RFP Preparation and Source Selection

Definition: RFP preparation and source selection are the actions necessary to prepare for a government solicitation and to select one or more contractors for delivery of a product or service.

Keywords: acquisitions, competitive procurement, non-competitive procurement, proposal, RFP, RFP development, source selection, strategy

MITRE SE Roles & Expectations: MITRE systems engineers (SEs) are expected to create technical and engineering portions of Request for Proposal (RFP) documentation (requirements documents, statement of work, evaluation criteria) and to assist in the technical evaluation of bidders during source selection.


A program's acquisition strategy addresses the objectives for the acquisition, the constraints, availability of resources and technologies, consideration of acquisition methods, types of contracts, terms and conditions of the contracts, management considerations, risk, and the logistics considerations for the resulting products. The acquisition strategy identifies the context for development of the RFP and source selection as either a "competitive" or "non-competitive" procurement. The requirements contained in the RFP, and the contractor(s) selected during a procurement, can often determine the success or failure of a system for the duration of a program. Using a process to develop the RFP and conduct a source selection can significantly improve the likelihood of success. Doing it right the first time is critical—rarely does a program have a chance to do it again.

Competitive Procurement

In a competitive procurement, two or more contractors, acting independently, are solicited to respond to the government RFP. Their proposals are evaluated during source selection, and the contract is awarded to the contractor(s) who offers the most favorable terms to the government.

Competitive procurement activities include the preparation steps that lead to development of the acquisition strategy, which as noted above, provides the basis for developing the RFP and conducting the source selection. Leading up to this are the development of solicitation documents, evaluation criteria, and source selection approach. If the program office wants to reduce the number of contractors proposing, it can conduct a multi-step competitive procurement. One example of this is to use competitive prototyping as a step to further evaluate the qualifications of competing contractors under more representative conditions. Depending on the amount of development required for the program (and under DoD 5000.02) competitive prototyping should not only be recommended but required. The overall activities in a competitive procurement are illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Competitive Procurement Actions
Figure 1. Competitive Procurement Actions

RFP Development Process

RFP development is part of the overall procurement process. The actions necessary for development and release of the RFP are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. RFP Development Actions
Figure 2. RFP Development Actions

The acquisition strategy provides the overall guidance for development of the RFP, and the work breakdown structure (WBS) provides the definition of the program and guides the contractor in creating the contract WBS. The specifications or technical/system requirements document (TRD/SRD), the statement of objectives or work (SOO/SOW), and the contract data requirements list (CDRL) form the technical basis of the RFP. These are usually the focus of MITRE SEs on RFPs.

An RFP is divided into sections A–M. Sections A–J are primarily contract documents, except for section C, which is the SOO or SOW. Section K contains attachments like the TRD/SRD, section L is the Instructions For Proposal Preparation, and section M is the evaluation criteria. MITRE is often asked to participate in the construction of sections L and M. Evaluation criteria are another critical component of the RFP. Technical criteria need to be included and need to address areas of technical risk and complexity.

Source Selection

In a competitive procurement of a system/project, source selection is the process wherein proposals are examined against the requirements, facts, recommendations, and government policy relevant to an award decision, and, in general, the best value proposal is selected. The actions shown in Figure 3 are those generally conducted during source selection. The focus of MITRE's participation in source selections is the evaluation of the technical proposal and the resulting risk assessment.

Figure 3. Source Selection Actions
Figure 3. Source Selection Actions

Non-Competitive Procurement

Although it is not a common initial procurement approach, on occasion non-competitive procurement is necessary to meet government needs for certain critical procurements. This approach is more commonly used with a contractor who is already on contract with the government (but not necessarily the same organization doing the procurement) providing a similar capability, or when it is clearly advantageous to use the non-competitive approach in subsequent contract changes or new solicitations for an existing program.

As with competitive procurement, the actions taken in a non-competitive procurement include the preparation steps that lead to development of the acquisition strategy. Prior to development of the solicitation documents that constitute the RFP, the program office must submit Justification & Approval (J&A) documentation to the appropriate agency office to receive approval for the non-competitive procurement. Occasionally, there is a technical reason for using a particular contractor and MITRE is involved with generating the J&A. With this approval, the program office can develop the solicitation documents and enter into collaborative contract development with the contractor. Upon completion of the collaborative contract development, the program office evaluates, negotiates, and awards a contract with many of the steps indicated above. MITRE is most often used to evaluate the proposal for technical approach and resources/engineering hours.

Best Practices and Lessons Learned

Getting the Most Bang for Your Bucks: Market Research & Competitive Prototyping: Although it is time consuming, spending time researching the state of the art and visiting with contractors and vendors will give you a good sense of what's achievable for program requirements. In competitive procurements, solicitations are very helpful in determining the range of available developers/suppliers. Solicitations may also be used to perform work towards the acquisition; meaning asking industry to submit papers and demonstrations prior to the release of an RFP. MITRE, as an FFRDC, may review this kind of proprietary information and use it as a basis for validating technology or assumption about requirements. Such feedback from industry may also be useful for refining the evaluation criteria for the RFP.

Competitive prototyping can be used to require competing developers to demonstrate applicable technology or services, along with engineering process and documentation (as examples) to enable better evaluation of their overall abilities to deliver the full program. It may also be used as a technique to reduce risk in complex or unproven technical areas. (For more information on competitive prototyping, refer to the article on Competitive Prototyping under the Contractor Evaluation topic within this section of the guide.)

The Right Level of Detail for a WBS: The WBS is often the foundation used for determining contractor progress and earned value during the program development and deployment phases. As such, it needs to be structured to provide enough detail to judge sufficient progress. WBS elements should be broken down into efforts no larger than 60 days per unit. At least 90+ percent of the WBS elements must be measureable in durations 60 days or less. This allows you to track WBS completion on a quarterly basis and get a good idea of progress on a monthly basis. Each WBS item should only have three reporting states: zero percent complete (not started), 50 percent complete (at least 50 percent complete), 100 percent complete (done). This allows you to track the WBS status without over estimating the percent complete. It is possible that if the development effort is quite large that this level of detail may result in a very large integrated schedule and plan later (refer to the article on IMS and IMP Application within this section of the guide), but you want the WBS foundation to allow for as much or as little detail as may be applied later on. Keeping the WBS at a high level will definitely cause an inability to judge accurate progress during program execution, and lead to late identification of cost and schedule risks.

What Matters in the RFP: Depending on the acquisition strategy chosen, the completeness of the TRD/SRD is critical. Programs expecting to evolve over time through "Agile" or "Evolutionary" acquisition strategies will need to have carefully chosen threshold requirements specified for the initial delivery of capability; ones that are achievable within the allotted schedule for that first delivery. Requirements to be satisfied in a later delivery of capability may be less stringent if they are apt to change before being contracted for development. In a more traditional acquisition strategy where all requirements are to be satisfied in one or two deliveries of capability, the TRD/SRD must be complete.

Another point to remember is that TRD/SRDs and SOO/SOW form the basis of testing—both sets of documents need to be written with a focus on performance and test. Waiting until test preparation is too late to discover that requirements were not stated in a manner that is quantifiable or testable. (More information on requirements and testing can be found in the Life-Cycle Building Blocks section under System Design and Development and Test and Evaluation.)

Evaluation criteria need to be comprehensive and specific enough to allow clear differentiation between offerors, especially on those areas of requirements of critical importance to the success of the program—try a sample proposal against the criteria to see if they are in fact selective enough. There have been cases where the criteria have not been expansive enough and differentiating technical information found in the proposals to be relevant to selection could not be considered for evaluation. Beyond just the written criteria, consider requiring the offerors to provide and follow their risk management process or software development plan as part of an exercise or demonstration.

Source Selection: Be Prepared: MITRE engineers responsible for evaluating technical proposals need to be well versed in applicable current technology for the program. If a proposal contains a new technical approach that is unfamiliar, perform the research to determine the viability. Do not assume the approach is low risk or commonplace; do the research to determine feasibility, risk and the proposing Contractor's familiarity with it.  Consult with MITRE experts in our "tech centers" to provide expertise in areas where program staff are limited in depth of knowledge; getting the right assistance in Source Selection is critical to choosing the right contractor.  You don't get another chance!

The Danger of "Leveling:" During the Source Selection, offerors are often asked clarification questions in writing, or asked to provide oral proposals and questions/answer sessions. The result of several iterations of these information exchanges among the offerors can result in or look like "leveling;" when the Government team has effectively obtained similar information and technical approaches across the offerors, resulting in similar risk and allowing a final selection based purely on cost. Beware that this is usually not the factual result but a perception and result of iterative clarification calls: that all the offerors have provided adequate detail and reasonable technical approaches. As most MITRE engineers who have participated in multiple source selections will tell you, the offerors are not likely to be even in terms of technical risk, past experience/expertise, or in architectural approach. It is up to the engineering team to clarify the differences so that "leveling" does not occur. This means careful consideration of the evaluation criteria for differentiation, focusing on the critical areas needed for success on the program. If the offeror has not demonstrated a consistent approach throughout the proposal process, this in itself may be a legitimate weakness.

Leverage in a Sole Source Environment: It is a best practice to judge a proposed effort on a sole-source contract against similar past efforts already expensed and for which hours are actual. Again, the ability to do this is dependent on the initial contract (specifically the WBS) being structured to capture progress at an appropriate level to accrue cost and schedule for independent efforts. Lacking a reasonable facsimile for the proposed effort will require either experience in the contractor's development methodology enough to estimate hours or research into other programs and developments to compare against (both inherently less helpful for negotiating).

References & Resources

  1. Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), November 2004, AFMC Integrated Master Plan and Schedule (IMP/IMS) Guide.
  2. Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), April 2005, HQ AFMC Justification and Approval Preparation Guide and Template.
  3. Bloom, Mike, and Joe Duquette, July 2006, System Engineering in RFP Prep & Source Selection Process V3.0.
  4. Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement and Procedures, Guidance, and Information, Contracting By Negotiation, DFAR Subpart 215, viewed June 15, 2010.
  5. Department of Defense, April 3, 1996, MIL-HDBK-245D DoD Handbook for Preparation of Statement of Work (SOW).
  6. Department of Defense, August 1, 2003, MIL-STD-961E DoD Standard Practice Defense and Program-Unique Specifications Format and Content.
  7. Department of Defense, July 30, 2005, MIL-HDBK-881A DoD Handbook Work Breakdown Structure, Revision A.
  8. Federal Acquisition Regulation, Contracting by Negotiation, FAR Part 15, viewed June 15, 2010.
  9. IEEE, 1998, IEEE STD 1233 IEEE Guide for Developing System Requirements Specifications.
  10. MITRE SEPO, RFP Preparation & Source Selection Toolkit, viewed November 9, 2010.
  11. OC-ALC/AE (ACE), June 20, 2003, Statement of Objectives (SOO) Information Guide.
  12. May 23, 1997, One Pass Contracting Process User's Guide, Version 2.0, available in MITRE SEPO RFP Preparation & Source Selection Toolkit, viewed November 9, 2010.
  13. "Sample Market Research Report," available in MITRE SEPO RFP Preparation & Source Selection Toolkit, viewed November 9, 2010.
  14. U.S. Air Force, January 2004, "Other Than Full and Open Competition," AFFARS (Air Force Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement) MP5306.3, viewed June 9, 2010.


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