IN PURSUIT OF FEDERAL A/E CONTRACTS
A few suggestions for the response process . . .
by Barrie Creedon and George T. Manos
At first glance, going after federal A/E contracts looks pretty simple. Subscribe to the Commerce Business Daily, read the announcements in the "C" and "R" sections (Architect and Engineering Services; and Professional, Administrative and Management Support Services respectively), and when something comes up that seems in line with your experience, fill out Standard Forms 254 and 255, return them by the due date and wait for an answer. Unfortunately, if this is all you know about the process, the answer will probably be "No, thanks."
Since our firm began pursuing this market, we've learned that nothing about the process is simple. For example, solicitation announcements are both more and less restrictive than they actually read. If it says, "the Architect should have in-house capability to provide mechanical, electrical, and civil engineering services..." you might assume that, having no engineers in-house, you aren't eligible to respond. However, as we were told by a contact at the Corps of Engineers, you shouldn't limit descriptions of your experience to only that which is associated with your particular discipline. Most architects are qualified to perform some engineering functions so, whether or not they realize it, they do have some in-house engineering capability. Furthermore, listing engineering subconsultants in your response is acceptable for nearly all solicitations. On the restrictive side, if an announcement lists twenty different types of experience a project may require, your paperwork must show that you and/or your consultants have some background in all twenty, no exceptions. To neglect even one is to invite rejection.
Then there's the language barrier. You define your firm's "capability" for a project in terms of similar projects you've done, and how successfully. Contracting people, however, define "capability" mainly in terms of how many people a firm has available to work on a project. Also, they can't "interpret" your paperwork. A good example is the in-house engineering issue. If the solicitation asks for this and you are experienced, you must say so -- don't assume that, because you're an architect, they'll automatically know you possess a certain level of engineering ability. Say everything you have to say about your experience and qualifications (but no more than what is pertinent) in the most specific and complete terms possible. Don't be afraid to take up as much space as necessary. If all the words won't fit into the little blocks on the 254 or 255, you may design a form with bigger blocks, provided it follows exactly the same format as the real thing. It's not hard to generate a look-alike using a good word processing program. Finally, it's a good idea to re-use the language from the solicitation, describing your experience relevant to the project(s) at hand in the same language they use to describe those projects.
Once your submission is in, it will be reviewed for what's missing so that it can be removed from consideration. Some reasons why our firm has been rejected:
"Have not worked before with two of four listed subconsultants" -- We were told it would have been OK had we worked with three of the four. However, the real issue was probably that we didn't discuss how we proposed to work with these subs, why we chose them, etc. Your 255 should include this. Contracting people are somewhat suspicious if you list a consultant whose firm is much larger than yours, so it's important to describe how you, as the prime consultant, will lead the team.
"Out of the geographical area of consideration" -- This solicitation was for an indefinite delivery contract with project sites located in central and east-central Pennsylvania. We're in Philadelphia (southeastern PA) and, having worked all over the state, believed ourselves to have been well within the geographical area of consideration. Some announcements limit consideration to firms located within a certain radius of the project, often 100 miles. Most, like this one, are more vague, or say nothing at all about location limitations. If these cases, the question to ask is: "Am I familiar with the project location?" If the answer is no, forget it. If yes, explain why on your 255.
"No indefinite quantity experience" -- Like any firm that relies primarily on repeat work, we have plenty of indefinite quantity experience, i.e. we know we'll continue to get work from Client X, but we can't be sure of when they'll call, what they'll need, or what else we'll be busy with then they do call. However, making a case for this type of experience as being the same as indefinite quantity/indefinite delivery experience is difficult; contracting people we've spoken to insist that their needs are somehow different. Some will admit that they really only want firms whose "capability" will ensure a certain level of service. Our reseach supports this: out of the 68 ID/IQ contracts we reviewed, only 19% went to firms having fewer than ten employees.
"No reason. We just went with someone else." Although some find it hard to believe, government personnel are human and will sometimes just choose a firm they already know. Or one that knows how to push their buttons. A contracting specialist we spoke with complained that his office repeatedly awards work to a certain firm, mainly because this firm is large, "powerful," and has ex-military personnel working in high-level positions.
Much more can be said about the nuts and bolts of this process, but you'll find that most agencies are happy to sit down with you to answer questions, review your paperwork, or even show you winning packages from other firms. While these shouldn't be viewed as sales calls, an in-person meeting gives you a chance to introduce your firm, and will go a long way toward showing that your are sincerely interested in working for the government.
Next: the built-in inequities in the contract award process.