Get the most out of your contract debriefing

A debriefing provides a better understanding of how the government evaluated your proposal and what you could have done differently to improve your proposal score, writes Bob Lohfeld.

Win or lose, you are entitled to receive a debriefing from the government to help you understand the basis for an award decision. You must request your debriefing in writing within three days after receiving notification of contract award, otherwise your request might be declined.

The government will do its best to provide the debriefing within five days of receiving your written request. The debriefing might be done orally, in writing or via another method acceptable to the contracting officer. Most bidders prefer oral debriefings because they provide an opportunity to discuss the findings and ask follow-up questions. For some debriefings, travel costs might be a factor, requiring a debriefing through a teleconference. The least-preferable debriefing format, from a learning point of view, is a letter debriefing.

The contracting officer who led the procurement usually leads oral debriefings, supported by the people who participated in the evaluation of proposals. For larger procurements, you can expect government attendees to include technical, management and past-performance evaluators; cost analysts; and other supporting staff members.

You should ensure that the debriefing team knows you are present to learn so that you can do better on the next proposal. Make it clear that you know this is not the forum to debate or challenge the findings — the government officials also will make that clear.

The government will be well prepared to conduct the debriefing, and you should be, too. To prepare, it's a good idea to reread the request for proposals, questions and answers, RFP amendments, and your proposal. It's also helpful to prepare a list of questions you would like to ask. Don’t hesitate to ask follow-up questions so you learn as much as you can about how the government scored your proposal and conducted the evaluation process.

The government is required to provide specific information in the debriefing, including but not limited to:

  • The overall cost or price and evaluation rating for your proposal and the winner’s proposal.
  • The significant weaknesses and deficiencies in your proposal. That often includes your proposal's strengths, although that information is not required.
  • Past-performance evaluation results for your proposal, though not the names of people serving as past-performance references.
  • The selection rationale and award decision.

You can expect the government to answer reasonable questions about the evaluation results and process. But the officials won't give you a point-by-point comparison of your proposal with another offeror’s proposal, nor will they reveal information considered a trade secret or protected under the Freedom of Information Act.

Because debriefings are intended to be learning exercises, listen carefully. Teams have been surprised to learn that win themes had no effect, and features they thought were compelling were seen as weaknesses and scored as risks. That knowledge is something to take back and rethink for your next effort.

Some companies have learned surprising things in debriefings. Imagine the potential consequences of learning the following in a debriefing.

The weaknesses cited for a proposal actually belonged to another offeror, and the evaluation team mixed up the proposals during the evaluation.

The government ignored its own evaluation criteria and imposed an undisclosed evaluation scheme.

The evaluation criteria specified a relative order of importance for evaluation subfactors, but those were ignored when assessing the relative merits of the proposals.

That information could result in re-evaluation of proposals or filing of protests.

In most cases, you will walk away from a debriefing with an increased understanding of how the government evaluated your proposal and have better insight into what you could have done differently to improve your proposal score.

Some agencies will ask for your thoughts about how the procurement could have been conducted better. Make this a learning opportunity for the government, too. If they did a good job, tell them so.

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