A novice might think The MIS Department, a Chicago technology firm, would have no trouble winning government contracts.
The company has a proven track record engineering complex computer systems and building websites. It has done the arduous legwork of getting authorized to provide services to the federal government, the state of Illinois, Cook County and the city of Chicago. It’s even filed paperwork for 8(a) certification, which allows the company to compete for a special class of contracts reserved for minority-owned small businesses.
And, get this: Company president Rajeev Chopra was chief information officer for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, responsible for keeping a suite of information technology tools up and running for more than 2 million staffers and volunteers across 813 field offices.
But even with all that going for it, MIS, which stands for Management Information Systems, for years was unable to take a government contract to the finish line.
Why? Most of the company’s dozen or so employees were busy, for one thing, working on IT contracts with Chicago businesses and political groups in Washington that Chopra encountered during the campaign. That left only Devlin Kane, director of business development, to try to drum up government work.
“That’s a Herculean task for a small business without a specific contracting person,” Kane says. “It’s such inside baseball, and it really takes a working knowledge of government. We found two RFPs that fit our capabilities and, no joke, they were almost 300 pages. I don’t have time to read a 300-page RFP, let alone respond to it.”
RFP stands for request for proposal. The call for bids is one of the first tangible expressions of a contract that may eventually deliver a payroll system or a farmer’s aid program or a fighter jet.
The two RFPs Kane worked on were at the county level. Federal RFPs are, if anything, even more complex. They frequently add up to hundreds of pages divided between a dozen or more PDF and Word documents, all linked behind a generic title deep in the guts of FedBizOpps, the Federal Business Opportunities website.
“The amazing part to me is that all that length doesn’t equal clarity,” Kane says. “In all those behemoth contracts they still fail to articulate some pretty basic stuff.”
As a result, most federal contracts that aren’t reserved for small businesses go to big ones, and small firms that do win contracts tend to specialize in government work and its arcane ways.
One effort to improve this system is RFP-EZ, a Small Business Administration website that aims to match some low-cost technology projects with qualified companies that might not otherwise get them. RFP-EZ was built by a team of Presidential Innovation Fellows, government short-termers with extensive private sector experience. The site was designed to reduce the government’s grunt work on small technology contracts while opening federal work to small, innovative startups in Web design, data sharing and open source technologies.
SBA posted four contract filings to RFP-EZ during a beta test early this year. The White House and the Health and Human Services Department each posted one more. The RFPs were all short, usually less than a dozen pages. Instead of lengthy descriptions of business capabilities, they asked for Web links to companies’ relevant work.
MIS bid on two RFP-EZ contracts and won one to upgrade the website of the Small Business Investment Company program at SBA.
“Our whole response was 1,400 words,” Kane says. “The difference between reading a 200-page RFP and only having to write a 1,400-word response is pretty striking.”
Other reviews of the simplified process were also positive. The innovation fellows liked that RFP-EZ broadened the market. About half the beta test’s roughly 600 RFP-EZ bidders had never competed for a federal contract. The project’s federal sponsors liked that those new market entrants were offering lower prices, at least based on the small sample in the beta test. RFP-EZ contract winners bid 30 percent lower than competitors for the same contracts on FedBizOpps.
Jed Wood is a Chicago Web designer who worked on the RFP-EZ pilot. Making government more attractive to the startup set was the easy part, he says. The innovation fellows had roots in new companies and knew what was needed: shorter RFPs, more clarity, less hassle.
The harder part, he says, was building a system that appealed to risk-averse government contracting officers. The fellows spent hours going from one contracting officer to the next, asking how the team could make their lives easier.
They came up with a statement of work composer. Statements of work are typically attached to RFPs and explain exactly what the agency expects from a contractor at every step. Contracting officers labor over these documents because one false word can send a vendor down the wrong path or spark a legal dispute.
The RFP-EZ statement of work composer gives contracting officers a series of templates to work from when dealing with new or emerging fields so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel with each contract or layer on complicated legal language to cover their hides. The fellows team also built an automated bid monitor, which helps contracting officers sort through proposals.
Project RFP-EZ was renewed with a second round of innovation fellows in June. That team wants to set up RFP-EZ solicitations to automatically cross post to FedBizOpps, says Greg Godbout, an Arlington developer who’s working on the project. The team also wants to beef up the site’s base code and expand the project’s scope to include mobile app development and machine translation. More importantly, the fellows want to expand the number of agencies testing the tool.
The plan is to continuously update RPF-EZ based on users’ feedback rather than to aim for a “final version,” according to a project spokesman.
“Our goal all along was to think of this as just version one,” Wood says. “It was a six-month sprint and then we’d hand it off with lessons learned and a trail of breadcrumbs. They’ve taken our base code and now they’re getting to work on round two.”