In the task of relationship building with the government, you need to know that the government actually wants industry to approach government customers. FAR part 15.201, “Exchanges with industry before receipt of proposals,” states: “Exchanges of information among all interested parties, from the earliest identification of a requirement through receipt of proposals, are encouraged.”
The FAR then states that the purpose of exchanging information is to improve the understanding of government requirements and industry capabilities, thereby allowing potential offerors to judge whether or how they can satisfy the government’s requirements, and enhancing the government’s ability to obtain quality supplies and services at reasonable prices. The FAR goes on to express the government’s desire to further increase efficiency in proposal preparation, proposal evaluation, negotiation, and contract award. The same law encourages one-on-one meetings with potential offerors.
You will find that despite this law, the govies are often worried about breaking the procurement integrity rules—so you will have to learn when to talk to them, and when not to. Generally speaking, you can talk to the government freely before they have developed an acquisition strategy (or the way they are going to run the competition) for a specific pursuit, and then the communications become increasingly limited and formal. Therefore, you want to start as early as possible before their doors shut.
In reality, your opportunity to interface with the government gradually diminishes as the acquisition lifecycle progresses. For example, when the government identifies a need and performs market research, your chances of talking to them and their openness with you are the greatest. They may be willing to meet one on one, and tell you much of what you need to know to win. Once they publish an RFI or Sources Sought, they might treat the meetings more officially if it is a large procurement; if it is a small procurement, you might still be able to talk to them freely. This will be especially true if you write a detailed response to their RFI with lots of useful advice on how they should run acquisition and what should be in the statement of work. Often the government will meet with you only in an official setting after an RFI. They will no longer accept personal meetings. They won’t necessarily disclose what they discuss with you with othe! r bidders, but the contracting officer will be there to provide “adult supervision” to make sure that the government maintains a level playing field. This presents a tougher way to build relationships.
Once they develop an acquisition plan and possibly even issue a draft RFP, your opportunities to talk with them in private will all but disappear. In rare cases, they might still set up one-on-one meetings, but now you will be under the careful watch of a contracting officer, who is interested at avoiding protests at any costs, and will enforce the strictest possible interpretation of the rules. So, unless they have decades of government experience and know the rules really well, meeting participants are unlikely to be forthcoming with information that might give you a leg up on your competition.
With a draft RFP on the street, you will still be able to ask questions and provide recommendations in writing that they might or might not make public. More often than not, they will post a public Q&A response list.
There could also be a set of official vendor outreach events such as an Industry Day, or a site visit. This will provide an opportunity to ask questions in a public forum, or even have a word with the govie at the end of the meeting. Keep in mind, though, that your competitors will be lurking, listening, and watching your every step.
After they issue the final RFP, the government will not meet with you and will not discuss any details of the procurement unless their vendor outreach event or site visit happens during the RFP phase (as is customary in certain industries, such as construction, and happens occasionally in other industries). You might still be able to weigh in on the RFP requirements, but now it all has to be in writing, addressed to the contracting officer, and published for the rest of the world to see. The customer is also likely to reject any major changes, as you should have proposed them long ago. Questions are often due by an early deadline, with little opportunity to digest the RFP. Everything is disclosed to all competitors to avoid preferential treatment.
On many multiple award contracts, the door is almost permanently shut for each task order. It is difficult to get any information on the upcoming requirements before they turn into a formal procurement. Rules vary from contract to contract, so your capture cycle has to start even earlier.
There is always a way to go through the back door and meet with the government in an unofficial setting before the draft RFP or the final RFP are issued (or in rare cases, even after). However, this is usually done only through pre-existing close relationships.
As you are building any relationship with a customer, you can only go and see the same person so often. You won’t succeed in building a relationship if you only allot a couple of months to do it—it takes much, much longer, because your visits have to be spaced out over time. Your best bet is therefore to get to the right people early.