IMHO Installment #25: Decoding Legalese Within Governmental RFPs Can Be Troublesome

09 Apr 2007

Companies in need of supplies or services often issue "Request for Proposal" documents, commonly known by us marketing folk as RFPs. I'd like to give you an example of language typically found within a governmental RFP, and then a translation of what that language means. I'll keep this to just a half-dozen or so, though I could probably do 20 if I wanted to push it:

Language sample: Your name and address on the outside of the governmental envelope. [In other words, you've not even opened it yet! ]

What that means:

a) If the envelope came unannounced: "You've been sent an RFP in order to get a price. In no way is our governmental entity actually interested in hiring you. We just need to show at least three bids in our files in case anyone ever accuses us of shoddy, irresponsible procurement practices."

b) If some bureaucrat buddy of someone in your company sent it, and you've been expecting it: "The job described herein is in the bag for you. Just open the letter, do what it says, and you'll get the work."

Language sample: "XYZ Company [another competitor consultancy ] has served as our consultants for many years. The decision to solicit additional bids should not be interpreted as evidence of any dissatisfaction we have with XYZ Company. Rather, it should be viewed in the context of our periodic review of important business relationships."

What that means: "XYZ Company is our consulting company. Period. The only reason we're going out for bid is to make it look as though we've gone through a formal procurement process. The job is already in the bag for XYZ Company so, unless you're a total moron, you shouldn't waste your time biddng on this job (because it's going straight to XYZ Company, with whom, again, we're great buddies)."

Language sample: "We are not required to accept the lowest price; rather, we will take additional items into consideration, such as experience, capability, your staff qualifications, references, etc."

What that means:

a) If the other disclaimer (shown above, about competitor XYZ) is present: "You can't just low-ball and expect to oust XYZ from our graces. By overpaying XYZ Company, we get taken out to professional sporting events from time to time, and enjoy that perk, even though that sort of thing is strictly forbidden."

b) If the other disclaimer (shown above, about competitor XYZ) is absent: "We will hire the cheapest one and cross our fingers."

Language sample: "Questions about this RFP should be submitted in writing. Answers to all questions asked will be distributed to all bidders."

What that means: "We're good at making this procurement process appear free from corruption, graft, and nepotism."

Language sample: "Economy of preparation is appreciated within proposals."

What that means:

a) If the other disclaimer (shown above, about competitor XYZ) is present: "We feel somewhat guilty for having already awarded the work, in our minds, to your competitor XZY Company. Therefore, we don't want you to try too hard to win this work."

b) If the other disclaimer (shown above, about competitor XYZ) is absent: "We don't want to have to put a lot of thought into purchasing your kind of service. Really, it's just about price; so, send in a blank piece of your letterhead bearing some unrealistically low figure, handwritten and circled with a red felt-tip pen. You may well win the work this way, as long as we're sure the work is clearly unprofitable for you."

Language sample: "Proposals must be received by 9:00 a.m. on xx/xx/2007."

What that means: "We think it's funny that you'll likely have to send your bid (useless, anyway, since we've already made our decision) via Priority FedEx, which costs quite a bit more than standard."

Those are just a few samples. I hope they've helped.

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