In all honesty, this started as a research project to ensure I had accurate and adequate context for acquisition-related terminology, and making sure I understood, at least in part, some of the real-world applications. What occurred was a resurfacing of unresolved issues that continues to challenge the partnership between agencies and small federal contractors.
Just the other day I penned the blog article "What exactly does 'Number of Offers Received' mean?" in an effort to start a dialogue with government to ensure clear meaning of the phrase, and with industry to ensure they understood the relevance. The significance of 'offers received' at least as I am leveraging it, is tied to competition levels for agencies based on type of competition, type of award, type of product or service, and more. Essentially, a high-level review of who is paying attention (via submission of an RFP or RFQ response) to the kind of work a company does in the place(s) said company wants to do it.
I posted the article to a number of the government contracting groups to which I belong in LinkedIn, and the result was incredible. What made it incredible was the fact that in addition to industry commentary, three representatives of government agencies also chimed in. Two of them, who are involved in contracting for their respective organizations, engaged in a very thoughtful and informative exchange that helped me accomplish my basic goal for the article. I am extremely appreciative for their input.
Here's why. Both of them cited a level of frustration that echoed what I have been hearing from agencies for a number of years. The collective sentiment loosely translated is that small companies ask for opportunities, but when those opportunities are put forth, small businesses don't show up. I know this will likely spark a number of infuriated responses from the small business community, as it should. But the fact remains, I have no reason to believe the number of buyers and contracting officers whom I have spoken with since 2004 (when we launched The American Small Business Coalition) are making this stuff up.
Now let's look at it from the perspective of small federal contractors. Time's are tight and companies, now more than ever, have to be diligent in how they leverage company resources. In short, to survive and sustain in the current environment they must be smarter than ever with how they spend money. Which leads to the topic of what I call RFI TMI and what one of the contracting officials referred to as "non-price RFPs." In several earlier blogs I took on the topic of RFIs that resulted in companies having to double their budget for Bid & Proposal due to the complexity of some recent RFIs that have hit the street. In reviewing several of these with companies actively engaged in responding to them, there was without fail, information in the RFI requiring a substantive response of competitive and potentially proprietary information that would also be required in the submission of the subsequent RFP, if one was issued.
The reason I harp on this point is because FAR 10.001(b)
cites "When conducting market research, agencies should not request
potential sources to submit more than the minimum information
necessary." My personal belief is if the information will be called out in the RFP, it should not be part of a formal market research request. Not only does it represent an increased 'cost of doing business' that many small companies simply cannot justify, the result, in some cases, were agencies taking the information to ascertain the best approach to solve their problem, and then handing a task order to an existing contractor who ends up as beneficiary of a lot of wasted resources by other companies.
I can't say I know of any business owners that would knowingly sign up for that gig.
The same official who commented in my discussion "You bring up a good point about too many RFI's being requests for non-price RFPs." continued on to say "When I was a buyer, I
made this argument repeatedly. Now as a Contracting Officer, I make
clear that the intent of my RFI is for industry insight/ research. I
want to know 'What about this SOW/PWS is preventing you from submitting a
bid?' 'Can this be combined/ split?' 'Can you do this better?'" Those seem reasonable to me, but here's another twist. I had an opportunity to chat (right before writing this piece) with a few folks who are still on the front lines of business development and business leadership for small federal contractors. While they agreed the aforementioned RFI questions seemed in the spirit of what they understood RFIs to be used for, the question of "Who is responding to these?" came up. While I know several seasoned business development professionals and business leaders who could respond to questions like this easily, in my travels, a good number of industry professionals with the tag of "business development" are not technical, and would have to rely on the business owner or technical folks at their companies to facilitate some or all of these responses.
The issue? For many of the companies we talk to, those folks are billable and trying to justify taking them off the line to respond to a lengthy "non-price RFP' just does not compute.
Is this an impasse that can be surmounted, mutually?
Peace.The Chief Visionary
"The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it."
Visibility and Opportunities for Growing Small Federal Contractors. SAP Task Force™.