Unofficial Oral Proposal Guide
The “Equity Lens”
While oral proposals, or “oral presentations of technical proposals,” have been utilized occasionally by Government acquisition professionals to shorten the contracting process significantly and to attain a better understanding of a proposed solution, a variant known as “pitch days” has become a primary method of exploring game-changing technologies. Although established large companies are usually allowed to participate in pitch days, the non-traditional defense contractors—startups and small firms, in particular—gain the most advantage because they usually require the least resources of vendors who are unfamiliar with how to play the Government contracting game.
The U.S. is in competition with China for these exciting new technologies that will give one superpower an edge over another superpower. Pitch days are far more attractive to newcomers whose intellectual property is needed by the U.S. and who might otherwise seek easier funding from foreign sources.
It is imperative that the equity lens be applied at this early stage of the acquisition life cycle in order to make the best technology solutions available to the U.S and not unwittingly bar an individual or vendor from participating. Because small firms and startups have fewer opportunities to participate in later production contracts of significant dollar value, the best time to begin a collaboration with them is at the early research and prototyping stage and then grow them through the acquisition life cycle from prototypes and demonstrations to production or integration. Using pitch days is a successful, simpler avenue to discover these vendors; therefore, the best opportunity to help the Government treat these vendors equitably—as required by Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 1.602-2—is to look more closely at how pitch days can be more accessible.
The primary barriers to equitable treatment at pitch days and oral presentations are economic barriers and physical barriers. The organization planning the event—or even the acquisition strategy—is usually either unaware of the barriers or bring pre-conceived ideas to the event planning.
The most common economic barrier is the financial hardship that travel costs and time away from work can cause a small vendor. The Government team may be accustomed to large vendors sending a team of five or more employees to a pitch day, industry day, or various contract meetings, with their expenses spread across multiple interactions with Government organizations, but a small vendor may not want to go into debt for multiple airfares, hotel stays, days out of the office, or the lost opportunities to sell to other customers. Some Government teams mistakenly assume that a vendor isn’t a “serious” contender if they cannot afford to participate when in fact the vendor is making prudent business decisions.
Improvement: Pitch days should, where possible, be virtual events or hybrid (virtual and physical options). Virtual events may not be ideal to the Government team, which may prefer to observe the vendor in person, but vendors can stay “cameras on” during a virtual pitch. Virtual events have been proven to be effective, if not preferred. Although metrics comparing virtual vs physical pitch days are nebulous due to the pandemic shutdown of 2020-2021 forcing an alternative to in-person events, the AFWERX Challenge program received over 600 virtual pitches and SOFWERX brought in approximately 300 new vendors through virtual events. Few of these events would have taken place in-person, which could be detrimental to the acquisition of new technologies.
Allowing a vendor to provide a pitch virtually can make the difference in their participation, even when a pandemic, natural disaster, or other unforeseen obstacle hampers a physical event. It also allows them to participate in more than one pitch in a day. Another alternative might be to allow vendors to submit a short pitch via YouTube or some other repository, depending on the sensitivity of the proposed solution.
Less obvious financial hardships and economic barriers are the result of the acquisition process itself. Excessively long requests for information, cumbersome and lengthy requests for proposal, and keeping a vendor’s team tied up for many months before informing them of a source selection decision are all examples of typical bureaucratic processes that drive away the very vendors the U.S. needs for collaboration and are especially burdensome for small vendors that represent underserved communities.
Improvement: The Government team’s awareness of oppressive acquisition practices is a first step toward improvement. Most do not understand the challenges of small vendors trying to sell to the Government or the lack of resources or funding a vendor might have available. Intentionally streamlining the process to reduce the amount of time and paperwork required of vendors can lower the economic barriers so that vendors are willing to spend precious resources on marketing to the Government. Although it may sound harsh, removing a vendor’s proposal/pitch from consideration as early as possible—if it doesn’t stand a chance of being funded—and actually notifying the vendor immediately after a decision has been made can shift a vendor’s decision to submit a proposal on future efforts.
Physical barriers tend to fall into the category of ableism. The Government team may not even be aware of the physical barriers, both visible and invisible.
Travel-related barriers may reflect the difficulty of attending a pitch day in person. Rather than an economic barrier, the individual may not be able to make the trip, whether by air or otherwise, or may have medical reasons to stay on a specific schedule.
Facility-related barriers are usually related to pitch day meeting spaces that do not have wheelchair accessibility, elevators, or easy access to food, water, and restrooms to individuals with a stronger medical need. Parking may not include enough medical/handicap spaces.
Medical-device barriers may present an uncomfortable situation for pitch day participants, including evaluators and advisors to the source selection team. If the standard is that attendees not have any electronics, such as phones, in the room due to sensitive material, then the Government team will need to evaluate what kinds of devices are acceptable. For example, heart monitors, continuous glucose monitors, insulin pumps, cochlear implants, and “smart devices” that help an individual manage a health condition are generally acceptable, though some smart devices may not pass standards for classified work. These devices may not be removable without endangering the individual’s health, so a blanket instruction to leave or remove all electronics and devices may not be appropriate.
Because pitches and oral proposals are generally based on a specific amount of time, this format may not be ideal for vendors who stutter or need longer to give an oral presentation. Although most vendors are given equal amounts of time to complete their pitch, this is one case where an alternative may need to be made available in order to be equitable. Anxiety disorders may also be a factor for some vendors.
Though most of these concerns are focused on the vendors and making sure they are treated equitably, evaluators and Government team members may have similar concerns. The leader of the acquisition team will need to ensure that evaluators with hearing or vision impediments are close enough to the presenters to hear the pitch and see any briefing charts and that evaluators with reading disabilities have adequate time to finish reading any material. This may be true as well for presenters if they are asked to read and respond to questions or to propose a task given in real-time.
Improvements: As mentioned above in the section on economic barriers, virtual or hybrid pitch days can allow participation that could not otherwise happen. Issues with non-accessible facilities might also be resolved through virtual/hybrid pitch days or by holding the event on in a different building or on a different floor of the building.
There are more potential barriers than a Government team can comprehend or adequately plan for. When issuing invitations to attend the event, the Government team can ask potential attendees to identify any circumstances that might need accommodations. With creative and compassionate thinking, most barriers to participation in the acquisition process can be overcome.
© 2020 The MITRE Corporation, updated 2021. All Rights Reserved. The content provided in "The Unofficial Proposal Guide" does not reflect MITRE's opinions.