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The paper proposal is rapidly becoming an anachronism in a world of connected, interactive, and multimedia communication. APMP has been working with procurement professionals and grant-making agencies over the last few years to define what the next-generation proposal will look like. While there is not yet a common, unified vision, it is clear that proposals in the near future will be embedded with “rich media” to help communicate the proposed solution and help the reviewer find salient information. This is less of a technological leap than you might think, but it will require proposal professionals to rethink approaches and add new skills to the team.
Electronic and Multimedia Solutions
All parties involved in a procurement have the same objective: to secure the right solution for a need. Customers need to clearly communicate their requirements, and prospective vendors need to communicate why their solution is the right choice. Typically, the tools and processes utilized are decades, even centuries, old—for example, the now-standard 8 ½ x 11-inch page dates back to the 1600s. If we systematically introduce electronic technologies, we can build a procurement ecosystem that communicates more effectively, operates more efficiently, and produces the desired outcome—selection of the right solution—more consistently.
Customers need to clearly communicate their requirements, and prospective vendors need to communicate why their solution is the right choice.
These are not radical changes. Proposals will still focus on the quality and clarity of the content, but it is possible that a proposal will look and feel more like a website than a book. Key features may include the following:
- Electronically delivered solicitations. Amendments are numbered and dated consistently, and revisions are highlighted. Many agencies do this well, such as the U.S. Department of Energy. On the other hand, amendments to a U.S. government solicitation disseminated via FedBizOpps and Grants.gov do not necessarily have the same amendment numbers and dates on both systems. Systems can also be designed to require bidders to acknowledge receipt of amendments.
- Proposals prepared offline but securely submitted online. The best online systems keep the user online for the least amount of time. Also, all requirements must be in the solicitation; the online system should not have any surprises. Some systems, for example, require a “lay abstract” before a proposal can be submitted, but the proposer may not be aware of the requirement until it pops up on the screen just before submission.
- Self-contained and downloadable proposals, enabling evaluators to work offline. For numerous reasons, the evaluator should not have to follow external links.
- Interactive and multimedia features to support the proposal’s main ideas. Interactivity allows for another level of engagement with the proposal. Compliance matrices can link reviewers directly to content in the proposal that addresses each evaluation criterion; mouse overs incorporate further backup information (see Figure 1); and audio or video clips, as appropriate, can bolster claims of prior successes. It is important to note that we do not envision a video proposal; we envision video in proposals as a tool to help communicate the solution.
Many components of this new ecosystem are maturing—and that is the problem. If the community does not set policies and standards, it will continue to evolve piecemeal: some good, some bad. Signs of this are already evident in everything from proposal systems that accept only plain text to ad hoc systems that accept videos by arrangement.
Challenges and Questions
The purpose of this transition is to make communication more effective, not to add complexity, cost, or entertainment value. The interactive compliance matrix allows a reviewer to get to the required information at the click of a mouse. Video files can be compressed to a small file size while maintaining a high level of quality. These interactive features can easily be incorporated into PDF proposals, as seen in Figure 2.
Cost and complexity are not really barriers to integrating rich media into procurement processes. Word processing and spreadsheet programs already are capable of integrating bookmarks and hyperlinks, and brief videos can be produced and edited easily and at a low cost compared with just 10 years ago. But the question of how to modernize systems requires answers to several policy issues:
- Must videos include captioning, to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act?
- Should there be limits on the total duration or file size of videos in proposals?
- Should there be a standard window size for videos, to accommodate viewing on a computer, tablet, or handheld device?
- Should there be rules about nonessential information, such as background music?
- How should a contract based on a proposal that includes multimedia or dynamic content be written?
- How should the proposal content be locked and used as a basis for the procurement agreement?
All of these questions are tractable. APMP and, to a limited extent, the Federal Demonstration Partnership have considered some of these questions already, and a broader discussion should lead quickly to a policy framework.
The challenge with incorporating rich-media technologies into the proposal development process is not with the technology itself. Rather, the challenge lies with establishing the standards by which the technologies function within the procurement ecosystem. APMP will continue to work with partners across the table to define the ecosystem of the future—one that makes appropriate use of advanced technologies for successful procurements.
Mitch Boretz, APMP Fellow, directs proposal operations for the Bourns College of Engineering at the University of California, Riverside, where the vast majority of the 400 proposals produced per year are submitted online. He has more than 20 years of experience in contracts and grants for technology development, environmental, and educational programs. Tim Russell, CF APMP, is the marketing manager in charge of proposal development at the Boston headquarters of Simpson Gumpertz and Heger Inc., a national engineering firm that designs, investigates, and rehabilitates constructed works.