If you work in the Government acquisition world, this podcast is for you. (not just for Contracting Officers!)

Questions about the solicitation are a fact of life for most acquisitions. Kevin and Paul discuss how early engagement with industry can lower the quantity of questions and lead to better mission satisfaction outcomes. Timing matters for both questions and answers!

If you enjoy this podcast, check out Skyway Acquisition at skywaymember.com to begin your relationship with our team of former contracting officers. The Skyway Community is the essential resource for context in the government market.

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Kevin Jans and Paul Schauer created the Contracting Officer Podcast to help government and industry acquisition professionals understand more about how the other side thinks. As former government Contracting Officers who have also worked on the industry side, Kevin and Paul share their perspectives in support of the podcast’s mission: Make government contracts better, one contract at a time.


Transcript Below

Paul Schauer 0:07
Welcome to the contracting officer podcast. It’s not just for contracting officers. If you’re anywhere in the government acquisition world This podcast is for you. Once again, today we’re talking communication between the government and industry. This podcast is brought to you by Skyway acquisition, visit Skywayacq.com to learn more. Okay, let’s get started. Alright, Kevin set the stage for timely responses to RFP questions.

Kevin Jans 0:38
The government team has mapped out and documented the requirement there through the requirement zone, then the government to engage with industry and came up with an acquisition strategy, which is through the market research zone. And then the RFP is dropped. And industry teams are working to reply to the RFP, we’re in the RFP zone. And these industry teams have questions about the RFP, because there’s things in there that aren’t totally clear. So the government needs to answer these questions. Or do they? And what happens if they don’t answer them quickly? And or what happens if they don’t answer them in a timely manner? And what’s the definition of timely and we’re down the rabbit trail.

Paul Schauer 1:15
Yeah, before we get into all that? Well, before we even get into that part of what I usually say here, that that is the that’s the the proper sequence of events. I’m not sure it always happens exactly like that. Map out the requirement and then come up with a new strategy and all that sometimes it seems like it kind of gets twisted around and and I love it. You say the RFP has dropped it sounds like we stopped doing something but but that’s, that’s good. Oh lingo for the RFP is is actually released. It’s been released.

Kevin Jans 1:44
It’s a vicious solicitation has been released. Right.

Paul Schauer 1:49
All right back to podcasting stuff. Let’s stop and say thanks.

Kevin Jans 1:53
Well, thanks. This week goes to Logan Metcalf. Logan is a business manager for fed sim at the General Services Administration, aka the GSA. Logan is in the Washington DC area. And I want to thank Logan for joining the contracting officer podcast group on LinkedIn. And in telling us specifically how we found our podcast. feedback we get from from those folks who are listening on how they found us and why they keep listening is really valuable. It helps us not to guess what we think people think.

Paul Schauer 2:24
Thanks, Logan, for keeping us from guessing. Alright, let’s talk timely responses to RFP questions. Is there a directive? Is there a rule in the far that contracting officers have to respond to RFP questions within a certain number of days?

Kevin Jans 2:41
A good answer is no. There’s no directive that requires carpeting officer to reply to RFP questions in a specific amount of time. There’s some guidance on when industry should ask these questions. And when the government team should get input from industry, but no specific instructions on rules about how long the government has to actually reply to those questions.

Paul Schauer 3:04
Let’s start by running through when industry should ask questions and where the far does require this kind of thing. Far 5.102 availability of solicitations paragraph a two says the contracting officer is encouraged when practicable and cost effective to make accessible through the GPE which is the

Kevin Jans 3:27
government point of entry, otherwise known as sam.gov,

Paul Schauer 3:29
covering point of entry, to make accessible through the GPE additional information related to a solicitation,

Kevin Jans 3:36
that additional information, right, if you can drive a truck through these words, for example, government is encouraged. That means that they’re not required to do it. And then they’re encouraged to do when practical, which means the way I interpret that is when this is easy, and doesn’t require a whole bunch extra steps. And then when it’s cost effective, meaning again, easy, doesn’t require a contractor to be hired to do something. So all of that means I will have to do this. It’s got to be when it’s easy for me to do and cost effective. Bottom line is the contracting officer is not required to release additional information. However, we’re going to put out this a lot. They absolutely should. And we’ll talk more about that later.

Paul Schauer 4:19
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that it may not seem practical and cost effective now to make additional information available or to answer questions. But it will later when your acquisition is all screwed up. Because nobody understood the RFP or everyone misunderstood the RFP, you get a bunch of proposals that don’t make sense for what you’re trying to buy.

Kevin Jans 4:39
Yeah, I would, I would recommend a change to the far something like strongly encouraged, because to your point. It may not be easy now, but it’s a lot easier. As we’ve talked about in many podcast episodes. It’s a lot easier now to have this conversation during the market research zone than to have a formal fight about it during the protests that happens because of the lack of communication.

Paul Schauer 4:59
Maybe should just say you’ll be sorry, if you don’t after that. This is for your own benefit contracting officers, as we all learn the hard way.

Kevin Jans 5:09
Yeah, otherwise, we’re just gonna learn it the hard way. Right?

Paul Schauer 5:12
All right, more examples, FAR part 13 105 synopsis and posting requirements. And part 13 Is Kevin simplified acquisition procedures. Right. So even with simplified acquisition procedures, 13 105 B says,

Kevin Jans 5:29
the contracting officer must include enough information does actually say must have this case must include enough information to permit suppliers to develop quotations or offers. So you got to give enough information to be able to actually deliver. The challenge here is that the instructions on how to do that may not be clear what they need to be because as a contracting officer, when I say you have enough information to give me a quotation, they may not. I might think that they do it. But many times I thought they did. And they didn’t right?

Paul Schauer 6:00
Right, you’ve been living it, you’ve you understand exactly what you meant. And you wrote the words, exactly.

Kevin Jans 6:06
They’re making these instructions clear. Clear is a relative term. I mean, the RFP was clear to me, but it might not have been the industry. And oftentimes they lacked context on what was actually happening. Like you said, I didn’t live in this, I knew all what’s under all the rocks, they might not. And because they don’t have any clarity, or have enough clarity, they have to ask questions.

Paul Schauer 6:27
And it’s important that industry asks those questions, because otherwise they could submit a proposal and lose just because they misunderstood something.

Kevin Jans 6:36
I actually had one where the company had won the contract. And during the kickoff meeting, they asked me that there was some confusion over the interpretation of something in the RFP. And they guessed, because they were afraid to look stupid by asking the question turns out, they guessed right, and so on. But I thought, wow, what if they guessed wrong, right, is that that was the intro. That was a introduction to me as a Content Officer realizing things that I thought were obvious weren’t always obvious. And they might be afraid to ask

Paul Schauer 7:02
maybe the losers did guessed wrong, maybe that’s why they lost that. That would be Yeah. Anyway, that’s horrible. Let’s not go down that if you have a question, you should ask the contracting officer for clarity. In previous podcasts, we’ve talked about the difference in rules about communication, before the final RFP is released. And after the final RFP is really so pre RFP, or post RFPs. Pre RFP, I won’t say it’s the Wild West, but the far actually says 15 201 A says that exchanges of information from the earliest identification requirement through receipt of proposals are encouraged the far once government industry to talk and the reason for that the far continues, is to improve industries understanding of government requirements, and improve government’s understanding of industry capabilities, which lets everybody come together on this is something that can actually be delivered at a reasonable price at a reasonable time. And the government actually knows how to evaluate proposals has the right evaluation criteria in there that they award to a company that’s going to provide them what they what they want, they can actually do the job.

Kevin Jans 8:19
The basis of that paragraph is we want to award a contract that actually is executable. But they said that way wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. But that the basic steps of this is this is why government and industry need to talk pre award

Paul Schauer 8:32
and pre RFP, there’s plenty of opportunities to talk. They’re oftentimes there are one on one meetings available between the government and potential offers. There’s draft requests for proposals, draft solicitations released where you’re supposed to ask questions. It’s a lot of back and forth. There could even be pre solicitation or pre proposal conferences where the government lets everyone ask questions. In my experience, often times I would release a draft, have a pre pre solicitation conference and do one on one meetings all at the same same time, right? Give them give them a little time to read the draft, have a pre proposal conference where I talked about what I meant in the draft? Right? This is this would have been actually agreed and then have one on one meetings and let them ask questions like, Hey, I didn’t get that’s what you meant. You’re a terrible writer. I mean, nobody ever said that. But that’s, that’s sort of like you know what you mean when you write it, but it doesn’t mean the same to the reader. All right, moving on post RFP, after release the RFP and again, straight from the far, far 15.201 paragraph F. After release of the solicitation, the contracting officer must be the focal point of any exchange with potential offers.

Kevin Jans 9:50
And that is inherently different than we just talked about with a pre award doesn’t say anywhere in there about the pre award. The current thing officer is not the center of communications and it explicitly says that they are once the solicitation is released.

Paul Schauer 10:04
Yep. And the reason is, after you release the final RFP, if you answer a question for one offer, or if you provide information to one offer, you have to provide it to all offers. The form actually says information must be made available to the public as soon as practicable, but no later than the next general release of information in order to avoid creating an unfair competitive advantage. Alright, so I guess if you told one offer, you don’t have to tell everyone else the next second. But if you update the draft RFP, at some point, you have to provide everyone, not the draft RFP, if you update the RFP, to an RFP amendment. You have to include all the information that you provided privately, best practices, that you don’t answer questions privately at all, so that you don’t actually accidentally forget to provide that information to everyone.

Kevin Jans 10:58
Yeah, I had this come up this this paragraph is so thorny, that we had a conversation, I had a conversation with a potential offer. And the lawyer was in the room. And because I knew it was it was it was after the RFP been released. But we had a one on one conversation it was with the incumbent who happened to come up about dealing with the next contract. This paragraph was so thorny, that as soon as the meeting ended, the lawyer was like, we need to go release the that information we just share with him needs to go out like now right away. Can I go to the bathroom first. It was like there the energy behind him was like, this is a pro testable thing. Get it out now. Okay. Yeah, that freaked me out.

Paul Schauer 11:36
Super important. All right, yes, nine at the time, we don’t we don’t want to get anyone an unfair advantage. And even a day more time to think about this, this information could be seen as an unfair competitive advantage.

Kevin Jans 11:50
Especially if there’s only 10 days left before the proposals are due. That’s a 10% advantage.

Paul Schauer 11:55
That’s why this is so important. Industry needs to clearly understand what the government has is asking for in the RFP in order to submit a compliant and effective winning, winning proposal winning

Kevin Jans 12:08
proposal, but not just doing it, because it’s fun actually trying to win something.

Paul Schauer 12:12
Like you said, if it’s not clear, they may have to guess and if they guess that’s risk for both sides, right industry, you could lose if you guess wrong. And government, you could not be able to award to the best contractor with the best price because they guessed wrong on something that if it had been clear, they would have guessed right and and you’d have a better solution for your mission.

Kevin Jans 12:36
And to avoid or at least minimize those risks. The best way for contractors to alleviate those risks is to ask questions. And that’s why it’s so important for government folks to answer them. And I didn’t realize that as clearly when I was a contracting officer. So I probably took me a little bit longer than it should have. I didn’t have that sense of urgency, answering their questions. Unless I was afraid of a protest, then the lawyer was hit me upside the shoulder to get it done. If the contractor doesn’t know clearly what you want, it’s a high risk endeavor for them to submit a proposal and it just gets kind of to your point.

Paul Schauer 13:08
And remember, post final RFP release? The questions are public as well, you have to share the information. So asking questions becomes an art form post op release, right? You want to ask the question, but you don’t want to ask a question that shares your proprietary approach or gives your your competitors that competitive competitive advantage, because now they know what you’re proposing or how you’re proposing it. Right. So a lot of times you have the conversation on the industry side, should we submit this? How can we ask this question without giving it away? Right? So you just kind of sit on it? You don’t ask the question. It tough.

Kevin Jans 13:52
And that’s one of the ways that our Skyway customers use our consulting services is they they get into an RFP and realize they want to ask a question and they, when they want to ask it in a way they’ll get an answer, but they won’t tiptoe into given away their strategy or tiptoe into creating a protectable issue, etc, etc. So they’ll lean on us to figure out how do I word this to get this answer out of it?

Paul Schauer 14:12
Yeah, the art of answer of asking a question and getting an answer that doesn’t ruin your competitiveness. Alright, linking this to the acquisition and execution time zones. This is clearly on the acquisition timezone side of the line The line, which is a word of the contract, in the market research zone. This is the pre RFP release timing. This is when communications are more wide open should be completely wide open where questions and answers can flow back and forth freely when the final RFP is released, so we move into the RFP zone. Questions and Answers are locked down and controlled by the contracting officer. And then a contract is awarded and then there are no more questions you move move, you’re in the selection zone and on to the next occasion time zones.

Kevin Jans 15:01
And during this new market research zone that the definition of timely, it could be just be a conversation, you may get an instant answer. And more importantly, it could be a one to one conversation. Whereas in the RFP zone, it has to be a public answer. And that’s what makes it feel so less timely. Because I can’t just tell you on the phone, I can’t just give you the answer here, I have to go back and assess it, and then share it with the world at the same time. And that’s where the timeliness gets extended, because it just takes me longer to do that. And if you’re not familiar with the acquisition time zones, we talked about those in episode number three, and the execution time zones are in Episode 372.

Paul Schauer 15:40
Yeah, like you’re saying, I think it’s important to understand that it takes the government time to answer questions. It takes industry time to read the RFP, and know what their questions are. So contracting officers, if you’re still getting a ton of questions on your latest draft request for proposal, you may want to work through all those questions and get them answered before you release your final RFP. It’s much easier to handle questions, pre final RFP, it’s much easier to handle the back and forth. And you might not be ready for primetime, if you’re still getting a lot of questions. And if you go ahead and release the final without answering the questions. You’re just going to get questions during the final phase or you’re going to get poor proposals because they don’t understand.

Kevin Jans 16:32
Yeah, when I was a contracting officer was often the milestone everybody tract was releasing the RFP. And so I was pushing toward getting that done. Not realizing that industry needed time to review that RFP, and make sure they understood it. And to your point, Paul, the more they understand before I released the final, the easier it is to answer the questions. And I didn’t see that as clearly as the contracting officer because I had this schedule of RFP really, it’s on the schedule, our pre releases happening on this day, Hell or High Water was kind of the mindset, right. And the problem with that is that if the questions haven’t been answered, they’re going to be either post award through the the hard process, or worse, they’re going to be answered during the protest process one way or the other industry needs context.

Paul Schauer 17:15
Yeah, don’t don’t expect to get questions right away after you release a draft or a final RFP. And don’t expect if you ask a question that the government is going to be able to answer right away. Every question and every answer that could create a change to the solicitation has the potential to ripple through the entire rest of the solicitation the rest of the RFP. So both sides need to be sure to consider and address those ripples. And the more ripples the more that this change impacts all of the rest of your document, not just the the area that the question is about, the more time that industry is going to need to adjust and rewrite their proposal. Right? Sometimes questions come after the final RFP is released. And the government needs to extend the time, the proposal due date in order to give industry time to rewrite sections or rethink sections of their proposal because they could because the changes is big enough. It’s not just a simple understanding. It’s actually Oh, this is a change to what we what we’ve been writing about.

Kevin Jans 18:22
And those questions that they’re asking. And like we just mentioned a minute ago, they’re crafting them carefully. So it’s not a matter of just pop off a question to the contracting officer. It’s just like the contracting officers having to craft the answer. Industry is crafting their questions. And all that takes more time than I thought that I’m on the other side. Yeah.

Paul Schauer 18:39
And going back to what you said a minute ago, Kevin, the time the metric says that is tracked a lot of times on the government side is what day, did the final RFP go out? Right? That’s what everyone’s looking for. Best practice contracting officers is don’t rush the question and answer period in order to maintain that schedule and get it released on that date. Because unanswered questions, and misunderstandings in the solicitation. lead to more difficult evaluations, because they’re not quite answering the way you expected them to. They’re not providing the information the way you wanted it. And that lowers your chance of selecting the best solution for your mission. Think about it, what if the the otherwise best offer the person that can best satisfy your just, you know, solve your problem? What if they misunderstood one small thing that really matters? That they could have just flipped the switch and answered it the other way, but now you can’t award to them at that that’s a horrible outcome for everyone for that contractor and for the mission. Right? So if you if you rush through this, you’re setting yourself up for even more of a chance of protests because of misunderstandings.

Kevin Jans 19:52
So my big takeaway from this is knowing that the concept of making government contracting better one contract at a time is rather than that Have the RFP be that milestone that everybody’s marching toward? later in my career, we got to the point where the q&a session, the q&a, like the q&a window was was in the schedule and getting through that. You had to clear that before you release the RFP. Yeah. And what we found is that then you go from RFP to proposal much more smoothly, you’re gonna get the questions either way, but the practice of the milestone is RFP release, you’re measuring the wrong thing. I didn’t see that for the first half of my career, I realized that the thing we need to measure, is it Do people understand what they’re bidding on? Then we can release the RFP, but because that’s a fuzzy thing, do they understand it? I don’t know. How do you? How do you how do you know that? Well, the best way to know we haven’t got any questions, right. Okay, now we can release the art. ,

Paul Schauer 20:45
Yeah got to talk about that before that the real metric is when is the contract awarded? Right? When? When are you done with this process, and the contractor can can start delivering. And I would argue, you’re more likely to nail that date. If you spend more time in the q&a. Because your proposal evaluation period will be shorter. You’ll have less questions, fewer questions during the final RFP period, and lower chance of protest. Right, you’re you’re more likely to move faster by taking your time up front. And I think we’ve said that in about 100 podcasts.

Kevin Jans 21:23
Yeah, and I have a pretty good amount of can go anecdotal, because it’s social actions I was actively involved in for my career, but I have lots of evidence to prove that it is that the more time you spend up front, the faster the RFP zone is RFP zone and selection zone are concluded. We didn’t call them that at the time. But it’s it’s a fixed amount of time. It’s just a Where do you want to spend it? And when you spend it up front? It’s a lot more effective?

Paul Schauer 21:45
Absolutely. So industry, folks, I know you’re thinking that why doesn’t the government just answer the questions quickly? Right, you got to remember, it took you time to understand that you even had a question and it took you time to formulate the question. A lot of the answers are not so simple. to add to that,

Kevin Jans 22:05
And the question comes in it, the contract specialists will get the question through sam.gov however, email, whatever, then they show it to the contracting officer and accounting officer reviews it and if they can answer it, they send back what if it has to go to the attorney because it’s more complex? Or what if it’s a technical question that goes to the government user, the person that this contract is for, they have to answer it, well, then it may go to operational security, because it may have some nuance to it, depending on the type of work, which by the way, now it goes back to the attorney because they have to review it, then back to the contracting officer, then back to the contract specialist. And then it gets posted back on Sam, we’re playing the telephone game here, people, there is risk. And so we don’t want to rush through this. But that process, I’ve gotten it done as quickly as a couple of days. And there I can remember the two weeks. Somebody went on vacation, you told stories about like that, what do you call it like the the perfect vacation schedules, where like, when the email goes into this guy’s box, he’s gone. And then the next person, she’s on vacation, and it’s like, why is this taken a month? So that stuff could happen?

Paul Schauer 23:08
Yeah, especially in big acquisitions, the contracting officer is unlikely to just fire off responses to offers questions without other people reviewing it right, that it’s very unlikely that they’re just ignoring you. Or purposely waiting until the last second. So that that they can sway the award to your competitors by withholding information from you, right. For the most part, I can’t say everyone, but contracting officers are not malicious. They just want to get their job done for the mission with with as few complications as possible, right. They’re not out to get you.

Kevin Jans 23:49
And the definition of big acquisition is it’s relative. It was I had a smaller office that I was supporting had like a $4 million contract that this process applied to because for that office, it was a small contract. But whereas when I worked at the headquarters, it had become more digits. So big is a relative term as a contracting officer. You’re right, if it’s $4 million contract, and that’s a big contract for my office. I’m not just gonna go, the answer is yes. And hope it works out. I’m gonna get somebody’s input before I answer that question.

Paul Schauer 24:18
And don’t forget post RFP release final RFP release, the government needs to share the answers to questions with with everyone, which means they don’t just answer off the cuff. There’s more time spent getting it right and clear.

Kevin Jans 24:33
The fear of answering the question in an unclear way that could be interpreted differently, could mean that we’re going to lead down a path toward a protest. I’ve had that happen before. I’m afraid of making things worse by answering the question badly, right. So add that to the telephone game and you see why this takes a while. It’s not a nefarious strategy to make contractors wait. It’s wanting to do it right the first time as much as we can.

Paul Schauer 25:00
My last bit of advice for industry here is make sure that you read all of the pre final request for proposal documents very carefully. And make sure you read the final RFP very carefully. But think through how you would write your proposal as early as possible, start writing, as soon as you get any draft documents, because many RFP inconsistencies and confusing details just aren’t apparent. Until you really dig in, you don’t have the context to understand that you have a question until you’ve thought through and sufficiently spelled out your solution. And all of a sudden, you think, wow, I don’t understand how to how to answer this part, I don’t understand how to write to this part, but you just didn’t know until you actually got to writing. So if you wait to start writing, until the end, it may be too late to ask a question or too late to get the RFP amended in a way that helps you understand that that could help improve your your probability of winning this thing. So so start early is the message there. And if you start early, you have questions earlier, the contracting officer have more time to answer the question in time to help you win this thing.

Kevin Jans 26:15
Yeah, it’s a very insightful point. As you’re building your solution, and you’re mapping out your plan, based on what the RFP says, Think of it like ironing on a piece of paper, you’re gonna find more little bubbles here and there. And there are bubbles that were further away than you can see, when you start first started ironing and all of a sudden, I didn’t see that bubble. If you wait till the day before the proposals are due, it’s too late. Yeah.

Paul Schauer 26:37
I probably every proposal I’ve ever been a part of writing. Is that that case? Like no matter what you do, towards the end, you read something that you’re like, why didn’t I understand this earlier? White? Why didn’t I know that? I didn’t understand this earlier? Oh, well, it didn’t make sense until I got to this point. Right. So the earlier you get through that and find those bubbles, the better.

Kevin Jans 26:59
One of the reasons that our customers use this gateway team for RFP reviews and for Red team reviews, is that very problem. The topic for this episode actually came from a customer when they posted a question in the acid content officer forum. If another customer yet check us out at Skywayacq.com.

Paul Schauer 27:16
And to wrap this up, back to the original question, there is no required timeline for a contracting officer to respond to RFP questions. But most contracting officers understand that the sooner they answer the better for all. And that’s why in many RFPs, you’ll see a cut off date for the question period, they’ll say all questions must be submitted no later than 10 days after RFP release. Because they don’t want to get to the point where they get a question the day before proposals are due. That causes the whole thing to be delayed, right, that they have to extend the proposal due date, just to answer the question, right, they want they want you to lean in early with those questions.

Kevin Jans 28:03
And on top of that, as a contracting officer, if I’m answering the question, two days before the proposals are due, you don’t have time to make a change anyway. So it’s a wasted exercise. So it’s, it really is a best practice to have that cut off date. Even though it might seem like industry then has to scramble to read it, read the whole RFP in 10 days or 15 days or whatever number they pick. But it’s putting off this problem. You can put up this problem even better by having as many questions as you can possibly cover before you the government drops the funnel or releases the final art

Paul Schauer 28:32
back did drops the RFP.

Kevin Jans 28:35
I don’t know why we use that.

Paul Schauer 28:37
That’s awesome. All right. I’ll talk to you later, Kevin. All right. I’ll see you Paul. Okay, that’s it for another Contracting Officer podcast. If you need help understanding how to respond How to Ask RFP questions rather skyways team of former contracting officers is there for you. We also have tons of podcasts on these types of issues. Visit Skywayacq.com/cop/ for contracting officer podcast. And you can find curated playlists for different topic areas. Thanks for joining us, and we’ll see you next time.