Part 3. An RFP for Consulting Services
An agency seeking consulting services should prepare the RFP with great care. The RFP is at once the calling card, the resume, the annual report, and the marketing brochure of the agency. Consultants will decide whether to draft a proposal for a particular project based in significant part on the RFP. That RFP should present the community, the agency, and the proposed project accurately and well. Consultants pay a great deal of attention to the way their proposals are written because they have a lot on the line; agencies should pay equal attention to the writing of RFPs. Books and seminars on proposal writing are widely available. In comparison, the RFP is a neglected literary form.
The Purpose of an RFP
Among the purposes of an RFP are eliciting proposals from suitable candidates and, when the RFP is not preceded by a review of qualifications, discouraging responses from those who lack the necessary qualifications. To that extent, the RFP resembles an ordinary help-wanted ad. However, since the audience for an RFP should be well screened in advance, these are not major concerns. A good RFP is, above all, one that engages the interest of the consultant and elicits creative approaches to the problem. Once the RFP has stimulated the consultant's interest, the firm is a lot more likely to risk investing in a proposal.
A well-written RFP accurately conveys the full scope of the work desired, thereby enabling the consultant to address the project precisely and to make realistic cost estimates. In addition, the wording of an RFP should enable principals of a consulting firm to recognize whether the firm will be a serious contender for the job, thereby sparing the firm the expense of a useless proposal and sparing the agency the trouble of reading and responding to that proposal.
What the RFP Should Include
An RFP may be accompanied by appendices, maps, drawings, and other backup material. However, the RFP itself should be a relatively brief document. Even on a rather large or complex project, the various elements can generally be covered in 10 to 25 single-spaced pages.
Describe the issuing agency and its relationship to other entities if that is not obvious. This suggestion is not necessary for a planning department that is clearly a line agency within a municipal government. However, it can be very important for intergovernmental agencies and other entities. Names of public authorities and special districts, such as sewer districts, can be particularly misleading. Such an entity is often named after a city, town, or county with which the agency may or may not be coterminous. The difference should be pointed out, though it need not be explained in detail in the introduction.
Description of the Project or Program
Description of Services Required
Write clearly. Avoid jargon. Use commonly understood terms, rather than acronyms or abbreviations. Do not use general terms like "facilities" if you mean "roads."
Emphasize what the agency needs from the consultant. Although the RFP should certainly identify any critical or mandatory steps in the process, such as public meetings, the proposal process often works best if it leaves the work program open to suggestions from proposing consultants. Unless the purpose for hiring the consultant is simply to augment staff on a project, the same expertise that the consultant brings to the substantive aspects of the project should enable the consultant to develop a responsive work program. There are two reasons for encouraging consultants to do so. First, if the consultant has significant experience with the type of work involved, the consultant's personnel should know more about what should be in such a work program than the agency staff. Second, evaluating independently developed work programs is an excellent way to evaluate a consultant's understanding of the project and approach to the project, as well as the quality of the consultant's work.
This section should also provide a schedule for the completion of the project and identification of major project milestones. If there are a particular number of public meetings involved in the project or if the goal is to have a report or plan ready for a meeting that has already been scheduled, that information should be included in this section of the RFP.
There are few disadvantages to sharing budget information. The agency that publishes the budget can still rank proposals competitively based on which qualified consultant will provide the best value — the most appropriate package of services within the agency's budget. If an agency's expectations of services far exceed its proposed budget, it is easier on all parties if consultants are aware of that discrepancy initially and can inform the agency of that fact without putting the consultants or the agency through the demanding process of preparing and reviewing proposals. If an agency's budget exceeds its expectations (a very rare circumstance indeed), one or more reputable firms will bid less than the budget or offer a range of additional and perhaps unneeded services. The agency can then select one of the lower-priced proposals or negotiate a reduced contract for less than the full scope of services proposed by the selected firm.
An agency can maintain some price competition in the process and still provide guidance to consultants by publishing a budget range. However, the real issue in selecting a consultant is not price but value. If every consultant competing for a proposed project submits a budget for exactly the same amount, the agency can easily compare the proposals to determine which offers the best value. That is a far more practical exercise than attempting to compare diverse proposals with vastly different budgets, hoping to renegotiate one of the proposals to the appropriate level of services for the budget.
Type of Contract
An agency that goes directly to the RFP stage should include a full request for qualifications as part of the proposal. That should include the same information suggested in Chapter 2 for a statement of qualifications, plus the specific qualifications of any personnel to be assigned to the project.
The RFP need not be very specific when requesting information on consultant qualifications. A firm that submits a standard brochure unrelated to the proposed project without other information probably will not give the project the attention that it needs and does not deserve serious consideration.
Directions for Submission
This material is a revised and edited excerpt from Selecting and Retaining a Planning Consultant: RFPs, RFQs, Contracts, and Project Management by Eric Damian Kelly, AICP. It is Planning Advisory Service Report No. 443, published by the American Planning Association, February 1993.