Five Tips for Preparing Winning Government Contract Proposals

When Boeing’s $35 billion bid won an Air Force tanker contract in 2011, Boeing had only one competitor. A third bidder had its bid rejected because its delivery messenger was 5 minutes late in submitting the bid.


Few bids involve such high stakes. Whatever the bid price, you can’t afford to make mistakes that take yourself out of the competition. Here are some important lessons learned from some smaller-dollar competitions.

1. Watch what you say in that cover letter.

A cover letter is not simply an innocuous piece of boilerplate. It can cost a company a contract.

In one solicitation, the government told a bidder its prices were too high so the bidder lowered its prices, explaining in its cover letter that its reduced prices were based on eventually using less-senior people. This cover-letter explanation was a problem to the government because it meant that senior people would not be available for the full term of the contract. This led the government to lower the bidder’s previous “excellent” key personnel score to simply a “Good”, costing the bidder the contract.

2. Don’t hedge your firm fixed price proposal.

When drafting a proposal for a fixed-price contract, be careful how you try to protect your company from possible price increases. Do not, as one vendor did, inadvertently make your prices “conditional” and, therefore, your proposal for a firm fixed-price contract “unacceptable.”

When one bidder submitted a proposal for a fixed-price order, its pricing included rates for both lower-cost government-site performance and higher-cost contractor-site performance. The proposal warned the government that the bidder could keep its prices low “as long as sufficient tasking is provided to perform assignments on a full-time basis at these government work sites. In the event that these conditions are not met, contractor-site rates may need to be applied.” The bidder won but the award was successfully protested at the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The competitor argued that the winner had not proposed a “fixed” price, because its price could increase over time if more work had to be done at contractor sites. GAO agreed and concluded that bidder’s price was not fixed, making its proposal an improper “conditional offer.” Because the bidder hedged its fixed-price bets, it lost the contract.

3. Fill in all blanks and assume nothing!

Bidders cannot count on the government knowing all about the good work a company has done. If the bidder does not describe its qualifications and approach in its bid, the government evaluators will not fill in the missing information.

A company that had successfully performed contracts at Camp Pendleton for almost a decade lost a contract because it failed to follow precisely the proposal instructions, relying instead on two wrong assumptions. First, it assumed that its good record would let the government overlook short-comings in its proposal. Second, these “short-comings” involved failing to fill in all the blanks the solicitation required; the company wrongly assumed that the government would blindly accept its explanation for the missing data. All the bidder had to do to make its proposal acceptable for this factor was to fill in the blanks or at least explain clearly why there were blanks in its proposal. It should have assumed nothing, and unfortunately lost the work.

4. Be safe: treat “may” or “should” as “shall.”

According to GAO, terms like “may” and “should” are “capable of expressing a mandate” and thus bidders must play it safe and threat these words are mandatory.

When one solicitation told bidders that they “should” submit resumes of some personnel, GAO concluded that “should” really meant that offerors “shall” submit their resumes. In another solicitation, the agency warned offerors that the agency “may evaluate the past performance of subcontractors that would perform major or critical aspects of the requirement.” GAO concluded that the word “may” in the solicitation meant “shall.”

5. Confirm that the government has received your offer. Make sure that the offer you send to the agency is actually received.

An agency rejected a bidder’s quote for being late. The bidder claimed the quote was sent before the deadline. But the agency’s IT staff conducted an email trace of all email messages the agency received from the company’s president on the due date and found none. The company submitted to GAO an email chain that included a message sent to the agency allegedly minutes before the deadline. But all the email chain proved was that perhaps the contractor had sent the email; it did not prove that the agency had received it. GAO noted that there was no evidence that the offeror took any steps to confirm that its email message was received.

Clearly, it would have taken little effort for the bidder to confirm receipt by the agency. For that matter, it would not have taken much effort to avoid the other four examples of proposal errors described above. Busy bidders make mistakes. So knowing other bidders made these five not-so-obvious mistakes can keep you from making them yourself.


Terrence M. O'ConnorTerrence M. O’Connor is the Director of Government Contracts at Berenzweig Leonard LLP. He can be reached at