A2S insider

Small Business MythBusters

Many small businesses who do or would like to do business with the U.S. Government subscribe to misconceptions, or “myths” with regard to contract procurement. Access2Success (A2S) would like to clarify some of these most common myths. A2S will also help dispel these myths though events and available materials throughout the year; continuing to reaffirm its commitment to support small businesses and creating “real access to resources and procurement opportunities.” Please visit the website access2success.hhs.gov to find this information, updated throughout the year.

Fact – Contracting officers and program managers are often inundated with general marketing material that doesn’t reach the right people at the right time. As an alternative, vendors can take advantage of the various outreach sessions that agencies hold for the purpose of connecting contracting officers and program managers with companies whose skills are needed.

Contracting and program offices are often inundated with marketing material, and this fact lowers the chances that a vendor’s reliance on marketing material will enable these offices to focus on the firm’s capabilities.

A more effective approach is to make your capabilities known through outreach sessions that agencies hold to provide information on how best to do business with the agency, and to provide information on future requirements. Many times, these outreach sessions will provide an opportunity for vendors to meet with program managers and contracting officials to generally discuss items on annual procurement plans. Vendors are also encouraged to attend pre-proposal conferences to receive more detailed information about specific agency requirements.

Fact – In meetings with government technical personnel, it’s far more valuable for you to bring subject matter experts to the meeting rather than focusing on the sales pitch.

Agency personnel are interested in better understanding the marketplace, advances in technology, and your firm’s capabilities. In order to gain this understanding, it is usually more helpful for them to discuss technical issues than business development issues.

Industry professionals can benefit by conducting research about the agency in advance of scheduled meetings with agency professionals. Valuable time during one-on-one meetings is often spent sharing commonly available information, which is not helpful to either party. Before meeting with agency personnel, review information on the agency’s website, such as the agency’s mission, structure and organization; its advanced acquisition plans; and its budget.

Fact – Industry days and outreach events can be a valuable source of information for potential vendors and are increasingly being used to leverage scarce staff resources.

The purpose of industry days and outreach events is to communicate the agency mission and upcoming requirements to industry. This information will assist you in deciding whether to invest valuable resources in developing a bid or proposal in response to the government’s solicitation requirements. Vendors may have the opportunity to hear from and speak to agency representatives about their requirements and can often meet one-on-one with agency personnel before or after the event. Many times, agencies hold sessions designed to help new vendors do business with them. In these sessions, agency personnel are on hand to answer any questions about how to do business with the agency. Gaining a better understanding of an agency will help you more effectively target your outreach, thereby saving valuable resources, and helping you respond to solicitations more effectively. In addition, industry days are a great way to network and make potential subcontract contacts.

Fact – Early and specific industry input is valuable. Agencies generally spend a great deal of effort collecting and analyzing information about capabilities within the marketplace. The more specific you can be about what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be improved, the better.

Agencies appreciate industry’s valuable input into their acquisition strategies and solicitation packages because it may result in a better solution to their requirements. Simply providing suggestions and comments prior to formal requirements development will not trigger an organizational conflict of interest, as long as the vendor is not then hired to develop the requirements. Suggesting detailed solutions to your concerns is even more valuable. Agencies may issue a Request for Information (RFI) as part of market research to investigate the industry and marketplace in accordance with Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), to determine if commercial items are available, to determine if small businesses are capable of meeting the agency’s needs, and for many other planning purposes. Agencies may also issue a draft RFP to obtain comments and suggestions from potential vendors on how to improve the solicitation.

Agencies may hold pre-solicitation or pre-proposal conferences or webinars, or post wikis to explain the requirements, solicitation process, and evaluation factors. These engagement opportunities often allow for vendor questions and feedback. You should take advantage of every opportunity to provide the kind of targeted suggestions you’d like to see in the finished product.

Additionally, the FAR encourages exchanges with all interested parties, beginning at the earliest identification of a requirement through receipt of proposals. After release of a solicitation, the contracting officer is the focal point of any communications with the government to ensure a fair competition is conducted. Many times, a question and answer period is included in the acquisition process, allowing time for potential offerors to review the solicitation and submit questions. Should that not be the case, you are still encouraged to ask the contracting officer any questions that you have, in a timely manner, in order to ensure you understand the solicitation. Contracting officers generally prefer questions via e-mail so that they can ensure they understand the question and so they can facilitate obtaining an answer. Should the contracting officer decide to make any changes to the solicitation, it will be done via an amendment to the solicitation and posted for public viewing.

Fact – Agency personnel have a responsibility to protect proprietary information from disclosure outside the Government and will not share it with other companies.

Agency personnel have a responsibility to protect any information that was received in confidence from an offeror. During source selection, the Procurement Integrity Act and its implementing provisions in the FAR prohibit Federal procurement officials from disclosing – prior to award of the relevant contract – contractor bid, proposal information or source selection information to any person other than a person authorized to receive such information.

Procurement officials take this prohibition very seriously; if a violation occurs, there may be criminal and civil penalties.

While the protections of the Procurement Integrity Act do not apply prior to source selection, other protections remain. In many cases, the Trade Secrets Act8 will prohibit Federal employees from divulging protected information, including confidential commercial or financial data, trade secrets, operations, processes, or style of work. Also, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows agencies to protect commercial or financial information that is privileged or confidential.9 In cases where a vendor is concerned that existing protections are insufficient and engaging in pre-solicitation communication will be beneficial, agencies should consider the use of appropriate non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to ensure that proprietary information will be kept from potential competitors.

Fact – There are no general limitations on the disclosure of information regarding existing contracts between agencies within the Government. In fact, agencies are encouraged to share pricing information to ensure that we are getting the best value for our taxpayers.

As explained above, agencies have a responsibility to protect proprietary information from disclosure outside the Executive Branch. Restrictions on such outside disclosure prevent harm both to the competitive position of the contractor amongst its competitors and to the interest of the Government in being able to maintain a robust and competitive marketplace.

By contrast, the flow of information among and between agencies within the Executive Branch does not cause such harm. Moreover, such sharing among and between agencies can enable the Federal Government to root out wasteful duplication and negotiate better deals for the taxpayer.

Therefore, while there might be occasional circumstances where an agency could benefit from signing an NDA that would restrict its sharing of information with another agency, agencies should generally avoid NDAs that prohibit sharing of information – particularly pricing information – within the Government. Price visibility is critical to ensuring that the Government gets the best prices and that agencies are not paying more for the same products or services being bought under the same circumstances. As agencies face increasingly constrained budgets, it is critical that they share more pricing information with their Federal colleagues to ensure that the Federal Government is obtaining the best prices for the taxpayer.

Fact – Offerors should tailor each proposal to the evaluation criteria, proposal instructions, and specific requirements of the solicitation to which they are responding. Contracting Officers and evaluation team members read proposals closely for compliance with the proposal instructions and must evaluate them against the evaluation factors and the statement of work in the solicitation.

Each proposal should be tailored to the final solicitation which lists the requirements, instructions to offerors on how to propose, and evaluation factors. Using your proposal, Government evaluators will determine the strengths and weaknesses of your proposal and also your firm’s ability to perform the prospective contract successfully. If you cut and paste from previous proposals or repeat the solicitation, your proposal may miss the mark in explaining your solution. Offerors that are not responsive to the solicitation risk being eliminated from the competition, thereby wasting valuable time and resources used to prepare the proposal.

You should attend a pre-solicitation or pre-proposal conference if it is offered by the agency. At that conference, the agency will provide you with a better understanding of the procurement and what is required in the proposal, which will help you develop a more comprehensive proposal addressing the requirements.

Fact – Unsuccessful offerors should ask for a debriefing to understand the award decision and to improve future proposals.

In a formal procurement, the process by which offerors request and receive an explanation of the award decision is the debriefing. Asking for a debriefing is the best way to find out why you were not awarded the contract or order.

In accordance with the FAR, agencies must provide debriefings to unsuccessful offerors in negotiated procurements upon written request either when excluded from the competitive range prior to award, or upon notification of award. These debriefings can be provided in person or in writing, depending on the agency’s preference. When conducting competitions under FAR 8, agencies must provide a brief explanation to unsuccessful offerors on awards that are based on factors other than price alone. You can use the information provided to adjust your proposal strategy in future procurements to be more competitive.

We recognize that agencies can sometimes do a better job of letting vendors know why they didn’t receive an award. This is especially true in cases where award is based on other than price alone. While agency procurement personnel are extremely busy, often handling multiple solicitations and contracts at the same time, OFPP has encouraged agency contracting professionals to not only provide debriefs, but to provide as much information as possible in the debriefing.

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