I got my first federal RFP amended last week.
It’s a bit like being blooded when you’re in the Mafia: the tenth time is just standard procedure, but the first time is special.* Isaac, for instance, has gotten numerous RFPs amended, which is always fun because our clients are amazed by our wizardly abilities.
The original version of DOL’s Face Forward Serving Juvenile Offenders Grants SGA said this about the eligible service population:
An individual may participate in a project funded under these grants if he/she: is between the ages of 16 and 24 on the date of enrollment [. . . and ] has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system.
That’s a big problem for a lot of applicants: in New York and North Carolina, youth ages 16 and up are no longer considered juveniles and are therefore adjudicated by the adult justice system.** The original SGA also states that participants must be “currently involved or has been involved in the juvenile justice system or is currently a candidate for diversion under state guidelines for juvenile diversion Programs.” In most states, 16- and 17-year-old youth would be adjudicated within the juvenile justice system for minor crimes, but that’s not true in all states.
Even if a New York nonprofit identifies youth who were adjudicated by the juvenile justice system prior to age 16, most of those youth are likely to have also been involved in the adult system. Few at-risk youth give up criminal behavior at age 16 without supportive services. This is of course the whole point of Face Forward.
As a result, the original rules would make most New York and North Carolina nonprofits effectively ineligible for Face Forward, because they won’t be able to get enough mandatory participants.
I called and sent an e-mail to Mamie Brown (the Face Forward contact person) outlining the problem. She didn’t return my call but did send back an e-mail that completely ignored the point I described above, and she helpfully said, “Please review the Eligibility Requirements in Section III. 3 a) Eligible Participants of the SGA which clearly states who can participate and receive services under this grant. For your convenience the SGA specifically states [. . . ]”
Yes, thank you, I can read.
Whenever a contact person does this, it’s time to look for decisions makers or (unlike most Program Officers) at least a thinking human being. We decided to shoot for either an undersecretary in the DOL, or, since Face Forward is officially being offered by the Employment Training Administration, we decided to try for Assistant Secretary Jane Oates.
There are two dangers in this kind of bureaucratic wasp-nest poking: getting someone too low on the totem pole, who won’t make any decisions (that’s Mamie) or someone too high, who has no idea what the hell is going on in the bowels of the organization and will often be unwilling to respond until the lower echelons have been exhausted.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to jump straight to the top, but in this case we decided an intermediate person. If the intermediate person hadn’t been helpful, we would at least have her name and correspondence when we went further up the chain.
Anyway, I called Oates and left a message, then sent an e-mail. She was quiet for a few days, which is reasonable and not uncommon: she has to figure out what’s going on herself and formulate a response. But the deadline was approaching, so I also called and wrote New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. Senators and House members sometimes become involved in grant program rules if they think their home states aren’t getting a fair shot at the money.
Why? Because Senators and House members love to crow about all the money “they” got for their states and districts. We’ve actually had clients whose first notification of grant award came not from the federal agency, but from reporters calling because a Senator put out a press release about how he got more money for the state. Never mind that he had no bearing on the proposal and that letters from Congresspeople are worthless to applicants: the only thing Congresspeople love more than credit for getting money is money itself.
I don’t know if the person I found at Schumer’s office actually did anything, but a couple days after I contacted them Face Forward Amendment One appeared. The amendment changed “has never been involved with the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution” to “has never been convicted within the adult Federal, state or local criminal justice system; and has never been convicted of a sexual offense other than prostitution.”
That works for us. The new criteria makes it easier for our Face Forward clients to recruit eligible participants. Plus, in the real world of providing human services, most nonprofits are going to interpret plea bargains for minor crimes in the adult system as not being convictions—but rather, only being “involvement.”
I even got a nice e-mail from Eric Luetkenhaus, the DOL Grant Officer/Chief, about the amendment. When I wrote back to him and Oates saying to say thanks, I received an even more unusual e-mail from Oates: “Thanks to Eric and his team for fixing this but most of all Jake thanks for bringing this to our attention.” Wow! Usually, federal agencies hate issuing amendments, and we’ve never gotten an attaboy from a federal office before. Being as writers who are either a) well-versed in Federal matters or b) cynics (you decide), we were pleasantly shocked.
This story contains a recipe for how to get RFPs amended. If you want to try, you have to start by making sure there’s something wrong or contradictory in an RFP. If the RFP is okay, you obviously don’t need to amend it. Once you’ve determined that there’s a real problem, however, here’s a guide for public RFPs:
1. Start by calling and e-mailing the program contact. These days, most listed contacts don’t like to answer their phones and actually interact with the grimy, ugly public, members of which tend to do annoying things like ask follow-up questions. Consequently, they’ll probably ignore your calls, and you’ll need to send an e-mail. That’s what I did in this case, and I got the language of the RFP spit back to me by Mamie. First contact is unlikely to generate a useful response: the safest thing for a program officer to do is repeat back the language of the RFP. Consequently, that’s what they’ll almost always do (this is also why bidders’ conferences are generally useless for anything other than schmoozing).
2. Be reasonable. Most program officers face the public, and, while most of the public is reasonable, one crazy person can take a disproportionate amount of time and energy. Your goal is to come across as thoroughly reasonable as possible. If you’re not a good writer, find someone in your organization who is, and get them to write the e-mail. Be sure to directly quote from the RFP sections that concern you. Your freshman English teacher was right: quotation really is better and stronger than paraphrase.***
3. Get a response from the underling. This will show the decision maker you eventually reach that you’ve done your homework and, again, that you’re reasonable. Almost all contact people will behave like Mamie.
4. Be polite, but firm and specific. The “polite” part is key, again, because you can’t actually make a federal bureaucrat do anything they don’t want to do. You need to make sure that you’re perceived as reasonable. If you’re not, you’ll get justifiably binned as a loony. But you should also be firm: you want a change to be made for reasons X, Y, and Z.
5. If that doesn’t work, or doesn’t work expeditiously, try calling and writing your Congressperson or Senator. Some will be indifferent, but you should try to find the field officer or field deputy who deals with the federal agency that issued the RFP. The first person you talk to won’t be a decision-maker; their job will be to screen lunatics and to route constituents. You want to be routed to the right person, and frequently you won’t know who that is before you start. Again, your goal is to be scrupulously polite and reasonable, because the public-facing parts of the Congressperson’s office is designed to weed out lunatics.
Taken together, these steps won’t actually take much time, and they should yield results. But they won’t always. If they don’t, don’t yell and scream and holler. Back down and go back to whatever you’d normally be doing. The minute you start screaming, you’ve probably lost. If you get to the top bureaucrat, you’re probably stuck, and probably stuck permanently. But more often than not, genuine mistakes will be rectified—provided you know how to push effectively.
* Although I don’t have guys named Jimmy Caprese and Big Pussy congratulating me.
** As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” We want teenagers to be adults when they commit crimes and “children” when they have sex, which tells you more about our culture than about teenagers.
And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”
Laws, including those embodied in Face Forward, reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.
*** Having taught freshmen English to hundreds of students, I know well the skepticism they feel when I tell them about the powers of quotation.