Page 1 of 2
The federal government is undeniably facing increased budget austerity. That means the government has become a pickier buyer. To grow sales now, it's more important than ever to understand the nuances of the government's buying processes.
Over the course of 15 years helping technology companies do business with government as a founder of immixGroup, I've presented, taught and lectured on the subject of how the government buys. What follows is the result of those 15 years of effort, digested into an easy-to-understand eight-step guide that helps make sense of the federal acquisition system.
To set the stage, meet the key players involved on the government's side. There are three distinct chains of command involved before a federal contract action is consummated:
The program office: Programs are what the federal government does and what Congress funds. For example, the Department of Defense has weapon systems development programs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has first-responder programs, and so on. Program managers (in the Program Office) own the mission and the budget, but they don't have the authority to bind the government contractually.
Finance and accounting: This group ensures that a proposed procurement is consistent with congressional intent for the money. To start a contracting action, a "fund certifying official" (in the comptroller's chain of command), verifies that the proposed contract fits within the appropriation -- and that there's enough money for it.
Contracting shops: This is where procurements actually get done. Program people present requirements, market research, and other supporting documents in a purchase request to the contracting shop. A contracting officer reviews the acquisition planning work of the program office and, if satisfactory, conducts the procurement according to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR).
Now that we've identified the participants, let's look at the game: the steps of the acquisition and procurement process. The first four steps take place in the program office -- the people with a mission and a budget -- and result in a purchase request (or "acquisition package" if the procurement is large enough).
1. Agency vision/need: Procurements larger than $150,000 begin with an acquisition plan, and acquisition plans begin with a statement of need (FAR Part 7). This may be a short-term need -- requiring action in days -- or a desired capability for years down the road. The type of need and how it's defined sets the pace for all the next steps.
Always ask whether the need has been defined, and who is weighing options and trade-off factors such as whether to lease or buy. It's important to get to know all the stakeholders and influencers early in the process.
2. Market research: Personnel from the program office, sometimes assisted by contractors, collect information about options available from industry to meet the need (FAR Part 10). Tools used in this research include requests for information (RFI), sources sought notices (SSNs), and pre-solicitation industry days. For small procurements, the research may simply be done online with telephone requests for budget quotes.
Always ask whether market research has been done, and who conducted it. Make sure those people receive your information. Copy others in that agency who are interested in your offerings, but don't add to the clutter. Make sure you send only substantive, relevant information that addresses their requirements.