Stop Ghosting On Industry
Over the last two years at the USCG, I have been making a concerted effort to open our aperture when it comes to communication with Industry and we have adopted a great best practice for Industry engagement from our parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Chief Procurement Officer, in terms of conducting a Reverse Industry Day (R.I.D.) where our commercial counterparts offer their thoughts to a government audience on what it's like to do business with us. A few months ago, we did our second annual R.I.D. event at USCG and I heard a familiar theme from our Industry partners that I wanted to address here on my blog in the hopes of generating some interesting dialogue on the subject. When asked about why more companies don't respond to Requests for Information (RFIs) during our market research efforts, the message was loud and clear from Industry ... there are limited incentives to do so.
According to our Industry counterparts, they may choose not to participate in our RFIs because it can take them a considerable amount of time and resources to put a meaningful response together and they often get little to no feedback on what they submitted. The perception is that their response goes into a black hole and it's unclear whether Government officials found the information useful and there is usually no visibility into whether a funded requirement, and subsequently an official Request for Proposal (RFP), will be forthcoming as a result of the RFI effort. In essence, it seems like the Government "ghosts" on Industry. If you've never heard that term before, allow me to shed some light. The definition of ghosting is this: "the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly, and without explanation, withdrawing from all communication." If you think about it, our Industry counterparts have a great point.
When we abruptly stop communicating with our Industry partners, especially after seeking information from them, it may seem like we are purposely ignoring them and I think we can all agree that in any kind of relationship that's not a good feeling. Companies have to weigh their opportunity costs and if they continue to experience a government agency that doesn't respond to calls or emails to answer even basic questions about the status of an RFI, they are likely to form negative opinions about that agency and not respond to future market research initiatives. It's important for those of us on the Federal side to realize that companies have to make decisions about when and where to spend their time, money and effort. Depending on the nature of the RFI, it may take a considerable investment on the part of a company - especially a small business - to craft a good response and that decision to participate may take them away from other projects that they would like to pursue. Companies have to be judicious with their budgets and economy of effort.
Our partners on the Industry side live and die by their ability to adapt and be flexible, so even if an RFI isn't going to result in a concrete requirement, or the nature of that requirement is going to change in a significant way that would preclude some of them from competing, they would appreciate knowing that so that they can stop tracking the potential opportunity in earnest. Or, if the government has learned something that informs the acquisition strategy and we know that certain respondents to the RFI will no longer be contenders (e.g,. we are no longer expecting to go full and open and are likely to do a set-aside or vice versa) we should tell the companies that responded to the RFI that our approach for the formal RFP has changed. Some of these companies will be prime candidates for future requirements so we owe it to them to close the loop in order to maintain their interest in doing business with us.
If we are going to ask our Industry partners to invest time and effort to respond to an RFI, likewise, we should be willing to invest time and effort to let them know what we thought about their response, whether or not the information was useful, and what our intentions are going forward. When we ghost on Industry, we erode their trust and tarnish our reputation as good government partners. It comes off as self-serving for government Contracting professionals to seek information and not offer any feedback in return. I think some of this may come down to a concern about how much interaction the government can, and should, have with Industry during the market research phase. Here's my opinion on that. Communication with Industry is absolutely appropriate up until the point of an official RFP release, at which time the opportunity for dialogue should still be available but through a more formal process. There is no harm in talking to individual companies who respond to an RFI to offer them specific feedback about their response and how it may have informed our requirements. In fact, not doing so is the real problem.
The other challenge that might restrict communication on the government's part is simply a matter of time. Digesting responses from an RFI, usually on an accelerated timeline or in a pressurized environment to pulse market capabilities for a mission imperative, can take a lot of time and if the results of the market research yield the opportunity to move forward with a procurement action, all efforts will immediately go into that effort. That doesn't always allow folks on the government side the necessary time to reach back out with meaningful or actionable feedback because they have to switch gears to get an RFP released. My best advice to my Industry counterparts is to remain persistent and keep emailing and calling to request the feedback they deserve. And those of us on the Federal side should take time to continue cultivating relationships by offering whatever feedback we can to our partners who took time out to give us their valuable perspectives.