves in several critical, predictive areas?

Well, these proposals would be a heck of a lot harder to write. But by honing in on a few predictive factors, we could make proposals shorter – which means fewer hours spent writing and evaluating. This would also allow the government to easily and efficiently eliminate contractors who can’t clear the bar and thus have no hope of succeeding anyway.

Moving to a Predictive Proposal Model

I’m not a numbers guy, and I certainly haven’t conducted a sound statistical study. But it seems that there are some factors that can be used to predict, with confidence, a services contractor’s likelihood of success.

1. Require key personnel.Few things tie us contractors in knots more than key personnel requirements. It is one of the more difficult proposal elements to respond to. And it is probably the single greatest predictor of ultimate project success. A services contractor that can recruit, retain and field highly qualified personnel is a contractor that can succeed long term.

Suggestion: The government shouldn’t be shy about demanding that contractors respond with qualified key personnel. Don’t give us the out of providing “representative” resumes. Make us step up to the plate with great people, guaranteed to execute upon award.

2. Demand a plan. I imagine federal evaluators are tired of reading the same cut-and-paste management approach section on recruiting or quality control or project management over and over again. And solicitation requirements like “Approach for Maintaining and Advancing Technical Excellence” are just asking for pure BS that tells the government little about our true potential.

Suggestion: Make us show you a plan. Not a project management chart ripped from some other proposal. An honest, granular, daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly project plan. Challenge us to get our management experts in a room and cut through the garbage with a truly actionable plan for delivering on what we promise. This will test our understanding of the work while forcing us to think through all the details at a granular level.

3. Give us a pop quiz.Responding to an SOW is relatively easy. We can often just tailor something we’ve already written, slap it in a new template and hit submit. I’ve earned some of my best technical evaluation scores that way. But it doesn’t really tell the government anything about our ability to succeed.

Suggestion: Solicitations that require responses to technical challenges in addition to SOWs are the real deal. FAA in particular is awesome at this. I’ve seen some crazy hard questions come out of FAA — ones that really test contractors’ ability to solve tough technical challenges or work through technical scenarios. In addition to making contractors panic, answers to these questions give the government insight into our ability to deploy expertise against real life challenges.

4. Move beyond past performance. I recognize that the government is mandated to take past performance seriously. But contractors are adept at twisting past performance to fit an SOW. And past performance reference forms? Most clients are too busy to take those seriously. The easiest course of action is to score us high, hit submit and get it off their plates.

Suggestion: During the down-select phase, actually call our references, on the phone, fed to fed. Or, better yet, make us schedule those calls for you. If we can’t get our busy clients to take 15 minutes to talk to you directly on our behalf that says a lot about our relationship. I realize that a call sounds like a lot of work. But in just 10 to 15 minutes you can get a lot of accurate information, minus the contractor spin.

5. Revisit price realism. Proposal pricing is out of control. Contractors are knowingly submitting preposterously low bids, getting in the door and then forcing the government to renegotiate upwards when programs fall apart. This is happening all over the government. I know it. You know it. It has to stop…now.

Suggestion: A step in the right direction is to force contractors to show the results of their own price realism analyses. Make us show you what we plan to pay folks – and back up our numbers with actual salary records. Make us explain why those salaries are reasonable. And have us show you our build-ups and indirect rate structures. Transparency will keep contractors from throwing out insane bids and then weaseling into higher rates when programs collapse and the government is forced to renegotiate.

No Controversy Here

We could quibble over the specifics. But overall there’s not much controversy here. For both the federal and private sectors, the proposal process imposes an awful lot of cost without a lot of benefit.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Working together, we can identify some proposal factors that are actually predictive of future contractor success. Sure, it will make proposals harder to write, but it will also weed out unqualified contractors who can’t clear a more demanding bar. By focusing RFPs on critical factors and cutting out the fluff, proposals could be shorter. They could be quicker to write and faster to read. They could be more transparent. And they might actually help the government select a contractor that will actually prove successful over the long haul.

About Spence Witten

Spence has somehow survived ten years at start-ups and small businesses without suffering a (major) nervous breakdown. As Lunarline's Director of Federal Sales, Spence actually loves working on proposals. If there were any doubt, this is proof that he is in fact certifiably insane. While his title says "Sales" Lunarline doesn't let him off that easy. We make him do real work, too. Luckily he's a recognized subject matter expert in security policy and loves helping clients navigate their way around tricky security compliance standards. He's also been known to lead a software development initiative or two, though that pretty much always ends poorly for everyone involved. He can be reached at spence.witten@lunarline.com.