A Practitioner’s First Government 2.0 Experience — Ugh

I thought I’d share a quick story about my company’s first foray into Government 2.0. I’d love feedback or tips especially from government folks after you read our story.

In November, we were approached by a City agency to bid on a contract to help them modernize their Internet Marketing efforts. The contract was for a relatively modest amount of money… far less than our rates for a similar project in the private sector. However, the RFP was written as if it was intended for us. The skills required were a perfect fit for our company. Given that we wanted to reach out to this particular City anyhow, we decided to draft a proposal to fit within their budgetary needs.

The proposal writing experience was not difficult, but it was very time-consuming. All proposals were required to include extensive details on how the project was to be conducted. At times, we were expected to explain proprietary methods of completing certain types of work. Several of the sections of the proposal were duplicative or a few shades off another section of the proposal. In the end, two people on our team spent 7 days getting the 38 page proposal completed… all for a project in the low five figure range.

We delivered the proposal on time and in conjunction with City guidelines. The Award Date for the proposal was February 10. We waited with great anticipation of the Award, because we felt that we had a great chance to win the contract.

It’s March 6th now, and we haven’t heard a single thing from the City regarding the contract. As far as we can tell, it hasn’t been awarded. I have called three people in the City to just get an update, and I only get voicemail. I can’t get any information.

I’m a little burned up about this experience because we spent a lot of time putting the proposal together & fitting it into the way this particular City does business. We did everything that was asked of us, which included a lot of paperwork that seemed duplicative in some cases… unnecessary in others. We haven’t even gotten the courtesy of an update.

So… my questions for government professionals out there:
1) are delays like this common in the public sector?
2) are government professionals generally aware of the difficulty/time involved in producing proposals?

The proposal time is a big deal because it eats into the profitability of projects. I would think government folks would want these types of endeavors to be profitable for consultants/service providers, so you’d get the best/brightest from industry working on your problems. I am beginning to wonder if the process is so difficult, that Industry & Government can’t really come together in meaningful ways that benefit both sides of the equation.

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Adriel Hampton

I would term this “Social Media Meets Government.” Nothing 2.0 about it, and nothing atypical. In 2005, it took a about a year for SF to hire someone. That’s been cut to 92 days with HR reform, but many of the problems in HR took at least TWO GENERATIONS to change, and many have not yet been addressed.
Chris, I am sorry to hear of your frustrations, and I hope it will not turn you off completely from doing biz w/government.

Chris Treadaway

I have also, Dennis, but more often than not when a someone in the private sector really wants or needs the help with Web 2.0, they tend to make decisions quickly.

I don’t intend for this to turn into a rant about government process, but I do think that the level of documentation, the amount of waiting, lack of transparency, etc. are all things that are wholly inconsistent with the spirit of Web 2.0. Armed with the right knowledge, it doesn’t take very long to set up social media for a government agency/initiative and begin to monitor results. I’m disappointed that in my first Government 2.0 endeavor, the contracting process (assuming it comes to completion at all) is taking valuable time that could be spent on actually solving the problems.

Darren Buck

I’ve been on both sides, initially as a Federal contracting officer, and then preparing bids for a very small business (an owner, a bookkeeper, and I dropping our day-to-day responsibilities and working through weekends to get proposals and revisions in). A few over-generalizations:

–Like many situations where one hasn’t experienced it firsthand, most in government probably don’t really fully appreciate the proposal prep process. Or the impact of delays, or the time to decode RFPs and contract documents.
–Most in private industry don’t appreciate that getting the award done doesn’t carry the same life-or-death urgency on the other side. A company may be relying on award as an entree to a valued new customer, or a prestigious boost to their customer list, or even necessary cashflow to keep the doors open. Your fortunes are greatly improved or worsened by the award decision. The stakes are rarely that high on the other side. In fact, there’s often little up- or downside, other than a check in the box that an award was made. Doesn’t excuse non-communication, of course, but something to keep in mind.
–People work hard to develop their business, their methods, their processes. What may seem to the government to be necessary to evaluate is for the bidder a big risky nerve-wracking leap of faith, and that is never fully appreciated. Requirements folks ought to critically examine what they really truly need, and not just what they want, to fairly evaluate a proposal.
–Everybody needs to write their proposal with cool emotions. The government is picking the low bidder, or the evaluated best value bubba, or whatever. If you really poured your heart and soul into the bid, really feel that you could deliver a first-class product, and bid with a big discount off your normal price, don’t expect gratitude, or relief from the torrent of administrative demands and hassles that come with a government contract. Price the downside in, and take your emotions out of your bid.
–Delays, especially delays off of promised milestones, are obviously bad. But the same cumbersome system that can stretch the simplest procurement into an ordeal also affords the bidder a level of merit-based protection that most other customers don’t. The award delayed due to a protest is cause for howling, until you’re the losing bidder with a complaint.

Dennis McDonald

I hear you Chris and share your frustration. It’s especially frustrating when you’re an independent and they … just … don’t … tell … you … what’s … happening.

Along the lines of the same topic, I was interviewing a sales manager today for a white paper I’m developing for Social Media Today and Oracle about using Web 2.0 methods to support improved communication and collaboration in the sales process. He told me quite sincerely that he was concerned that some purchasers might use “web 2.0” collaboration methods to keep vendors at arms length until they are ready to have face to face meetings, which is where the real scoop about competition and budget, he felt, would be accessible. In other words, use techniques that should increase transparency of a process to control and/or reduce the transparency of a process. I admit I hadn’t thought about that angle before but it’s worth thinking about.

Dennis McDonald, Ph.D.
Alexandria Virginia USA

Chris Treadaway

Darren – thanks for your balanced perspective… very interesting. We learned our lesson with regard to the time & effort required for a government RFP. I want to do more of this kind of work, but at the same time we can’t do it if we’ll burn our margin on proposal preparation costs. I’m sure a lot of other folks feel similarly.

Darren Buck

Thanks, and good luck, Chris. It will never be easy, but with your first proposal under your belt, it will likely be easier next time around.

Dennis McDonald

Chris – back when I was doing nothing but Government contract research, a rule of thumb I quickly learned was “It costs as much to sell a $10,000 contract as it does to sell a $100,000 contract,” given all the hoops to jump. I wonder if that has changed given the specialized procurement methods targeting small businesses?

Kimberly Keith

Hi Chris,
My experience with government contracting has been positive in terms of stated timeframes and notifications from state government. I can feel your pain on those long weekends of proposal writing. I agree with Darren’s assessment of the obstacles on both sides; especially for small businesses, that’s a lot of time spent unproductively. It sounds like this city is where most are, not too 2.0.

Ari Herzog

Why was a government agency approaching YOU vs you approaching THEM? If the RFP was out, why would they take an extra step?

Chris Treadaway

Kimberly – great… I hope this is a rare occurrence.

Ari – I approached them about something & they sent me a copy of the RFP. I think they were looking for companies to do the project.

Carolyn Shannon

Hi Chris,

Well, I’ve been on both sides of this equation. On the side of the bidder, it does get easier as you do more of them and can boilerplate some of it. Trouble is, this is such new territory that in many instances these are pilot programs, and pilot programs are notoriously susceptible to budget cuts.

Also remember that city budgets rely on incoming tax revenues (property tax/federal and state distributions/sales tax revenues) – sometimes these allocations are delayed, which delays other decisions. And remember that city budgets provide services like fire, police, road maintenance, and other critical stuff, so if budget shifts or delays do need to happen, gov 2.0 is going to move down the list of priorities.

Now all you need to do is add a local election to that mix and you can have some significant possibilities for distractions and delays. That’s not to say the project won’t happen, but yes it is possible that things might get delayed.

If you’re looking for clues, look at the local news. Is the city facing a budget deficit? Is there an election? You can use a lot of these to tailor a sales message as well, to help improve your case. Local governments are a unique kind of service organization. I know it doesn’t lessen the frustration (and poor communication is frustrating no matter the reason), but maybe you could look at this as an opportunity. These are tough times for cities as well as their residents.

Chris Treadaway

All’s well that ends well… we were awarded the contract!!! We’ll be working with a government agency to help small businesses market themselves better. Can’t wait… but I’m glad we have our first major Government 2.0 deal in place. Will have to write a bit as we go… along with a post-mortem.