The number one reason to identify the program staff and build a relationship before the need becomes a procurement is that all your contacts after that point will be with the Contracting Officer or a representative. At that point you will only get the information that the contracting office chooses to release, and it will be the same information all your competitors have. Potentially even worse, the procurement staff may not understand the technology or needs driving the procurement and thus not be able to help you understand them. Once a procurement officer is involved, you have far fewer options to learn about the opportunity.
So how do you still get good, juicy intelligence? It turns out that there are ways that are fair and legal. That's important, because you don't want to cross the line and get yourself into trouble. Trying to talk directly to government program staff about the procurement is a good way to cross that line. To keep yourself out of trouble, the place to start is to make sure that you've actually tried to establish a relationship with the contracting office and have gathered all the intelligence you can from them. For example, you might ask them:
- Whether their procurement policies and procedures are posted on a website so you can study up
- If they will permit site visits and/or an industry day where you (and everyone else) can have access to the program staff
- Who the incumbent is and whether they will release a list of interested bidders
- What kind of problems they experienced on the current contact (or in the past)
- If a copy of the previous contract is available with or without a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request
- If the customer has any other documents (designs, plans, policies, procedures) that are relevant and could be made available
However, you're probably not going to get the juicy stuff from the procurement office. To do that, you need to talk to someone who knows about the subject matter, but who isn't directly involved with the procurement. This might include staff:
- Who worked for the specific customer organization but who have retired or been transferred. These may be hard to find, but can be extremely valuable. Obviously, the more time that passes, the more stale their information will be. But they can often help you zero in on exactly how procurement decisions are made and what the customer looks for.
- Who work for your competitors and have experience at the customer. These can also be hard to identify. But they often love to talk about what they do. It's human nature. You might also want to try recruiting them. The best way to find out everything they know is to hire them before you start writing the proposal, instead of waiting until after submission and after you find out whether you've won. If that's too risky for you, another option is to make an offer that's contingent on whether you win. You may be surprised at what your competitors' staff will tell you if they think they're being recruited. If you don't know their names, sometimes you can post ads or hold a job fair and they'll come to you.
- Who work for other parts of the government, but who work with the office you are trying to market. They are not involved with the procurement, but may know about your customer's mission, culture, problems, and preferences.
- Who work for contractors in other areas. Since you're not competing against them (at least at the moment), they might be more willing to share what they know.
None of these options are as good as talking to the relevant government program staff directly, but they're better than just reading about the customer and their needs in an RFP (Request For Proposal). They may not know details about the statement of work, but they might help you to learn about the customer's mission, culture, and preferences. You might even be able to hire them as consultants, either just to spend a few hours telling you what they know or even a few days helping you to write the proposal.