I RUN MY OWN ARCHITECTURAL FIRM, AND–THIS MAY surprise you–most of my clients are government agencies. My experience, and that of many other small-business people I know, demonstrates that there are more opportunities to get government work than a lot of people realize. Follow along as I reveal how to navigate the ins and outs of obtaining your own contracts for projects at the local, state, and federal government levels.
First off, consider this: Government agencies provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, recreation, education, training, research, transportation, and environmental services year-round. They buy a variety of goods and consulting services, such as architectural, engineering, construction, maintenance, data processing, desktop publishing, management, health care, photography, video, graphic arts, and writing.
Even as governments reduce budgets, their need for uninterrupted services continues, and a greater share of the work is being done by fewer public employees. Opportunities are increasingly emerging for qualified businesses to fill the gap, resulting in more contracts being farmed out to the private sector. So whatever work you do, you can probably uncover contracting opportunities with some government entity.
Where to Start
Some consultants say the secret of getting government work lies in targeted marketing and knowing how to fill out volumes of paperwork. In contrast, my government colleagues and clients agree that to get selected–both the first time and repeatedly–businesses of all sizes must focus on delivering high-quality service and meeting budgets and schedules.
According to Launchscore.com, a market research tool website, the first step in finding these opportunities is to identify the agencies that purchase the services you offer. State and city governments generally have a department of economic development to encourage small businesses and to coordinate minority- and women-owned business enterprise (M/WBE) programs. Telephone directories often list government agencies in a special section.
When an agency has a project or contract to award, it issues a Request for Proposal, commonly called an RFP. Public announcements for RFPs occasionally appear in newspapers and trade magazines as legal notices or classified ads. Rather than relying on such tiny ads, however, the best way to track opportunities is to subscribe to publications that announce upcoming projects.
For example, the United States Department of Commerce publishes the Commerce Business Daily (CBD), a daily newspaper that lists federal government opportunities in more than 100 categories. A weekly version of the CBD, put
out by the United Communications Group, can be customized to five categories of your choice. The American Institute of Architects, for instance, offers the CBD as an online service, enabling architects to access federal design opportunities by category and region.
At the state level, to use an example I’m familiar with, the New York State Contract Reporter lists state contracts worth more than $5,000, except for the city and state universities, which start at $20,000. By New York law, every state entity must publish notice of upcoming bids in the Reporter, which is available by subscription and lists 27 contract categories.
When scanning these publications, read all the sections that apply to your business, since categories often overlap. I’ve noted several unusual opportunities from unexpected sources, such as the New York City Transit Authority seeking scriptwriters for radio spots as well as writers and graphic artists for its brochures, subway maps, and print ads. My experience has been that many agencies prefer to award contracts to in-state businesses to help local economies. However, if a service unique or can be obtained at a much lower cost from an out-of-state vendor, agencies may make exceptions.
Preparing a Proposal
When I see an interesting ad, I first call the point of contact and ask for information about the project and a copy of the RFP. A typical RFP contains a detailed description of the project and the scope of work, names of the client agencies (which may be different from the contracting agency) and project participants, the proposed schedule, qualifications and experience of the bidder, and an outline of the information required in the proposal.
Companies may also be asked to submit a fee proposal, or bid. In some cases, when the fee range is predetermined, selection is based on qualifications only and price is negotiated with the successful bidder. Occasionally, bids are submitted in a separate envelope, so that qualifications can be reviewed and ranked apart from fee considerations. In other instances, selection may be based strictly on the lowest bid. Some agencies request a detailed breakdown of hourly rates and projected hours, whereas others ask for a lump-sum figure.
Whether you are a sole proprietor or the owner of a 10-person operation, when pursuing government work, put together a current brochure that describes your services, previous experience (including work with former employers), client list, and background information about your company; resumes for key staff and other consultants or personnel you propose to retain or work with (your project team); and, if appropriate, examples of your work.
I’ve found that a typical proposal includes most of the items listed above as well as information about related experience. Government people want to see your business track record before they entrust you with a contract. If you can’t show a direct correlation between your experience and the project you’re pursuing, describe your company’s ability to solve problems creatively for other clients and to provide solutions on a timely basis within budgets, or cite your previous experience, if any, with other government organizations.
Get Inside Knowledge
Whenever possible, tailor a proposal to the specific project, in addition to submitting your standard off-the-shelf material. People reviewing proposals notice when you make an effort to understand their needs. For example, when another architectural firm asked me to work with them on a renovation project at an upstate prison, we visited the site and spoke to the administrators about what they were looking for in a new clinic. We described our findings in the proposal and during the interview. I tailored my brochure to highlight previous health-care and prison projects, as opposed to office buildings and laboratories.
When you’ve identified an agency for work, speak with decisionmakers there to learn how it operates and about its future projects. Follow up with periodic calls to restate your interest.
Given the nature of government, it may take several weeks or even months before you get a response to your proposal. On occasion, long after I’ve submitted a proposal, I’ve gotten a call or letter notifying me that my firm’s project team has been short-listed: Out of 10 submissions, ours is one of five firms under consideration. We’re assigned a date the following week for an interview in front of a panel of five people.
If you’re asked to interview for a specific project, do some detective work. Check out who your competition is as well as who will be on the interview panel and what their overall job functions and specific project roles will be. This helps you prepare and structure your presentation. The panel may include a mix of managers, technicians, contracting officers, and financial and affirmative-action representatives. Be prepared to think on your feet, answer honestly, and address each of their agendas. Government people, however, aren’t looking for flashy shows–in addition to learning how you’ll do the work, they want to see the chemistry and communication skills of the people they’ll be dealing with daily after they award a job.
Small-Firm and Minority Business Strategies
For bigger projects, small companies often team up with larger ones in joint ventures or associations. That way, two firms with different skills and strengths can chase work for which neither one, alone, might otherwise be considered. For example, two well-established architectural firms, one large and one midsize, asked me to pursue a major study about health-care services at a New York City jail complex. With my general experience in health-care design and specific experience in prison health care for state and federal agencies, and as a woman-owned business enterprise (WBE), my firm provided specialized expertise that neither of the bigger firms had in-house.
When teaming up with others for government work, it’s preferable if at least one of the companies has a good track record with public contracts. If your company is fairly new, don’t overlook the value of individual experience gained while employed by others. Someone on the reviewing side may be familiar with your previous work or employers, which could give you an edge. Anything that indicates your familiarity with the government process strengthens your chances of being considered favorably.
Public sector agencies frequently encourage larger firms to associate with M/WBEs. New York State, for instance, advertises the required percentages for minority- and women-owned businesses as a part of each contract. In some CBD ads, federal agencies specify a mix of required levels of participation for minorities, small women-owned businesses, disadvantaged businesses, and local businesses within a 50- or 100-mile radius to the project location. Occasionally, projects are noted as small-business set-asides–specifically for M/WBE firms.
The federal government does not have its own certification, but it publishes standards to define eligibility. Some jurisdictions–such as New York City, Boston, and the states of New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Florida–require certification to be considered a M/WBE. Certification demands legal and financial documentation that indicates the business is at least 51 percent owned and controlled by a member of a minority group or a woman. If you apply for certification, allow plenty of time to prepare the necessary supporting materials as well as anywhere from two months to a year for the approval process. Economic development agencies often handle applications and will answer questions.
Is It Worth It?
Government work can be rewarding, especially if your effort results in a visible and meaningful contribution to the social fabric of your community. Patience, a positive, proactive attitude, and a desire to deliver high-quality service on time and within budget are the main points to remember when you seek–and sign–your next government contract.