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Deconstructing the Question: How to Parse a Confused RFP

The breathless SAMHSA RFP, “Targeted Capacity Expansion Program for Substance Abuse Treatment and HIV/AIDS Services (Short Title: TCE/HIV)” (.pdf link to the RFP) has already been mentioned and also features one of my favorite proposal verbal quirks: the automatic success assumption. The last bullet in Section C (page 26) says:

Demonstrate success in referring, and retaining clients in aftercare and recovery support services/programs following substance abuse treatment.

I read that, noted the grammar mistake (see the last paragraph of this post for more about it) and called Isaac. I initially assumed the RFP wanted to know how the applicant had helped others similar to the target population get drug treatment. In other words, it just asked the applicant to show previous experience in similar programs. This, however, would be too easy. It’s also not exactly what’s being asked: they want to know about referring, and retaining clients in other services/programs. So they don’t necessarily want information about a program that the applicant has run, but presumably such services would be as a result of some program, or an aspect of another program.

The question is hard to understand because its form and hard to answer because it doesn’t define “success,” and the only way to answer it straight would be with data that says something like, “In 2007, 120 people were referred to other substance abuse clinics, and of those, 77 went, which we think is successful because other programs/the literature/our therapist/numbers we made up indicate that normally less than half of people in the target population when referred actually made it to treatment.”

For a program dealing with substance abuse or medical care, there are further complicating factors because of third-party payer issues and whether clinics are willing to treat the uninsured or publicly insured. Many clinics aren’t willing to take such patients, which is an important treatment gap the current political debate around healthcare is ignoring: many of the uninsured are eligible for public support programs but don’t enroll or, if they do enroll, cannot find providers.

That was a long tangent, the point of which is that even if a program like the ones being created in response to TCE/HIV do refer clients, there’s no guarantee that the treatment provider on the other end will accept the client, even if the client manages to find her way to the other program for help. Furthermore, the question itself is confusing and, once you understand what it means and its implications, you realize that it’s asking for data that don’t really exist and, even if they did, probably wouldn’t be useful for the reasons I just described. Finally, the question asks about aftercare and recovery/support programs, which, for an organization providing outreach and pretreatment services, also doesn’t exist. Initial referrals have nothing to do with recovery and support. The deeper into this question one gets, the worse it appears.

Finally, note the bizarre comma inserted after the fourth word: “referring, and retaining clients…” Commas should be used between independent clauses (meaning complete sentences that could stand alone) joined by “but, nor,” or “for,” and they’re optional if the sentence is joined by “and” or “or.” You can also use them to separate things in a series, between consecutive adjectives, or to set off phrases and clauses. All of this is courtesy of Write Right!, which I mentioned previously here. Notice that none of those rules say “drop a comma randomly in a sentence that would otherwise flow smoothly, even if its content is incoherent.” The comma is symptomatic of a deeper malady: RFP writers who aren’t really thinking about what they’re doing and who, in their attempts to sound positive and upbeat, contort themselves in verbal knots that the grant writer must in turn untangle.