Faithful readers will note that we regularly discuss RFPs, NOFAs, FOAs, SGAs—or whatever other acronym funders might dream up to denote that grant funds are available. Jake in particular likes to fulminate about bizarre RRPs, as he does in “Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP” and “Adventures in The Broadband Initiatives Program.” Despite marinating in a stew of RFPs, however, Seliger + Associates never responds to grant writing service RFPs/RFQs (“Requests for Qualifications”). There are two basic reasons for our unabashedly stiff-necked position.
The first reason is the most important: I know from over 15 years of working for various California cities, mostly in management capacities, that RFQs/RFPs for professional services are easily wired, with “wired” meaning that one firm is going to get the contract regardless of who submits a response. I’m not talking about Sopranos-style wiring in which the public official can expect a visit from Paulie Walnuts if the wiring job isn’t done right. Usually, the public official knows a certain consultant and think the local guy can get it done.
A city might also want a local consultant but need bids from qualified out-of-towners to provide cover, so a favored firm is identified before the “open” competition. Many public agencies are required to run a bid process before selecting a consultant, and the public official in change of the RFP/RFQ process structures the document to produce the desired outcome. This is usually done by putting requirements into the document that favor the fair-haired bidder.
For example, we recently received a RFQ from a city. Twenty-five percent of the available point total was for “knowledge of the local community,” while 25% was for “grant writing experience.” This was obviously wired for a local grant writer, as we would receive zero points for local knowledge. Another favored approach is to require the successful bidder to meet regularly with agency staff in person, making it impossible for a non-local bidder to compete. There are other similar techniques—some of them much less obvious—including having a ringer on the selection committee.
We receive up to a dozen RFP/RFQ notices per year. I assume this happens because we are such a well-qualified and well-known firm that we would provide exceptional cover for a wired bidding process, if we are dumb enough to respond. Not being stupid or naive, at least in this respect, we always send more or less the following response: We will not respond to this RFP, but we would be happy to provide a fee quote if your process fails to turn up a qualified consultant. This does work: the local guys often can’t get the job done. Over the years, however, exactly one public agency eventually hired us after running a true, or true-seeming RFP/RFQ process. Years ago, when we first started, we would sometimes submit real bids but we never got the job. About 12 years ago stopped wasting our time.
The second reason is also significant: having been in business for almost 17 years, we simply don’t have to respond to RFPs/RFQs. We think we’re the best grant writing outfit there is. We are like Astronaut Gordon Cooper’s response to a reporter’s question concerning who was the greatest fighter pilot he ever saw: “You’re looking at him!“* Responding to RFPs/RFQs wastes our time with no reliable prospect of reward. Like lawyers and escorts, grant writers are all about billable hours. Unlike architects, engineers, accountants and similar personal services consultants, who have tons of competition and must respond to RFPs/RFQs, we provide a unique service with few qualified competitors. Don’t believe me? Search Google for grant writers and see what you get.
Despite the above, we’ve worked for hundreds of public agencies, including cities, counties, housing authorities, redevelopment agencies, and state governments. We can do so without responding to RFPs/RFQs because some public agencies have minimum contract amounts before bidding kicks in, which means they don’t have to go through the process. Additionally, all public agency purchasing rules have an exception for what is known in the trade as a “sole-source contract.” Public agencies occasionally face unexpected emergencies and can’t wait for a bid process. They also sometimes have unique needs—like, say, grant writing—for which there are so few qualified bidders that there is no point in running a competition.
As long as the public official is willing to place herself on the line, nothing prevents her from hiring us under a sole-source contract. When I was a public official and wanted to hire a favored consultant, I simply explained what I wanted to do to the City Manager and City Attorney, wrote the argument in a City Council staff report (if needed—usually it wasn’t), and signed the contract. This is a lot less work than orchestrating a phony RFP/RFQ process. Since I know from experience that the sole-source approach is always available, and our services and fees are cleverly hidden in plain sight on our website, I know that any public official who wants to go through an RFP/RFQ process is probably trying to wire it. The only way to win is by not playing the game.
* In the terrific film version of The Right Stuff, Dennis Quaid delivers this line as “Who was the best pilot I ever saw? Well, uh, you’re lookin’ at ‘im”, with a boyish charm I could never achieve even when I was a charming boy.