The company doth protest too much, methinks…

Borrowing from Shakespeare’s Hamlet lets me address a question we are frequently asked:

Are GAO protests worthwhile?

Protesting a contract award decision is a fundamental right exercised by government contractors who feel the Government’s decision was incorrect or inappropriate.

In 2019 the GAO received 2,071 protests. 587 resulted in GAO decisions on the protest’s merit and of those only 13% were sustained by the GAO. A higher amount, around 31% of filed protests, resulted in the protester gaining some form of relief, typically from agency voluntary corrective action. That’s a total ‘effectiveness’ rate of 44%. (Note 1)

How does that compare with history? A 2015 report by the Congressional Research Office noted that between 2001 and 2010 protest filings increased by 125% and between 2010 and 2015, the number of protests had leveled to between 2100 and 2300 annually. The so-called ‘effectiveness’ rate during 2010 and 2015 hovered between 41% and 44%. (Note 2)

So, protests seem to have leveled off and the ‘effectiveness’ rate is consistent. But, even with that 44% effectiveness rate, are GAO protests worthwhile?

That depends.

If an agency action was truly outside the bounds of propriety, such as when the Government failed to award based on its published selection criteria or created an uneven playing field (e.g., shared insider knowledge), then protesting is a proper course of action.

However, the GAO’s results indicate that 56% of the time a protest is denied or dismissed on its merits, indicating that the arguments put forth were not persuasive or that the Government acted properly. Further, some of the 31% leading to voluntary correction only return the situation to a proper course but do not alter the Government’s ultimate decision. So, the 44% ‘effectiveness’ rate is misleading.

If your company is considering a protest because you simply did not like the Government’s decision, think twice about your inclination.  Win or lose, a GAO protest stops contracting activity cold and impacts the Government’s ability to do its job. Schedules are set back, deadlines are missed, and funding goes unobligated. Human nature being what it is, protests often create tension between a contractor and the Government. Occasionally, these tensions will affect relationships, perhaps even to the point of impeding one’s ability to win.

Borrowing from Shakespeare again – the better part of valor is discretion. Often, energy is better spent on ensuring you thoroughly understand the Government’s requirements and objectives ahead of time. Do your best to create a positive relationship before a solicitation is issued and submit a fully compliant and compelling proposal up front. Then, plan to accept the outcome. This way you can avoid the need to consider a protest at all, absent a clear indication that something is amiss.

Contact us to help you prepare for your next proposal. Or let us help you analyze recent losses to better understand how to improve your win rate. Either way, we can help.

Note 1: All data from the 2019 GAO Annual Report to Congress on Bid Protests
Note 2: GAO Bid Protests: Trends and Analysis – Updated July 21, 2015

OP ED: Death of the War Room as We Know It

COVID-19 is changing our world and changing us.

Very quickly we’re learning new ways to do … pretty much everything. As the argument about when to ‘get back to normal’ percolates, perhaps there’s one tenet we can agree on: ‘normal’ will likely look a lot different.

For federal contractors preparing bids and proposals, the new normal may turn out to be an even better way of winning business.

    • Large and small businesses are working remotely now, holding virtual kick-offs, solutioning sessions, and color reviews via Zoom, MS Teams, and other virtual collaboration tools.
    • They’re developing new policies, procedures, and best practices.
    • They’re adeptly working through technology, managerial, and logistical glitches that were barriers to remote collaboration pre-pandemic.

As they navigate this new reality, learning from and rapidly correcting hiccups inevitable in any new process, federal contractors are getting more productive every day. Leadership is beginning to rethink pre-conceived imperatives of in-person collaboration. With the right technology, remote meetings, design work, solutioning, and writing are possible – and cost-effective.

    • Re-locating staff and consultants to a Proposal War Room for months on end is not necessary; physically meeting at key times is often more impactful.
    • Less office infrastructure is needed; smaller, flexible office space acquired via short-term leases may be feasible.
    • Travel costs, both direct expenses and the associated unproductive time, will decrease.

Together these and other changes will save federal contractors significant overhead and B&P dollars, which could translate into greater productivity and more efficient pursuit of new business. With the right guidance and policies – from virtual collaboration tool training to strong messages from leadership that reinforce the value of the team, wherever they are – employees will ultimately benefit from less stress associated with commuting and more time with their families.

Many of these adjustments were underway, albeit at a slower pace, prior to the pandemic. COVID-19 just forced our hand. Take advantage of this time now to learn and adapt so we can smoothly transition to a smarter, safer new normal when restrictions lift.

OTA’s Rising

When issuing new contracts, the Federal Government is increasingly bypassing the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) and increasingly using a long underused, but recently updated approach called Other Transaction Agreements (also OTA). Given this significant shift, you will benefit from knowing what changes to anticipate and how to adjust your company’s approach to pursuing Government work.

OTA’s allow Government agencies to cast their nets wider when considering a broader range of businesses now eligible to win Government contracts. The OTA is designed to prioritize opportunities for small businesses or “nontraditional” defense contractors that do not typically work with the Government. Traditional defense contractors can also be eligible when they meet specific criteria, meaning defense industry leaders such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon can participate as well.

In a study by Bloomberg Government, DoD’s OTA obligations have grown by almost 80% year-over-year, with total Pentagon OTA contract obligations expected to reach as high as $7 billion for the fiscal year ending in 2019. If this trend continues, 2020 could easily see $12 billion in OTA obligations. Clearly, this is an area worth watching closely if you are working with the Government (or wish to be). Examples of recent OTA awards include:

  • The Army issued $265 million to Microsoft Corp to date as part of a pilot program to develop heads-up displays for ground personnel using its Hololens augmented reality headset
  • DHS issued $10 million to the Border Security Technology Consortium for development of surveillance tools
  • HHS issued $41 million to date in fiscal 2019 to Johnson & Johnson as part of a five-year, $273 million contract to develop drugs to mitigate the threat of pandemic illnesses
  • The Army recently finalized a $384 million deal with Raytheon for six missile defense radars called LTAMDS, designed to replace the Patriot missile defense radar

The vast majority of OTA funding has been awarded through various consortia, the largest of which is Advanced Technology International (ATI). In these cases, OTA requests are not posted through official government channels such as SAM (System for Award Management) – they are typically issued as Requests for White Papers from the consortia to its members. Thus, if you are not a consortium member you may never see the RFW and cannot submit a bid. Fortunately, becoming a member of a consortium is not difficult or expensive, but it takes planning to decide upon which consortia to join.

If you need help navigating the OTA landscape, please give us a call.

Help for Your FY 2020 Pipeline

Deltek recently released its Top 20 Unrestricted Federal Opportunities list for 2020 and ClientView is tracking. More than $265B is up for grabs in just the Top 20 – $100B more than in FY19 – in these industries:

  • Environment and Conservation Services
  • Health Services
  • Information Technology
  • Professional Services (four opportunities)
  • Operations & Maintenance
  • Defense & Aerospace
  • Architecture Engineering and Construction

Follow-on opportunities account for 80% of the Top 20 total contract value. Leading the way are the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Energy Saving Performance Contract (ESPC) Gen 4 – estimated at $60B with an RFP release date of April 2020 – followed closely by the Department of Defense’s (DOD) TRICARE Managed Support Services (T-5) – estimated at $57.2B with an RFP release date of May 2020. Six opportunities from the FY19 list make a reappearance with a combined value of $51B.

For more information on these and other opportunities, give us a call.

What’s a Picture Worth to Your Proposal?

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes, but not if the image doesn’t convey your meaning. How do you ensure your artwork is impactful and memorable to the evaluator?

To start, give your Graphic Artists the critical information they need to generate artwork that conveys the meaning you intend.

Graphic Artists are rarely included in proposal solution planning meetings yet expected to create wiz-bang imagery that conveys an entire complex project approach. Often, they can support an entire proposal without the faintest idea of the proposal’s basic thrust. At times – seemingly basic information such as color pallets, font style and size requirements, page size limitations, and other essential parameters are often not conveyed up front to the artist.

Why does this matter?

Because Graphic Artists live in a visual world, they need to have some basic understanding of the entire situation to convey ideas through imagery. This includes knowing who the customer is (to present perspective), what is the problem that we are trying to solve (to provide context), and what is our proposed solution (to provide clarity).

Graphics make a huge difference in proposal effectiveness. Some reviewers have told me that they get first impressions only from the pictures, charts, and graphics, scattered among the proposal pages. If that’s true, then not providing your Graphic Artist with the essential information they need to do their best for you is working against your own interests.

There is another reason to convey critical info to your artist – it’s more cost effective.

Frequently, artwork is revised multiple times because ‘the artist didn’t get the point across’. But the Artist isn’t a mind reader and they can’t convey your intent if you don’t provide the information that they need up front.

So, spend the time necessary to make sure your Graphic Artist has all the info needed to do their best for your team. It will pay off in increased efficiency for your Graphic Artist and in more effective graphics for your proposal.

Can We Win?

How to Read an RFP to Find Out

Finally. You did your research. You identified future procurements of interest. You prepared your Capture Plan. You met with the Government PM/COR. You decided to Prime and have drafted subcontracting agreements. You conducted the Black Hat. Now, finally, you hold the RFP in your hands.

So, what will you read first? Maybe the SOW to be sure your scope predictions are accurate and your company’s capabilities are still a good match. Or maybe Section L to find out what they want for a proposal. Or the price requirements.

While these sections are important, and you certainly need to read them, the first thing you absolutely need to know is the answer to this question: “Can we win?” And that answer is found by reading and analyzing Section M, Evaluation Factors.

The point of reading Section M first is for you – the person that’s about to spend a great deal of your firm’s money and effort – to determine whether your firm has a clear path to winning the contract. And you can’t do that until you review each Evaluation Factor to be sure you can provide a clear, compelling reason that your firm is the right choice.

It’s not sufficient to brag about your capabilities. You need to see the procurement the way the Government sees it. Begin by critically assessing each Evaluation Factor, asking 1) why is this factor in the RFP? 2) what does the Government want to accomplish? and 3) what value will this factor deliver? Then articulate how your firm is better than the competition in helping the Government achieve its objectives. You must demonstrate strengths and discriminators to win.

Resist the temptation to glibly document “experience” as an answer. Your experience is not a sufficient answer to an Evaluation Factor unless that Factor explicitly calls for your “experience”. Nor is it a discriminator or a strength unless you can translate it into results that apply to Section M, such as exceeding performance requirements or delivering merit above and beyond PWS/SOW requirements. And it is also not a discriminator or a strength unless the Government evaluator can clearly develop a meaningful answer to that irksome question – “So What?”

Be aware of, and have a plan to address, two complexities in the way Evaluation Factors are typically presented.

1. The first is that the Government often presents an overview for several related evaluation factors. Such introductory paragraphs may speak of things like “risk reduction” or “timely performance” or “quality control” or other broad phrases that link two or more evaluation factors. The Government may be signaling a problem they have experienced with a contractor and want to fix, or introducing an internal performance improvement objective. It is not unusual for extremely well qualified firms to address each evaluation factor in detail but ignore the introductory paragraph.

2. Second, sometimes two or three aspects of an evaluation factor are included in a single sentence. ClientView has seen many draft proposals where all aspects are addressed in combination. This makes it harder for the Evaluator to score the proposal, inviting a low score in one or more of the aspects.

So … be smart in preparing your annotated outlines. Parse every sentence – forcing your writers to address all of the Government’s concerns, no matter where they show up. It may seem like overkill, but it’s a step in the path toward making sure your answer to “Can we win?” is “Yes … and we did.”

Can We Talk?

It likely will be worded differently (and with less humor) but contractors submitting proposals to the Government, should expect to hear this signature line from the late Joan Rivers. And, naturally, you should be prepared to respond, “Yes.”

While Government Request for Proposals state their intention to award without discussion, they also reserve the right to enter into discussions if necessary. The Government’s decision to engage in discussions may be based on factors such as concerns over the:

  • impact of the scope of work or performance work statement’s complexity
  • length of the proposed period of performance
  • locations where work will be performed (multiple locations with varying tasks/pricing)
  • number of offers received
  • whether or not sample task orders are required
  • Government’s desire to establish a competitive range

Discussions, if successful, will result in a request for you to submit a Best and Final Offer (BAFO).

Submitting a proposal without planning for discussions would be like completing a job application without preparing to be interviewed. You should expect to back up the written document with open dialog. Recognize the potential for discussions when planning and writing a proposal — do not wait until the requirement arises.

Discussion requires preparation well in advance.

A bid decision needs to include a plan for discussions, even if the buying activity has rarely exercised the option. Research the buying activity’s history and circumstances of requiring discussions, as well as its use of BAFOs. While many buying activities avoid discussions, every solicitation is a new effort and often circumstances drive different outcomes. Assessing the proposal’s Evaluation Guidance and Criteria will provide an early indication of the Government’s approach to discussions and may bring insight into the factors that may cause the Government to ultimately enter discussions.

Even though the intensity of writing, applying graphics, ensuring volume consistency, establishing pricing, and conducting reviews take priority in your proposal preparation, remember that each element of your proposal could prompt the Government to ask for further examination via discussions. This audience with Government representatives is an opportunity to be welcomed and utilized to your firm’s advantage — a chance to pitch your superior proposal in person.

Love ‘em or Hate ‘em, Color Reviews are Essential to Proposal Development

OK, I admit it.  I hate color reviews.  First, they force proposal preparation to pause while the review occurs costing valuable hours in what is usually a time-constrained process.  Secondly, comments, inputs, and direction from the reviewers often conflict with each other or, worse, would make the proposal non-compliant if implemented.  Then there is the part about having our work picked apart by non-proposal people that do not understand the fundamentals and, yes, the art that goes into a fine offering.  Oh, yes, I do hate color reviews. Continue reading “Love ‘em or Hate ‘em, Color Reviews are Essential to Proposal Development” »

The Government is Shutdown – But What About Your Contract?

Imagine you receive a brief communication from your Government Contracts Team informing your firm to stop work due to the shutdown. Some of you may not need to imagine this … given that we are now deep into the longest shutdown in history.

Even though you have a valid contract, and even if you have been receiving positive feedback from the contracts team about your performance, you may be instructed to stand down due to a Government shutdown.  Now you must take a pause in performance. This may mean telling your employees they cannot report to work if their duty station is within a Government facility.

It is unlikely that your contract’s Terms and Conditions provide any guidance on what to do during a stop in performance during a Government shutdown.

So, then, what do you do? Continue reading “The Government is Shutdown – But What About Your Contract?” »

Delayed Solicitations: Playing the Hurry Up and Wait game requires more than patience – it takes planning

We’ve all been here before … your firm has been tracking a planned Request for Proposal (RFP) that meets your business development objectives and growth plans. The Government recently hosted an Industry Day and then released a Draft RFP (DRFP) for industry review and comment.

As Capture / Proposal Manager, after your final analysis, you made a pitch to your leadership to make a pre-release “GO” decision and they agreed for you to convene your proposal team early and start your proposal now to get ahead. Believing that the final RFP is imminent, your team begins its prep work and is actively working against the DRFP. Then, anywhere from weeks, to immediately prior to the anticipated release date, the Government issues a delay pushing back the final RFP more than 90 days.

What do you do?

Continue reading “Delayed Solicitations: Playing the Hurry Up and Wait game requires more than patience – it takes planning” »