Preparing Complex Acquisition— How to Strategize, Set Requirements, and Avoid the Dreaded “P” Word

Introduction

Preparing for a complex acquisition can be a daunting task for any government contracting officer (CO). From navigating the complexities of the Federal Acquisition Regulation, to keeping up with the latest technology trends, the CO’s tasks can seemingly be unachievable. There are four main themes Noblis uses to help our clients achieve acquisition success. Starting with the strategy and planning phase, you’ll learn how important it is to have a clearly defined source selection strategy—this will serve as the “playbook” to keep the process on time and within budget. Next, it is equally important during the solicitation development phase to correctly define the contract requirements the first time—vendors cannot give the government what it needs unless the government can describe it well. When it is time to move into the source selection phase, choosing the right evaluation team can be the difference between success and failure. Our final theme explores the implementation of effective tools to help avoid delays brought on by evaluation inefficiencies which ultimately could lead to that dreaded “p” word—protests.

Strategy and Planning – Creating the right playbook for success

The most common reasons for a successful client protest are that Acquisition teams:

  • Do not maintain adequate documentation
  • Commit errors in conducting discussions with offerors
  •  Have flaws in the price evaluation
  • Fail to adhere to the established criteria.

The key in mitigating risks throughout the acquisition process is to have a well-defined acquisition strategy and to follow the plan. Documentation is key to defending the award decision. Often evaluation teams believe that less documentation will decrease the chance for errors. In our experience, we found that a well-documented plan provides greater protection from protests. A detailed communication plan is essential to ensuring fair and equal treatment amongst all offerors. This does not necessarily mean that the evaluation is done in isolation—in fact, the more transparent the process is and the earlier you involve industry, the more you reduce the risk of issues in the source selection phase. To ensure that the pricing is done correctly, it is crucial to have a well-documented plan in place. A clear bid model provided to the offerors, although this causes a front-heavy workload for the government team, becomes beneficial in the long run by making the vendor’s proposals easier to evaluate. Lastly, the most common of the four reasons for a successful protest is not adhering to the stated evaluation criteria. The key to avoiding this fatal mistake is to have a clearly defined set of evaluation ground rules and to share those ground rules with the team before starting the evaluation. No matter how many evaluations the team members have worked on, each evaluation is unique and requires its own set of processes. If changes are made during the evaluation process, it is critical that an amendment be posted and the offerors have a chance to respond to the changes. Remember, create a great acquisition playbook, and follow through on the plan to ensure successful acquisition outcomes.

Solicitation Development – Getting the requirements right. 

How do you know if the requirements are right?  It is more art than science.  Let’s start with a simple concept—good requirements are essential for successful acquisitions. You can’t get what you need unless you can describe it well. The four keys to ensuring good requirements are to make sure that they:

  • Are clear and unambiguous
  • Reflect the needs of the end-users
  • Consider the capabilities of the supplier
  • Are carefully stress tested

The requirements must be written in a way that minimizes the range of interpretations—both on the government side and within industry. Industry days facilitate open communication between government and industry which helps minimize ambiguity during the requirement gathering phase. It is key to know who the stakeholders are and to include them in the process early and often. This includes the program staff, contracting staff and end users. If the acquisition does not meet the end user’s needs or is difficult for them to use, the effort to complete the acquisition will go to waste.

To ensure success, it is important to view industry as a partner in the effort.   The government must consider the technology and trends within industry to ensure that a solution is available, affordable and realistic. Poorly written requirements increase the risk of failure and increase the likelihood of a successful protest. Finally, it is important to put the requirements to the test before the final request for proposals (RFP) is posted. Requirements should be reviewed by not only asking the question “does this meet what I need?” but also by asking “can these be interpreted to mean anything else?”

The requirements testing should occur both internally, probing end users and program staff to review, as well as externally via a request for information (RFI) and draft solicitation responses. Following this process will allow the team to fix any inconsistencies and ensure there are clear requirements necessary to achieve a successful acquisition outcome.

Evaluation – Select the Winning Team 

When we talk about selecting a winning team, you might be thinking that we’re referring to who wins the competition.  The true key to a successful acquisition is the compilation of the evaluation team. The old cliché “you’re only as strong as your weakest link” is very much true to a successful acquisition outcome. Instead of selecting based on experience or skill, many acquisition teams are compiled based on whoever is available at the time—those are the acquisitions that tend to fail.

It is imperative to choose team members with the necessary skills relevant to the requirements of the acquisition. This can be achieved by utilizing expertise from inside—and outside—an organization, including non-voting subject matter expertise if necessary. The six important criteria to ensuring a successful acquisition team are selecting team members that have:

  • A thorough knowledge of the domain, products and services
  • Strong oral and written communication skills
  • The ability to work cooperatively and professionally, and be able to come to a consensus
  • The knowledge to protect source selection sensitive information
  • Reviewed the vendor list and are free from any personal conflicts of interest
  • Availability for the duration, and dedicated to the completion of the source selection

It is equally important that the team members selected to participate in the source selection receive buy-in from their “home” organization—meaning that they must be temporarily relieved of their day-to-day responsibilities to focus and ensure they are able to meet often tight deadlines and demands of a source selection. Another key is selecting team leads who are fair, unbiased and possess the ability to bring together team members with opposing viewpoints. Consensus is critically important to the success of the acquisition team, so selecting team leads who can navigate schedules and personalities will go a long way in achieving success. Bottom line: A winning source selection team is the key to the success of the acquisition.

Implementation – Technology can facilitate successful acquisitions 

Today, technology is essential to our everyday life—from smart phones to smart cars, there is no denying how much improvement technology can bring to an individual. This is also true when it comes to achieving acquisition success.

One of the common protest filings in federal acquisitions is a lack of thorough documentation to ensure the selection process was conducted fairly. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), a substantial and complex set of rules governing the federal government’s purchasing process, was established to explicitly favor competition, lower prices and level the playing field for contractors who wish to do business with the government. Thus, government officials who want to ensure success and avoid protest must keep thorough documentation.

Great documentation lowers the risk of failure. Use of an automated acquisition tool, such as Noblis’ AcquTrak, can help the contracting officer (CO) manage the source selection documentation.  Acquisition tools are used to help facilitate the process but they do not replace the expertise of the evaluators—who must use their judgement and past experience to determine if the solution presented by the offerors meets the requirements specified in the evaluation criteria.   Acquisition tools also helps to ensure a consistent, fair evaluation for all offerors, keeping the evaluation team from falling into the trap of comparing offerors against each other.

In addition to assisting the evaluation team, the right tool can also play a vital role in collecting all documentation required to successfully defend the contract award. From preparing reports for the Source Selection Authority, to developing debriefs and gathering data to successfully defend protests, an acquisition tool can be a CO’s best resource during these stressful times. The documentation doesn’t simply end once the contract is awarded only to be filed away; successful implementation, too, requires its own considerable share of documentation.  Often it is critical to go back to the acquisition documentation during contract implementation—particularly to help with clarifying misunderstandings and to “hold the contractor’s feet to the fire” on what is needed to achieve success.  Remember, the contract award is not the end of the acquisition process.

Summary

The acquisition process is a lot of arduous work.  If done correctly, however, it can provide excellent results to the government team for years to come. It starts with strategy development— creating the “playbook” for the acquisition teams—followed by getting the requirements right, choosing a winning team and using the right tools to help manage documentation. All these steps are vital to the success of an acquisition process.  Remembering that the acquisition life cycle is much longer than just the selection of the vendor is the best way to ensure a sustainable and affordable program. Don’t go at it alone — bring in the right partners to help conquer your acquisition challenge!

For over 30 years, Noblis has been helping government COs achieve success in acquisition programs. We do this by being in a unique position—being absent of stakeholders or pre-determined solutions—allowing us to provide our government clients with the very best unbiased acquisition expertise.  99% of our acquisitions have completed without a successful protest, and we have helped our clients to the tune of over $400B in acquisition value.  Some of Noblis recent successes include GSA’s Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) – a potential $50B telecommunications contract to support government agencies through 2032, and DOD’s Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization (DHMSM), a 4B contract to provide electronic health records to the DOD through 2030.  To learn more about Noblis’ acquisition tools and expertise, visit www.acquisitionexcellence.org