If you ask proposal management professionals how they landed their jobs, most will say it happened by chance. Proposal management isn’t taught in schools, after all. So, when offered an opportunity to propose (ha) a proposal writing course at my alma mater, I started brainstorming. What could I teach about proposal writing that, should a student not pursue it as a career, would still impart a useful skill?
Coincidentally, I had just researched a state bill and was looking for data from local agencies to incorporate into an email to my senator. In describing the research to friends, I realized that the ability to navigate government websites and submit requests for information was a skill my peers lacked. It was a skill I only had because of my exposure to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as a proposal writer.
What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?
FOIA provides United States citizens, “the right to request access to records from any federal agency,” according to FOIA.gov. Agencies must disclose requested information unless it falls under one of nine exemptions, like information that could jeopardize national security. Over time, states have adopted similar public records laws. The purpose of these laws is to create transparency surrounding government functions.
Let’s say you’re a citizen interested in your city’s decision to install a new playground. Under public records laws, you have a right to gather the city’s request for proposals (RFP) that contains the requirements for the playground. You can gather the proposals submitted by each bidder. You can also review how the city chose the successful bidder. Did they choose the cheaper option instead of a more expensive option that included swings?
Let’s say you’re an organization that makes and installs playgrounds. You can use FOIA to uncover the same information to become a better bidder.
How Can FOIA Help You Bid Better?
Gain Customer and Competitive Intelligence
Whether you are a startup or an established business, gaining customer and competitive intelligence is an important part of the business development process. Through FOIA, you can obtain RFPs for goods and/or services that you offer as well as competitor proposals and evaluation criteria to:
1. Uncover trends to improve your solution.
You’ve heard from your sales team that customers are increasingly seeking a feature that your solution doesn’t have. In gathering RFPs across your market, you can quantify the requirements for this feature. You now have data to show your solution team to prioritize the feature.
Maybe it will take a year for you (or your competitors) to develop this feature. However, in looking through the proposals from different bidders, you uncover a potential teaming partner, who submitted a partial response for the feature you don’t have. You team with them and ghost your competitors.
2. Formulate price-to-win.
According to the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP), price-to-win is, “a process for analyzing competitor and customer data to determine how other bidders are likely to position their solution and bid price.” In gathering competitors’ proposals, you can see their prices and compare them to yours. You can also determine what those in your market are willing to pay for similar solutions.
3. Improve your responses.
Asking for the evaluation criteria from RFPs you lost will give you insight into where to improve responses. Maybe a competitor received a better mark for a requirement you both met because their response was not only compliant but responsive. Maybe you were marked low because it was hard to find your answers to requirements.
Protect Your Intellectual Property
Not only can you gather your competitors’ proposals, but your competitors can also gather your proposals. It’s important you understand the public records laws that govern the agency to which you’re responding so you can protect sensitive and competitive information in your proposals.
Many agencies will ask for a redacted copy of your proposal as a requirement of the RFP, but if they don’t, it’s good to submit one anyway. If you don’t submit a redacted copy, you’re leaving the agency to guess at which information needs to be redacted, which can expose information you could be hiding from competitors.
Generally, you can’t redact the total cost of your solution, but you can redact line-item pricing. Some states require that you provide justification for anything you redact by citing the law that protects it from public records. These laws can vary state to state. I recommend working closely with your organization’s lawyer to come up with a strategy for redaction that is repeatable for all of your proposals. Additionally, make sure you follow all instructions regarding the submission of a redacted copy. Otherwise, you risk disqualification.
What Does an Effective FOIA Request Look Like?
Here are some tips for submitting an effective FOIA request:
1. Submit the request through the right outlet.
Every agency processes FOIA requests differently. Some may prefer requests submitted via email. Others may route requests through a website portal. Search the agency’s website to see if you can find an answer. If you can’t, give the administration office a call to ask where to submit the request. Don’t reach out to the RFP contact for this information.
2. Be direct.
Include exactly what you are looking for in your request, providing as much detail as possible. The following language is an example you can use:
“To Whom It May Concern,
I am submitting a request for public records relating to RFP NAME, NUMBER. I would like to receive copies of the RFP, all proposals submitted in response to this RFP, the completed evaluation criteria of the AGENCY NAME, and any other pertinent documents related to this RFP.”
3. Include your contact information.
The agency will not only need to know where to send the records, but if they need to clarify your request, they need to know how to follow up with you. It’s especially important to include your information if you’re submitting via a website portal instead of email.
4. Follow up.
Check your spam folders daily to make sure you haven’t missed communication about your request. Most agencies have a certain amount of days to respond to or provide your request. Make sure to set a reminder to follow up if you haven’t heard anything.
Understanding FOIA is an underrated skill. As a bidder, it can help you gain and keep a competitive edge. As a citizen, it can help you become more informed. In a time where competition is fierce and misinformation is rampant, isn’t it time you did your due diligence?
Mattie Scull, CP APMP, is a Professional Services Consultant at RFPIO Inc. Prior to that, she held various roles related to proposal management and content writing in the government technology sector. Mattie has a bachelor’s degree in English from Rollins College. You can connect with Mattie on LinkedIn.