Here's an idea: Throw out your SOWs

Ann Costello

Federal acquisitions typically begin with the development of a detailed statement of work and the assumption that the tighter the specifications, the better.

The belief persists that contractors must be told exactly what to do, how to do it, what labor categories to provide, what minimum qualifications to meet and how many hours to work. Agencies fear, evidently, unacceptable performance.

But there's a flip side: What if a contractor follows the government's instructions to the letter and the end result is still unacceptable? Then the fault lies with the government's tightly specified requirements, not the contractor's performance.

Why does this practice persist? I believe it's a holdover from the days when the low-cost, technically acceptable bid was the chief selection standard. Then, agency buyers crafted tight specifications to ensure the low bidder would perform acceptably. But for today's best-value solicitations, agencies still set detailed government specifications that limit what vendors offer.

Let's examine what happens in a typical acquisition. The agency begins with the last specification and tightens it up. The resulting SOW describes in detail what amounts to the preferred or required solution and the minimum performance levels that contractors must meet.

Such measures do not reflect standard commercial practices and cost more, but agencies are likely unaware of this fact'the competing vendors will never tell.

The bidders respond to the requirements with their proposals, which are often remarkably similar. Is it any wonder? The would-be contractors are expected or required to respond paragraph-by-paragraph to the tightly written specifications.

Prospective contractors are reluctant to challenge the government's requirements'really a spelled-out solution'or suggest better ways to solve the problem. They figure only bad things can happen.

They might anger the agency's contracting officer.

Or, their ideas might be exposed to a competitor when a contracting officer, mindful of providing a level playing field, amends the solicitation so everyone can compete to implement the idea. What's level or fair about that?

Or, alternately, the government rejects the proposal for failing to meet at least one minimum mandatory requirement after the vendor opts to offer a better system than specified.

Given the choices, it is far more likely that each vendor will restate the government's requirements verbatim, explaining why it is uniquely qualified to do what the government has directed.
The end result is that all vendors bid to the same government-directed plan, and the contract is awarded to the company with the best proposal writers rather than the best ideas.

It makes no sense.

What makes sense? When the government understands the problems it needs to solve, it should stop there. An agency should issue a statement of objectives and let each competing vendor write a statement of work.

Ann Costello is a principal of Acquisition Solutions Inc. Read more about statements of objectives at


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