Bidding on Government Services Contracts
Many contractors are interested in working with government agencies and it’s easy to see why: governments are large organizational entities that spend a lot of money on procurement, especially at a federal level. Governments contract out for everything from office supplies to building developers on which large and small businesses and independent contractors can bid.
For digital communications, marketing and other technical services, governments will often post requests for quotes/proposals for short-term (and occasionally long-term) engagements. Common services posted are for:
Website design/redesign and app development/redevelopment services
Digital content or marketing strategy or campaign support
Engagement or outreach projects, research/independent studies
Implementation of and/or training on new digital services
There are many opportunities to bid on but the process can be a little intimidating. It can be a pain-staking experience and, like most government processes, involves a lot of paperwork.
The bidding process
For large contracts, purchasing or procurement rules will likely dictate how a project gets off the ground. There are typically dollar thresholds that relate to the type of procurement process the organization must follow. Within a lower threshold, a certain number of verbal or written quotes may be required. Above that, the formal bidding process comes into play, requiring providers to submit a RFP, RFQ, or RFI.
Tip: In Canada, businesses are able to register to be included on the List of Interested Suppliers (LIS). This online service lets businesses demonstrate their interest in an active tender notice. Learn more on the Government of Canada site.
Within the RFP timeline, the organization may host an information session and issue amendments to the original RFP documents whenever new questions from suppliers are asked and answered so that all suppliers have access to the same information.
Specifically on digital projects, the organization will usually provide a list of requirements and some contextual details around the project at hand.
Once selected, short-listed vendors are often invited in to present to a team of stakeholders to give more context to their bid and sometimes perform a demo (which may or may not be scripted).
Things to keep in mind before and when preparing your bid:
Determine if this is the right contract for you
Putting together a detailed proposal can take a significant amount of time, energy and resources. Sometimes proposals come in and you can tell that a ton of work went into it but that it’s not right for the particular project. Before putting that work in, make sure you feel confident that your proposal would make it through screening by thoroughly reviewing the requirements.
If you go ahead, make sure you have experience and expertise directly related to what’s being requested. The team reviewing your proposal will be looking closely to see if you have done similar work for similar types of organizations.
For example, if you’re a dev shop that specializes in website development and the proposal is for an app, you may be overlooked unless you can provide specific examples of app development work performed.
This seems like an obvious one, but I can’t tell you the numbers of times vendors are screened out of the process because they miss a required component. Because the Purchasing process aims to be as fair and objective as possible, there is no room for exceptions to be made. I’ve seen proposals screened out for missing a deadline by minutes, missing a signature, failing to provide a financial statement, entering “TBD” for fields that are required, or missing entire sections of the provided documentation.
Your proposal can only be considered if you follow the rules, complete every form, provide every detail requested in the desired format.
It can also be a good idea to follow exactly the format and template provided in the RFP. This can help make sure you don’t miss anything and can make it easier for the company to review.
Answer the questions being asked, as well as any not being asked
Chances are, the reason the RFP has been issued in the first place is because there is a lack of expertise or resourcing within the organization itself. With that in mind, know that the organization may not have the full breadth of knowledge to ask all the right questions within their RFP. This is when a proposal should often not be taken 100% literally. For example, if an organization asks for something specific that may not be the best approach, call that out. A simple, “We are able to provide this as requested, but an alternative we might suggest is…” can be very effective. Not only does it show that you are willing to think outside the required box, it showcases your expertise in the area.
Bid what you think is reasonable and show your value
A solid understanding of scope is vital for preparing your quote, so make sure you are covering everything asked for and not too far beyond it.
Of course governments want to use as few taxpayer dollars as possible, but there is no rule that the lowest quote wins. Instead, the people reviewing the proposals should be looking for the greatest value provided. If they are being thorough, the organization will have done research into the industry to get a general understanding of typical costs on a particular kind of project. Though it likely won’t be shared, the project team usually has a ballpark maximum budget. If your bid comes in significantly over that amount, your bidding process may be over before it’s really begun. At the same time, you are as likely to be screened out if your bid seems unreasonably low. A low bid may indicate a lack of understanding of the scope of the project that shows an immaturity of the proponent or a lack of attention to detail or knowledge in the required area. It can also cause concerns about the “real cost” of the project and how that will translate into change requests and additional levels of approval, which is a real pain for the project and procurement team.
Remember: governments are expected to be transparent and can be FOI’d (Freedom of Information requests) at any time to find out how tax dollars are being used. If a vendor/contractor was selected based at least partially on price, and multiple change requests have caused them to charge the organization more than what other proponents bid, it looks like the process wasn’t actually fairly evaluated. If another proponent elects to request this kind of information, they could potentially make a complaint and accuse the organization of misrepresenting the project. Governments are risk-averse organizations and don’t want to open themselves up for bad press and increased scrutiny.
Be aware of relevant regulations that may impact the project
Government organizations can be limited in procurement options by their regulations. In digital, the specific limitations are primarily related to security and privacy.
Finding out what these limitations are prior to preparing your proposal is always a good idea because you could be pitching a service that the organization is unable to use. For example, the organizations I have worked for require that all information be stored in Canada. This significantly reduces the number of services they’re able to use because even companies based in Canada often store their digital information outside the country. Cloud computing has also impacted this for these organizations and understanding how they and if they work within cloud technology is important.
Know that services will need to go through a variety of assessments, like an Information Security Risk Assessment (ISRA) and Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA). Understanding these and the information they require and then providing that off the bat can speed up the process and show your understanding of the environment in which you’d be working.
Pace (spoiler: it’s slow)
It’s no secret that a common perception of the government is that it’s slow. The multiple levels of approvals, political influences, and legalities involved mean that processes do tend to take longer than in private business. Add a lack of funding or resourcing and it’s easy to see why some things take what seems like an unreasonably long time.
As I mentioned above, the process around procurement in government is very regimented. Even just getting the requirements together to get the request for bids can be an extremely lengthy process. Once it’s out the door, there are still multiple steps with minimum timelines attached - it has to be open for so long, there has to be time for an information session if required, and answers to any questions that come in need to be answered in an amendment that is available to all contractors. After the request closes, the received proposals have to be reviewed through a variety of lenses before they can even get to short-listing.
Tip: It’s a totally fair question to ask for an expected time frame to through the approval process. Asking how many/what stakeholders need to be involved to make the decision can give you a better idea of both how long the selection will take as well as how long decisions may take if you are the selected vendor. Any information you can get about the project team, any steering or other committees, and resources on the organization’s side will help your understanding of how the project might go.
There are both mandatory and weighted criteria reviewers have to consider for each proposal. The mandatory criteria are typically simple yes/no questions used to screen proponents to make sure they can deliver the required services. The weighted criteria is more subjective and often discussed as a team to come up with a consensus of how each proponent scored in each area.
Common weighted criteria:
This is an evaluation of the plan proposed. The team will evaluate how well the requirements were understood, how reasonable and achievable the proposed plan is, and what other creative or other value added services.
Experience/Knowledge of Vendor
This is where the team considers how good of a fit your organization and proposed team is for the project. They’ll want to see that your team has experience that is directly related to the proposed project. Key team members’ skills and experience may be reviewed, as well as the demonstrated knowledge of the vendor within the proposal. This is often where references may also be contacted.
The cost of the proposed solution is obviously an important factor. How reasonable that cost is - compared to the project max budget as well as other proponents - has to be considered. Financial records may have also be requested that will be reviewed at this stage for the organizations’ financial stability. Any discounts will be considered at this point as well.
This is where clarity in your proposal becomes especially important because any issue or question has to be asked, answered and then go through multiple rounds of back and forth between the project team, purchasing or procurement team, legal and project sponsor or steering committee. The fewer things you leave vague or open for interpretation, the quicker it will move through this phase.
Anything that involves getting multiple people in a room is going to take time. Like trying to plan a vacation with a group of people, getting something that works for everyone’s schedule can be a nightmare. For every demo or presentation, the project team needs to find a time that works for all stakeholders and the proponents team. Obviously, the more proponents = the longer this phase takes.
After that phase is (finally) complete, the team will review the scores of the proponents, and circle back to the financials again now that they’ve seen something more tangible. As they narrow in on the front-runners, there may be another period of back and forth as they reach out to ask proponents questions about their proposal or demo.
Tip: If there are questions relating to requirements, pay attention. Often the initial requirements (and your response to them) will form the Statement of Work (SoW), acceptance criteria or contract language. This is just another reason to be super confident in your proposal and the things you say you can provide and how long it will take. Any confusion can create conflicts about what is in/out of scope and budget challenges.
If you’re selected, you may receive a Letter of Intent (LOI) that could kick off some further back and forth about exactly what the project looks like. Basically, what I’m saying is, expect a lot of discussion before a final contract is signed and sealed.
If you’ve made it this far - well done! The good news is once you have a signed contract, the onerous selection process is behind you. The bad news… well, you know what that is: the real work has now begun! Hopefully through the bidding process, you’ve had some insights into how the project team works, what the approval process looks like and a better understanding of the full scope and goals of the project.
Now go forth and bid, my friends!
If you want more information, check out this handy list of Tenders sites.