You are at the post-award contract debrief. Win or lose, you search for the good, bad, and ugly about your proposal. In the past, you posed the usual questions to the government:

Why did we win (or lose)? What was our score relative to other bidders–or at least the successful contractor? What were our major strengths and deficiencies? How competitive were we on price? What did we do right? What could we have done better? What about next time?

All good questions. If you are among the fortunate, maybe you received helpful responses from evaluators. But even this feedback was guarded and generic. Words carefully parsed, meaningful feedback reduced to generalities. All to avoid protest fodder. Some unsuccessful offerors actually exit the debriefing unsure of why their proposals tanked–so glowing were the Government’s comments even to the loser. (“We thought your proposal was very strong,” the contracting officer blandly asserts, “We just thought the winner’s was stronger.”)

Not so much as a tissue offered to the proposal team to dry their tears.

Next time, ask questions the answers to which will actually help you write a better proposal. Pose questions that appear to be in the weeds, unlikely to spark a protest if answered candidly. Not only questions about winning or losing which will, in many cases, cause the government to circle the wagons. To avoid stonewalling, obfuscation or high level platitudes, make your inquiries seemingly innocuous, almost trivial. And ask them in such a way as to not require the Government to make invidious comparisons among bidders. Meaningful feedback on these innocent questions will help improve future proposals.

Consider these questions:

  1. What did you like/not like about our Executive Summary?
  2. Was our document visually appealing? How to improve readability?
  3. Did we strike a proper balance between text and graphics?
  4. Your reaction to our thematic call-out boxes?
  5. What message did our cover send?
  6. Did our resume format work for the evaluators?
  7. Did you find our document easy to score? How to improve?
  8. Did our photographs help or hinder our story?
  9. Were the features/benefits/proofs tables of any value?
  10. What did the evaluators think of the overall workmanship of our document?
  11. Did it matter that we chose not to use all allotted pages when responding?
  12. Did our compliance matrix (not just the required Table of Contents) help?
  13. Did our CEO’s personal commitment statement help?
  14. Given the page limits did we address the SOW in sufficient detail?
  15. Did you detect any of our themes? Which, if any, were most compelling?
  16. Did it matter that we put your agency’s logo on the cover and on the header of each page?
  17. What instances of competitive “ghosting” did you detect?

Consider submitting these questions in writing in advance of the debriefing. There is no guarantee that the Government will answer these questions any more robustly than the standard ones. But perhaps the reason why many debriefs are of marginal utility is that contractors are asking the wrong questions from the start.

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