How to Decipher Government Solicitations

One of the first (and sometimes biggest) headaches a proposal writer can face even before  sitting down to write is figuring out the format of the proposal. This might sound trivial, but the government–and contracting businesses–bounce noncompliant proposals all the time because they weren’t written in the proper order or format. Proposal preparation and writing, then, is an advanced version of that lesson you learned in kindergarten: follow directions.

In the past ten years, I’ve written proposals responding to multiple branches of the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and NASA as well as other U.S. Government agencies and customers. While my specific tips here are geared toward government solicitations, the general principles can be found in the nonprofit and commercial sectors as well.

Reading the directions

Depending on the length of a solicitation and the depth of your involvement in preparing the proposal, you might be able to read the entire set of proposal instructions in a couple of minutes or it might take you all day if you’re looking at a Request for Proposal (RFP) that runs several hundred pages long (I can go into why RFPs can be that long in another post).

Multi-page government solicitations often have standard instruction sections, labeled alphabetically A through M. The letters have little to do with the section name, that’s just the format that’s been used–at least since World War Two, but probably since the Revolutionary War. In any case, when the A-M categories are used, they mean the same thing agency to agency because the government likes consistency…and really, so do contractors. If each agency used a different order and format for each individual RFP, it would take even longer for government to get things done than it already does. And anyway, why reinvent the wheel each time?

So with that format in mind, let’s take a look at some of the sections that affect the proposal writer most directly and most often.

Section L – Proposal Preparation

Section L provides the format for the proposal. It will include things like what font and margins to use (the U.S. Government likes one-inch margins and 12-point Times New Roman as its primary body text font), proposal section names, section contents, header and footer requirements, Export Control notice language, and page length requirements. This is the section I usually look at first because I like to get the format together to sort out my thoughts. Based on section L, I will create a proposal “shell” that the content creators can then use as a starting point for their work. Sometimes I’ll include the content instructions underneath the section headings to help prompt the content writers as well.

Section C – Statement of Work

This is the work your organization is expected to do. Your proposal responses will need to address the contents of section C in the order and format used in Section L. Much of this content will be handled under your Technical Approach section, if applicable.

Section M – Evaluation Criteria

In this section, the government agency will tell you how it intends to “grade your paper,” i.e., tell the bidders what its most important criteria are when judging the quality of your proposals. The most common figures of merit are technical approach, management approach, past performance, and cost, but agencies also might evaluate proposals on things like small business participation, uniqueness of the technical solution, partnerships with other agencies, safety, workforce qualifications, and proposed schedule. Cost is almost always a factor but you’d be surprised how often it is not the most important factor.

Section M is important because it affects the depth of your content and the amount of marketing language you use in your proposal. The government agency will sometimes help you out in Section L by specifying a higher page count for those areas where it wants more detail. Again, it boils down to following directions.

And all this is NOT to say you should not read the rest of the solicitation. You should at least become familiar with the other sections of the proposal, as they might affect, in some small way, your delivery of the final product.

What to do when the solicitation makes no d@mn sense

I’m not going to lie: there have been times when I’ve been stymied in my attempts to “translate” government proposal instructions into an organized proposal. There are times when it is obvious that multiple people wrote the instructions and that they did not consult with each other prior to getting the RFP out the door, resulting in conflicting or confusing requests. I’ve been in situations where each person in the proposal “war room” had multiple college degrees and none of us could figure out what the heck the government meant in the RFP. Sometimes, to use yet another Star Trek quotation, “There’s no correct resolution, it’s a test of character.”

That said, if you are still in the question period, you can email the contracting officer and ask for clarification, keeping in mind that any questions and answers will be readable by all of your competitors as well. (Related topic: if the solicitation is asking for content that affects the technical aspects of your response, you might need to be careful about how you word your question to the contracting officer–otherwise you might reveal to your competitors some of your company’s technical approach or your “secret sauce.”)

If you are past the Q&A period, you’re going to have to take your best shot, focusing primarily on what the government wants done. In that case, section C might overrule section L to have the proposal order make sense, or vice versa.

Final thoughts

Again, most of proposal writing boils down to following the directions. Even if you’re proposing an actual space vehicle, the fundamentals of proposal writing are not rocket science. The government wants a product or service; they want your company’s best solution and offer; and they want it in a prescribed order and format. Nail all of those, and you’re halfway there.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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