Choosing a Consultant 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.

Cover Sheet
A lengthy RFP should have a cover sheet giving the RFP title, the project or program title, the name of the issuing entity, and the date the proposal is due.

The introduction should identify and describe, in no more than a paragraph, the project or program for which the consultant is required and its current status. It should then state briefly the nature of the consulting assistance being sought. This should be carefully worded. If the job requires an interdisciplinary team, it is best to talk about the end product or type of activity (e.g., an environmental impact assessment or a development plan), rather than a specific type of firm. Your preferences about the type of firm can be better explained later, in the qualifications section. The introduction should also state the amount budgeted for the proposed work. Finally, the due date for the proposal should also be included in the introduction, with a reference to the directions for submission that will be described later in the RFP.

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
This section should establish the context for the work to be performed and help the consultant to judge the level of effort required for various tasks. If the project or program is very complex, the details can be relegated to an appendix or other attachments. The important points to cover here are:

  1. the purpose of the project or program (what it is supposed to accomplish and for whom);
  2. its basic components — management, structure, processes, and personnel;
  3. any innovative or unusual aspects;
  4. the site(s) or geographic area(s) involved; and
  5. a proposed schedule and present status of the project or program.

Description of Services Required
This is the heart of the RFP. Take great care with it because this is the section the consultants will read again and again, weighing its every nuance. If carelessly written, this section can defeat the purpose of the RFP by misstating the agency's needs or by conveying inaccurate signals about how the proposals will be evaluated.

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.

Amount Budgeted
Most agencies do not include budget information in an RFP. The theory of agencies in withholding budget information is that consultants who know what the budget is will automatically submit proposals that "spend the budget." That may be a legitimate concern. On the other hand, a consultant with no idea of the budget for a proposed project may have great difficulty in submitting a responsive proposal. Where an agency fails to specify a budget, cost proposals may range up to a high of four or five times the lowest-cost proposal. In those circumstances, there may be only one or two proposals that are within the project budget of the local government and thus only one or two proposals from which to make a choice. A proposal that falls far below the anticipated budget will probably include far less in the way of services than the agency wants or needs. It is very difficult to compare proposals with extreme variations in budget, because there are too many variables. If two qualified firms offer exactly the same range of services at significantly different prices, the agency has something to compare. If two qualified firms offer vastly different scopes of services at the same price, the agency can select the scope of services that best suits its needs. However, when there is little in common among proposals from qualified firms, comparison is difficult indeed.

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
Indicate what type of contractual arrangement the agency will use. Professional services contracts generally fall into one of two categories: fixed-price (also called lump sum), in which the agency receives a defined scope of services for a fixed price; and time-and-expense (also called cost-plus), in which the agency reimburses a consultant on a fixed formula for professional time and expenses. The advantages and disadvantages of the two types of contracts are discussed in more depth in the section on "Legal Considerations and Insurance" at this site.

An agency that uses the two-part, RFQ/RFP process will have most of the information about qualifications that it needs from the RFQs. At the RFP stage, it should ask for an update to the RFQ if there has been a significant lapse of time between the two. The agency will also want one additional set of information. The proposal should specify what personnel will work on the project. It should also include short resumes on those specific individuals, if those resumes were not included in the RFQ.

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.

Evaluation Criteria
Explain how the proposals will be evaluated and, in general terms, by whom. It is helpful to both parties if the consultants know how much weight will be given to specific aspects of their proposals, such as cost, technical approach, relevant experience, qualifications of the project team, familiarity with the geographic area, and logistical capabilities. It is also useful to let the consultants know what type of group will review the proposals. A consultant may prepare a proposal in one way if the planning commission is to make the selection and in a very different way if technical experts from the staff will make the selection. Some consultants will probably learn who is on the selection team. Disclosing that information in the RFP keeps the process fair to all. If state law or local rule prohibits the consultants from contacting selection team members directly, the RFP should say so and selection team members should be clearly instructed to turn away (and probably report) any attempted contacts from consultants. Planning consultants typically do not attempt to lobby selection committee members, but some do. If there are rules on the subject, they should be stated clearly.

Directions for Submission
The RFP should include a simple statement of the time (date and hour) and place for submission of the proposal and the number of copies required. Since proposals are often delivered by messenger or overnight delivery service, give a street address (with office number) as well as the agency's mailing address. If there are sealed-bid requirements or if cost proposals should be submitted separately, those directions should be contained in this section.

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.