Experimental website aims to overhaul RFP process

Friday - 1/25/2013, 5:44am EST

Clay Johnson, Presidential Innovation Fellow

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Never again should an agency try to buy the services of an "information distribution platform designer."

Never again should vendors have to write hundreds of pages to bid on a potential contract.

And never again should contracting officers have to copy and paste from old and unproven request for proposals to create a new one.

Ensuring these things actually never happen again are the simple goals of RFP-EZ, one of the first pilot programs delivered by the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program.

Clay Johnson, a fellow who leads the RFP-EZ effort, said the experimental approach is set up to help agencies buy Web and digital professional services under the Simplified Acquisition Threshold of between $3,000 and $150,000. The program also is trying to simplify the process by which small businesses find and bid on federal opportunities.

Clay Johnson, Presidential Innovation Fellow

He said the goal is to build "tools for contracting officers and program offices to write better RFPs and streamline the processes they go through in order to procure or acquire something."

The other goal is to help small businesses "sign up to sell to government and make it easier to send bids in that are high quality and discover contracts that they may not have discovered before."

One of five start-up projects

The Small Business Administration, which is the agency managing partner for the program, announced the launch of RFP-EZ last week. It will run for six months and is open to all agencies.

The White House launched the Presidential Innovation Fellows program in May with a goal of bringing in experts to jumpstart five projects. Over 6-to-12 months, the private sector fellows would bring a start-up mentality to meet short-term goals for each of the projects.

The RFP-EZ program started out with the idea of helping small innovative firms do business with the government. But what Johnson and his team of two others — Jed Wood, an interaction designer, Web developer and entrepreneur from Chicago, and Adam Becker, a Web developer and co-founder of civic engagement startup GovHub from Oakland — found out, there was "low-hanging" fruit, a need and a strong return on investment potential to help agency contracting officers too.

"Where our real discovery came is that there's so much low-hanging fruit around the software contracting officer use and streamlining that process," Johnson said. "While our primary goal is helping small businesses, when we came in and saw the processes that contracting officers were using, we thought we could build some pretty interesting and innovative tools for those guys who do some pretty advanced stuff. A lot of the more menial work contracting officers must do can be automated. That is where we saw early a lot of where rewards were."

Rating, sharing SOWs

One of the areas Johnson said the team saw an opportunity was in helping contracting officers and program managers write RFPs more easily and more clearly.

He said what often happens is acquisition workers will borrow RFPs from others who bought similar products or services and kluge together a new solicitation.

"Usually, because of the way it was made, sort of written by committee, written by bunches of different people, it yields a generally bad result because vendors can't find it," he said. "That's why you see things on FedBizOpps that you need an information distribution platform provider, when you really need a Web page designer. No Web designer would go to FedBizOpps and look for contracts that say information distribution platform provider."

The SOW composer tool lets contracting officers share statements of work and make it less repetitive to create them.

"What you are able to do is see all the statements of work that have gone through the system before and how well it performed," Johnson said. "It's a Word document with comments on how well it worked, how many times it was used before and how well it worked. It makes it so you are never starting from scratch and you aren't hodge-podging things together."

As for vendors, RFP-EZ is simplifying both the find and bid portions of the procurement process.

"It makes it so your statements of work, your projects are more discoverable. The website works well. It's something that you have a good user experience with," Johnson said. "The third way is we are not asking small businesses anymore to send in 60 page Word documents as a proposal."

Vendors must answer the same four questions for every RFP:

  • What would your approach be to solve this problem?

  • What have you done in the past that indicates that you would be good at solving this problem?

  • Who is going to work on this project?

  • How much will it cost?

Companies also can create a profile that includes prior work experience, websites and other information. The site also lets communication between the contracting officer and vendor happen more directly and openly through an online tool.

Johnson said so far 200 companies have signed up to bid on RFPs. SBA has issued four solicitations so far, including seeking help to improve the Small Business Innovation Research website and the Small Business Investment Company portal.

"We'll have three or four more agencies participating in the next couple of weeks," he said.

Six month trial run

By May, Johnson said he hopes RFP-EZ will help prove whether changing the federal procurement process and opening it up to more companies is an achievable goal.

SBA and the fellows will take RFP-EZ down after its trial run, figure out where it needs to be improved and relaunch it at a later date with the expectation of opening it up to other services and potentially products.

"All three of people on the team are small business owners, so we sort of knew what it is we expected out of the system and went around and talked to a lot of small businesses," Johnson said. "What we learned, no one likes writing proposals and no one likes reading them either. So let's simplify that process and make it bionic, cheaper, smarter, better and faster."

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