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Government Contract Proposal Writing Tips


Federal Government contracts are a very lucrative business. However, learning how to acquire projects takes time, effort and investment. Proposal writing for government contracts is by no means a simple process. However, if you attempt to respond to the agency's Request for Proposal (RFP), you will have to bring more to the table than just having a good technical writer. The reality is that the "status quo" no longer gets the win. You have to do more than the basic RFP requirements.

Agencies are now leaning towards trade-offs to justify their best value determinations. Lowest price does not necessarily get the award. As former government contracting officials and members of source selection teams, we have actually reviewed eloquent proposals and perfected efforts by technical writers - we know firsthand that only the proposals that have substance and give the government added value and what source-selection officials want to know actually win the contract. The agency wants to feel like it is getting a good deal - not just reviewing a proposal with the basic solicitation criteria.

Reasons Why Government Proposals Fail: The first thing to consider when responding to a multi-million dollar proposal is whether you have the budget to do what it takes to win. Successful companies spend anywhere from $13K to $20K for proposal writing services for a contract valued anywhere from $1M-5M. Never just cut and paste old proposals for an upcoming project. Agencies spot templated responses from a mile away and automatically put the proposal to the bottom of the pile.

When responding to a government Request for Proposal, we have found that the following summarizes why proposal fail.

1. The response is not specific and to the point. Government proposal writing requires the bidder to articulate the key areas to the solicitation. Never try to write a book and expect the agency to understand what you are trying to say. Proposal writers must be very specific and to the point.

2. Too much focus on "we can do the work" instead of "how we are going to do the work." When grading proposals, the government places a significant emphasis and weight on the bidder's technical approach. You have to spell out HOW you actually perform each phase of the Statement of Work. Summarizing will not help you.

3. No emphasis on your risk management and quality assurance. One of the fatal mistakes in government contract proposal writing is that bidders miserably fail to address and highlight their risk management and quality assurance. The government is not going to award a contract worth millions and never pay attention to the risk involved. Each proposal writer that understands government contracting must include risk management into the response to the solicitation. If you don't, then your competition certainly will.

4. Failure to understand best value considerations. In federal contracts, price alone is not the criteria for award and neither is past performance. Sometimes, agencies will consider a price/ past performance trade-off when considering awards. However, effective proposal writing includes more than just these factors. Congress has suggested that taxpayers' money should get the "best bang". Since the government generally buys commercial services and products, bidding on government contracts should incorporate factors commonly used in the commercial industry. This includes warranties, discounts for volume, accelerated schedules etc. At Watson & Associates, our success stems from the ability to help you to see the big picture in federal procurement and educate the agency when writing government proposals.

5. Relying too heavily on teaming partners and subcontractors. Failure to understand that teaming rule can be the kiss of death in government proposal writing. Many companies that offer proposal writing services do not understand how to avoid this commonly-made mistake. Although FAR 9.6 allows for teaming and subcontracting, there are also limitations on subcontracting. When proposing a subcontractor or teaming partner, you have to understand the legal limitations. Failure to correctly propose your team can subject you to a bid protest based upon affiliation. Bidding on government contracts means that the prime contractor (you) must perform the required percentage of labor costs and not pass through the critical aspects of the project. This is yet another reason why our experience as bid protest and government contract attorneys adds value to our proposal writing services.

As a general rule, there are ten basic principles that will put you on the right track to success in government RFP and proposal writing

1. Always learn, learn and learn again the nature of the government's problem. If you cannot understand and respond to the agency's problem, you simply will end up with an eloquently written document with no substance and lacking depth. The federal government publicizes its opportunities in a series of solicitations. As an effective proposal writer, you have to read, reread and understand the solicitation. For example, average responses to a Request for Proposal (for medical supplies) simply inject paragraphs of how committed to customer service the bidder maybe; then, the bidder simply submits its pricing and past performance. The winning proposal uses a different strategy. Instead of drowning the RFP response with 'fluff', the experienced proposal consultant will advise his client to first discuss the industry and problems associated with this particular industry including problems experienced by other customers - this sets the stage for letting the government know that you are ahead of the competition. You then describe how you can prevent these problems and describe what if anything you will do to minimize risk (this substantiates cost and shows additional value to the government.)

2. Never think that the government has no idea of what your service or product costs. Successful bidders understand the theory of the independent government estimate. The procurement rules require the government to establish some sort of estimate. Most agencies do their homework. However, some still use the outdated methodology that puts potential bidders at risk. Caution: The method arriving at the government estimate does not always work in your favor - the agency should conduct research in the commercial sector to see what similar products and services cost. Unfortunately, many agencies simply rely on other agency pricing to come up with the government estimate.

3. Always focus on beating your competitor. This is a mindset that swallows up inexperienced proposal writing staff. Many simply focus on responding to 'only what the solicitation calls for' and nothing more. At best, this line of thinking will get you within the competitive range but not win the award.

Our proposal writing consultants teach our successful clients to focus on beating the competitor while still addressing the government's need - nothing else matters. Yes, you always have to respond to the criteria accurately as set forth in the solicitation. However, this sets the stage (and a common trap) for only the basic requirements. Be mindful that your competition is also responding to the same RFP. You have to outperform them to get the award.

As you respond to each section of the RFP, always ask yourself, "what is your adversary going to write?" If you don't ask this question, you will undoubtedly find out during a debriefing of notice of non-selection for the bid.

4. For successful government proposal writing, you must have a thorough understanding of the procurement rules. To say otherwise is analogous to applying for a job at a large corporation without knowing anything about the company. Many companies hire proposal writers who have no clue, or even a basic understanding of the rules involved with procurement.

For example, many government contract proposals require you to discuss your teaming partners and subcontractors. More specifically, to discuss the roles and percentages of the contract. Many companies dive into this head-on without knowing the rules and laws of teaming and subcontracting. The result is that many companies subject themselves to losing a bid protest for violation of the NAICS standards.

A second example is failure to understand the trade-off process. The contracting officer and the agency have wide discretion when determining what is a good deal for the government. When you fail to add more best-value considerations, you typically hand more discretion for trade-off determinations. If you don't give the agency something to consider, over and beyond price and past performance, your proposal will fail.

5. Unrealistic Proposal Pricing - Always be modest on profit. The old saying that you can price yourself out of business applies to government contracting. As experienced proposal writing consultants, we advise our clients to stay within certain allowable percentages depending on the industry. However, a good proposal writing strategy is to substantiate your pricing proposal by explaining critical processes and the costs associated with them. Assert common industry practice and justify your prices. Never allow the government to guess at why your pricing is high or low. If you can compete with an extra low price, your proposal response should explain why your company can perform at such low prices. The solicitation may expressly state that too low of a price may indicate that you do not understand the proposal requirements. Do not give the government contracting department this luxury.

6. You must describe the 'horsepower' behind your company - Aka, Management Approach. This is a critical part of the proposal writing process. Successful bidders learn to how to write effective resumes specifically for federal RFPs. Simply put, traditional resumes don't lead to awards. The government wants in-depth information about the 'top brass' in your organization. Remember, technical proposals are weighted heavily when bidding on government contracts. Always talk about your key personnel, their experience and how they will participate in this government project.

7. In Government Proposal Writing never discuss your weaknesses. This is one of the most common traps in government contract proposal writing. When you see language in the solicitation that asks you to describe past problems and how you handled them - warning, tread lightly.

For example, if you missed project schedules in a previous construction project, you may simply want to use another project for past performance and discuss it. The government does not want to award a construction project to a company that has a history (even if only once) of missing deadlines.

The better proposal writing approach is to discuss potential problems in this specific project and then discuss how you intend to overcome them.