The first thing to realize when reading a Federal Government RFP is that you don’t have to read the whole thing!
It'’s easy to feel intimidated when you look at a printed copy of an RFP that’s at least an inch thick (or even much, much larger). When you realize how much of it is content you have to read vs. how much it is boilerplate that’s there because regulations say it has to be there, it’s not nearly as bad.
The format for most Government RFPs is fixed by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). The FAR mandates that Government RFPs be divided into sections A through M. Each of these sections has a certain purpose and must contain certain information. But only a few of these sections relate to what to bid and how to prepare your proposal. Of the lettered sections, the key ones to focus on are:
- Section L. Where you’ll find the instructions for formatting, organizing, and submitting your proposal
- Section M. Where you’ll find the criteria and scoring system that will be used to determine whether your proposal wins.
- Section C. This is where they say what it is they want you to propose (often called the "Statement of Work").
- Section B. This is where they tell you how to format your pricing.
- And sometimes, Section J. Sometimes they hide important stuff (like the Statement of Work) in Section J, attachments.
This doesn’t mean that the other sections are not necessary. Some may have things that you must respond to, like Section K, where they put the “Certificationss and Representations” (Where you may have to “Certify” or “Represent” things like whether you are a U.S. firm, a minority firm, that you haven'’t defaulted on previous contracts, etc.). But the others are part of the legal form or contract boilerplate, and you won’t have to read them the same way you will the Statement of Work and Evaluation Criteria.
The best approach to reading a Government RFP isn'’t necessary to read it sequentially from start to finish the way you would a book. Instead, first look at Section A (usually the cover page). In a box on this page is the due date. Now you know how much time you have to prepare your response. Next jump to Section L and focus on how they want the proposal organized. Whether you think it makes sense or not, you absolutely must follow their outline. Then go to Section M and find out how you will be graded and what they think is important. Now go back to Section C and find out what you have to propose doing or supplying. To really understand how and what to offer, you'll also need to look at Section B, so you can see whether they want it priced by the hour, in fixed price units, or some other way.
Keep in mind that how you present the proposal will be bound by the instructions in Section L and how you will be graded is in Section M. Section C may take 50 pages to describe something that is only 10% of the grade, and only 5 pages to describe something that is 50% of your grade. Read Section C with the evaluation criteria in mind.
Here are some additional things to look for:
- When reading Section L: Look for instructions regarding page count, page layout (margins, fonts, page sizes), submission method, and outline/content.
- When reading Section M: Look for scoring method, score weighting, evaluation process, past performance approach, and “best value” terminology.
- When reading Section C: Look for requirements (are they explained, understandable, and/or ambiguous?), contradictions (between requirements as well as Section L and M), feasibility, and opportunities for differentiation between you and your competitors.
- When reading Section B: Look for correspondence to the requirements and evaluation criteria.
While you don't have to read everything at first, you really should at some point read the whole RFP because sometimes you'll find something important hiding in those other sections (maybe an insurance requirement, a deliverable schedule, etc.). Once you've read a few government RFPs, you'll be able to do it quickly because you'll know where to skim and where to focus.
Different sections of the RFP are often written by different authors, and sometimes boilerplate is inserted without adequate review. Do not be surprised to find contradictions and ambiguities. Ask questions (you should find a deadline for them in Section L). Sometimes the interplay between the various sections can provide valuable insight into what they have in mind. Make sure you comply to the letter and give the potential customer what they want instead of what you want for them.