Unofficial Oral Proposal Guide

The Biggest Concern When Using Oral Proposals

Usually when you think about the advantages of a new tool, you have to consider the disadvantages as well. I do not believe there are disadvantages to using oral proposals, but there is one huge concern: controlling the government team.

It is imperative, especially when oral proposals are used in source selections but also to a degree in sole source efforts, that the government team remain quiet. Quiet includes no sign language, no thumbs up or down or other gestures, no eye-rolling, no nodding or shaking heads, no grunts or heavy sighs or fake sneezes or adolescent sounds of things blowing up. I wish I were kidding, but I’ve heard it all.

Any of these things, whether well-intended or not, can drag out your source selection or negotiation. The team’s silence and poker faces are necessary to take maximum advantage of oral proposals, particularly the techniques in this guide. They cannot in any way give feedback to the vendor.

INSIGHT:

In one case, the Contracting Officer was worried that a member of the evaluation team would not evaluate quietly and would likely engage with the vendor during presentations. Their solution was to have that team member or even the entire evaluation team watch a live feed from another room. While this is certainly not ideal, it is one way to mitigate the risk of an errant evaluator. The downside is substantial, however, because the team should be sitting together and be in the same “headspace” to hear the oral proposal, see the vendor team’s body language, and note their personality dynamics—none of which are usually evaluation criteria but can foster a better understanding of the proposal. It’s also a little unnerving for the vendor to have face-to-face presentations when the other faces are not present.

I don’t want to scare you, because most teams are fantastic, but you should know that control of the team can be a problem for some source selections. If your team could be uncooperative and that keeps you up at night, you should either consider not using oral proposals or develop a risk mitigation plan for any mistakes they might make.

To conduct oral proposals successfully, you absolutely must have a strong leader in charge of the presentation/evaluation process, which I’ll describe in detail later in this guide. That leader can be the Contracting Officer, Program Manager, or—ideally—both working together. More than two leaders is too many and will only dilute your focus. If either of you is shy or uneasy about telling someone who outranks you to be quiet or leave, then you will need to bring in someone who can, or have your leader meaningfully declare that you in charge and everyone must answer to you for the duration of the presentation/evaluation process.

It’s generally best to have the Contracting Officer or Program Manager lead, but it’s acceptable to utilize a junior functional, such as a contract specialist in training to become a Contracting Officer, with the actual Contracting Officer present and coaching as part of the specialist’s professional development.

However, I have had a well-prepared contract specialist represent me—in conjunction with an experienced Program Manager who had previously worked with me on oral proposal evaluations—on a low-dollar acquisition during a family emergency that would otherwise have required 20 government employees and around 30 vendor employees to reschedule the presentations being held in conjunction with a conference to save travel costs. Things happen—you learn to roll with it.

It’s also appropriate to have the next level up, perhaps a Branch Chief or Division Chief who’s led orals many times and wants to teach the process.

It’s not ideal if the leader has zero experience with orals, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work with proper preparation. It’s also possible to have an Advisory and Assistance Services (A&AS) contractor or a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) contractor lead the orals, if it’s within scope of their contract, but be careful about having a support contractor represent the technical team. Some vendors might view this as a foul or question the government’s dedication to the acquisition. If you do use a support contractor to lead the process, be sure to have appropriate non-disclosure agreements in place and make it clear that that person is there only to facilitate, not to replace the Contracting Officer or Program Manager.

The Contracting Officer and Program Manager as a team is best, but if neither is outspoken enough to control the team, others presented here are all better solutions than losing control.

INSIGHT:

An involved General Officer or Senior Executive Service (SES) member might want to sit through the first day of oral proposals to set the tone, ideally not taking center stage to ensure the presentation is directed at the team. Sitting in on one vendor’s presentation but not others might also send the wrong message to competitors. The General Officer or SES might also let the evaluation team know that they expect professionalism from the team and exciting solutions from the vendors—and will be viewing the video of the presentations. Normally you won’t see this kind of personal interest unless the acquisition is extremely high-visibility or controversial, or passes the $1B threshold.

 

It’s tough to be a quiet GS-12 Contracting Officer with a forceful GS-15 subject matter expert sitting at the table as an evaluator who keeps interrupting the vendor in mid-presentation with suggestions of how they would have proposed if they were the vendor. If that happens, you must call a halt to the time-keeping and the presentation and deal with the errant individual or the oral proposal process will fail. This may mean sending the vendor out of the room temporarily or asking the evaluator to step out for a private discussion, but you cannot allow the evaluator to continue to interrupt with feedback. The additional negative is that the vendor’s presentation is further disrupted…and the government team appears unprofessional.

INSIGHT:

An involved General Officer or Senior Executive Service (SES) member might want to sit through the first day of oral proposals to set the tone, ideally not taking center stage to ensure the presentation is directed at the team. Sitting in on one vendor’s presentation but not others might also send the wrong message to competitors. The General Officer or SES might also let the evaluation team know that they expect professionalism from the team and exciting solutions from the vendors—and will be viewing the video of the presentations. Normally you won’t see this kind of personal interest unless the acquisition is extremely high-visibility or controversial, or passes the $1B threshold.

What happens when you can’t control your team? Let’s look at two examples.

  1. In the first case, an evaluator asks a question during the clarification part of the process, without funneling the question through the government lead or discussing it first with the government team.

He’s been warned to observe and evaluate in silence, but he’s used to being in charge and asking questions. He’s not a bad guy—it’s just in his nature to jump in and ask questions. He honestly sees nothing wrong with his interjection.

The Contracting Officer is too surprised to act and the Program Manager co-lead doesn’t want to shut down his supervisor. The evaluator’s question may be a good one, but it shifts the interaction from a simple clarification to discussions and infuses another vendor’s approach, without naming them or expressing that it is someone else’s approach.

The vendor now realizes what’s missing from their proposal and answers the question in a way that incorporates the idea that was unintentionally provided.

The integrity of the source selection has now been violated, your plans for a fast award without discussions have been blown, and your schedule just added probably another month of discussions when you had a clear winner who already presented yesterday. You now may not be able to award by the end of September and you have expiring funds.

  1. In the second case, one of the evaluators begins to nod profusely during the vendor’s presentation. The Contracting Officer is the lead but thinks the evaluator will rein in her exuberance. She doesn’t.

As the presentation ends, the vendor’s presenter unexpectedly shakes hands with evaluators on the front row, including their obvious fan, who squeezes the presenter’s hand and proclaims, “Fantastic! That’s exactly what we’re looking for!”

Out of over a dozen proposals, this vendor isn’t even in the top half at the end of the source selection, even though the vendor struck a chord with a single evaluator in the room. When the vendor doesn’t win, they protest, pointing out that the government admitted their proposal was exactly what the government was looking for. After all, a whole room full of people heard the evaluator say that.

Eventually, the government wins the protest, but months of lead time have been lost.

Lest you think the problem only occurs in source selections, let’s consider a third example.

  1. The vendor is presenting orally in a sole source situation, which generally means the rules aren’t quite as strict as in a competitive environment because you’re not worried about source selection sensitive information escaping.

An evaluator interrupts the presentation to make a comment that seems innocuous but actually gives away the fact that the Program Manager has recently located an additional million dollars in “fall-out money” near fiscal year-end.

The vendor uses this information to increase the proposal cost, expand the technical work, and drive the negotiation down to the fiscal year-end wire to keep from leaving money on the table.

By now you’re probably thinking, I’ll never keep my team quiet so I might as well forget trying oral proposals! How you handle your evaluation team will be a result of your personality, your authority over the team, and the team’s personalities. Each team will be a little different.

In some cases, Program Managers who are the lead during the oral proposals and have supervisory influence over the team members can explain that if the team can’t stay quiet and shutter their emotions in front of the vendor, then breaking the rules of engagement will have consequences at appraisal time. Others take the carrot approach over the stick and promise cash awards or great resume credit if the team gets through the oral proposal and evaluation process smoothly within a certain period of time.

How you handle herding your team will be entirely up to you. You’ll figure out what works best for you, but for me, I “threatened” my teams in a humorous way consistent with my personality. Most of it was lighthearted promises to duct-tape their mouths shut if they couldn’t control their natural instincts to philosophize about the engineering aspects of the vendor’s proposal. Sometimes I would furrow my brow and say, “Don’t make me come after you,” while tapping a wooden ruler on my palm. Then, just for the visual reminder, I would casually drop a roll of duct tape or a ruler on the table in front of the evaluators just before the vendor walked into the room to present. I found that humor worked well for easy-going teams who needed only to be gently reminded of the rules we had set. Sometimes humor didn’t work though, and a few times I needed heavier-handed methods to drive home the seriousness of this process and how to make it work without a hitch. This meant meeting with my government team the day before or the day of the first oral proposal briefing and asking them if they thought they could keep quiet during the process. If I had a particular evaluator who balked at not asking questions whenever and however they wanted, I would look the person in the eyes and ask if they could abide by this simple rule while the vendor was in the room with us.

Do it for me.

Do it for the whole hard-working team.

Do it for the warfighter who needs this product on time.

Usually the answer was a sheepish or reluctant yes, but at least once, for a high-visibility acquisition, I had to have a heart-to-heart with an evaluator who blew off the rules with jokes. I had to explain, “If you insist on blurting out whatever question pops into your head, whenever you want, while the vendor is briefing, our timeline goes out the window and we won’t be able to meet our deadline. Your teammates will be disappointed in you and in all the hard work they’ve wasted. Everyone will see that you are the reason for the delay. Do. Not. Blow. It.” Never underestimate the power of shame to get some people to fall in line.

Depending on your team and your personality, you might find it hard when some team members don’t like you at this point, particularly the ones who don’t want to give up control for a few hours or days. They’ll get over it. They may not like you when you tell them to evaluate in silence, but they will like the reduced lead time.

Interestingly enough, the evaluators and advisors who needed the heaviest warnings to stay quiet during the presentation and evaluation process became the biggest fans of oral proposals and became very responsive of anything I asked of them later. Prior to and during the vendor presentation, they grumbled and openly resented giving over control to the Program Manager or me.

“You can’t tell me I can’t talk during the briefing,” they’d tell me.

By around two-thirds of the process on the first day and definitely by the time we were solidly into the last stage, they saw the magic and came to appreciate how fast the process went and how well they understood the proposal.

Two other things really help in getting your team on the same page.

  1. Make sure your team is available during the entire time needed for the presentations so that you have the same evaluators and advisors hearing all the vendors’ briefings. This means they are fully dedicated to the source selection, with dedicated referring to time and focus, not necessarily mindset. No TDYs, no vacation, no projects back in the office. If at all possible, no medical appointments or anything personal that might take them out of the source selection. You want the entire team hearing the briefings at the same time.

This may seem a bit harsh, but I’ve routinely completed the technical proposal/evaluation process in a week using the techniques in this guide, regardless of the dollar value of the acquisition, as well as with some source selections with a large number of vendors that still wrapped up within three weeks. The trade-off here is that a fully dedicated and focused team might complete their part in the evaluation in a week and head back to their regular jobs, medical appointments, school plays, haircuts, and tdys. It’s a short period of pain for such a big payoff.

  1. The best way to prepare a team so that control isn’t such a concern and they’re all on the same page is to conduct a mock source selection, as close to a dress rehearsal as possible.

Set up your mock run exactly as you would the real presentation, including the same location, entire team, worksheets or evaluation software, everything. It’s best to schedule it a few days before the first vendor presentation, maybe even the day before the proposal due date when the cost proposal and written materials are received, so that you have a little more relaxed time for the trial version. It’s not enough to do a simple run-through so you know the structure of the oral proposal and evaluation process. Like a team of actors doing a dress rehearsal, you need to do more than simply block out a scene on stage. This might not be necessary for study contracts in the $500K range, but for a large source selection in the $500M range, you certainly need the practice. Your anxiety level and the acquisition’s complexity and size will determine whether you need a mock run.

TIP:

If you use a mock run, you might as well have a little fun with making it as real as possible. Recruit three fake vendors to help. Choose people who like to ad lib and have some knowledge of your technical requirement, such as advisors who have been a part of the acquisition planning.

 

Set up the briefing area with all your equipment, know where power switches are, practice with the stopwatch and video equipment if you use any. However you plan to conduct the official orals, make the mock run as realistic as possible. Set aside a full day to practice and note the areas that need improvement while you have time to fix them.

 

You may also combine the mock run with a day or two days of focused source selection training, to include training on any source selection evaluation software. You’ll want to use the source selection software during your mock run.

 

Give the three mock vendors the requirement for them to present their abbreviated solution to, including the evaluation criteria that they are to propose against. Instead of giving them the full official time period for a presentation, give them no more than ten minutes each. Regardless of the requirement, give each the solution to be presented: 1. Time Travel, 2. Zombie Reanimation, and 3. Black magic. See? Make it fun. Then give them these instructions: Mock vendor #1 hits all evaluation criteria, #2 leaves a few holes that can be covered in the clarification process, and #3 just keeps saying, “Trust me, I can do it.” Run each mock presentation through the entire process to better understand the flow.

 

You can make the mock run even more realistic by having three short versions of oral proposals presented by mock vendors who are familiar enough with the subject matter to hit all the evaluation criteria. The mock vendors will likely be advisors to the team who can craft a realistic mini-proposal. This way, if the team needs to be assessed to see if they understand the subject matter well enough to evaluate it, the Program Manager and Contracting Officer can assess the team’s ability to spot strengths, weaknesses, etc. If a mock vendor presents a technical approach riddled with deficiencies, the team should be able to spot them. If not, it might be better to give the vendors an extra week while the team gets its act together.

 

TIP:

You can make the mock run even more realistic by having three short versions of oral proposals presented by mock vendors who are familiar enough with the subject matter to hit all the evaluation criteria. The mock vendors will likely be advisors to the team who can craft a realistic mini-proposal. This way, if the team needs to be assessed to see if they understand the subject matter well enough to evaluate it, the Program Manager and Contracting Officer can assess the team’s ability to spot strengths, weaknesses, etc. If a mock vendor presents a technical approach riddled with deficiencies, the team should be able to spot them. If not, it might be better to give the vendors an extra week while the team gets its act together.

  

TIP:

Reconcile yourself to the fact that things go wrong in a source selection, no matter how well you plan for it.

 

Things happen. The tornado warning, a presenter with a health issue, a real-world event hits the news and the requirement is suddenly overcome by the event, the team realizes during the first presentation that a key part of the requirement was not correctly expressed in the solicitation, the meth lab at the opposite end of the facility blows up, the Program Manager’s estranged daughter just accepted a job with one of the vendors and he has to recuse himself immediately, the building manager has a public meltdown.

 

Things happen that you could not have foreseen, no matter how proactive you were or how well you planned. Accept that.

 

Then set it in your mind that whatever unexpected thing does happen, you and your team will roll with it. You’ll do the best you can and you’ll figure out a solution. Because that’s all you can do. As a veteran of dozens upon dozens of source selections, I can tell you that something unexpected will always go wrong, and sometimes it’s a doozy. There is no such thing as a perfect source selection.

 

Plan for as many things as you can foresee, and the rest? Have confidence in yourself and your team members—including legal counsel—that you will be able to respond logically and professionally when something unplanned kicks the chair out from under you and you need to act immediately.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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