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Guest Post: Inside the Sausage Factory and how the RFP Process leads to Confused Grant Writers

Today’s guest post comes from an email sent by someone with broad experience in the grant world who prefers to remain anonymous—like many of our correspondents. In this respect we’re a bit like CIA officers running spy networks; unlike CIA agents, however, we have never been offered a “honey trap.”  Our guest writer is speculating about one RFP, which has to remain nameless, and how it demonstrates the way the drafting process used to construct RFPs can contribute to an unpalatable final product.

Grant writers, like lawyers, must be able to understand writing that simultaneously tries to eliminate ambiguity while conveying all the information necessary for an applicant to understand the program. These conflicting forces can cause the problems described here and elsewhere.

Here’s what I think about how one RFP was constructed.

I know the Director of the agency in question personally. He is knowledgeable and brilliant in many ways, but not terribly good at verbal communication. He states what he wants somewhat awkwardly, even when he’s totally right. The process starts with him. He calls in his assistant, or whoever is in charge of putting an RFP together, and tells her what he wants. She gets most of it right and converts it into RFP legal-sounding gobbledegook. He can read RFP legal sounding gobbledegook, so he passes on it, probably more quickly than he should because he has a lot on his plate.

What she writes then gets passed along to various branch administrators for their comments and suggestions. They think about legal stuff and mostly about details that have to be completed if the contractor will be acceptable. They include things that are not relevant to the actual work but which make their effort to judge the proposal easier…like being sure that the contractor puts tabs on each section (numbered 1.1.1, 1.1.2, etc.) and having the contractor sign a form indicating that his company has the proper insurance and that it lists its overhead rates. Since travel expense is involved, they have the contractor price the trips but are careful not to explain what the state’s car mileage rates are or what is allowed for hotels and meals. Let them try to guess, or plow through the state rates, if they exist, on the Internet. Throw in some language that says that each 1.1.2 section etc. is totally self contained.

That is, forbid the contractor from saying things like “see section 1.1.1 for this information.” [Jake’s note: see my advice in Further Information Regarding the Department of Redundancy Department.] And give them firm warnings or threats. Say that otherwise the proposal will be disqualified. Include expressions like “submit one original and four copies” even though all copies look (and are) original in the electronic world. For the deadline, put in that the proposal has to be “on the desk of X person by 2 p.m. May 15th” but give only a post office box as the address, making the contractor hope that the people at the PO box will be able to find X person’s desk on time.

And don’t give even a small hint about how much money is allowed for the proposal. Make them guess how much we have available. The most frustrating part is that the RFP doesn’t say how the computer generated paragraphs which are assembled into letters will get rewritten. Having already gone through this with another agency, we know what a huge task this is. We can say what’s wrong with a sample of the paragraphs and letters but our hands are tied about how they get revised and assembled.

The Director wants to have his staff be able to rewrite the computer generated letters we are to assess so he tells his assistant as much. She may not be used to this approach so she writes stuff that is rather unclear about what they want. Are we to do any teaching to accomplish this? I guess not, since we think the RFP says our work is to train the trainers how to teach the staff to write clearly, but it is not all that clear who we are to train.

Experience tells us that the folks there need more than a little information if they are to revise their current training programs. The training materials we’ve seen deal mostly with grammar and usage but we know they need much, much more. We have to hope that the examples we provide will be able to be translated into teaching materials. It would be easier to do the training ourselves but we apparently won’t be allowed to do this.

We conclude that the best we can do is to outline the kinds of problems extant paragraphs and letters contain, then construct a process for their ultimate revision by someone unknown to us, who then assembles them into actual letters. We are to help prepare such people, not knowing exactly who we’re to help. So we’ll build an outline about what the department might do, if it has staff and technical capability to do it.

There’s more, of course, but that should exemplify our frustration a bit. So we propose, duck, and hope for the best. Maybe the best would be that they reject our proposal. That would be okay with us. But we sincerely want to help the Director and help our state as well.

Isaac has experienced similar processes in working for and talking to agencies/organizations that issue RFPs. This death-by-committee effect isn’t unique to grant writing, but the combination of fear, pompousness, uncertainty, certitude and the like seems to lead to the production of especially unpalatable RFPs, and the nature of bureaucracies make potential reforms difficult to implement. In addition, RFP writers seldom have to respond to the RFPs they produce, or any other RFPs for that matter, and thus don’t understand the kinds of problems we describe. In the fifteen years Seliger + Associates has been in business, we’ve written numerous proposals across a broad array of subjects and have never been contacted by an issuing organization to ask how their RFPs might be improved. They don’t have to, of course, since as noted in “Foundations and the Future” and “Studio Executives, Starlets, and Funding,” he who has the gold makes the rules.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” as the cliché goes. Writing done by committee usually comes out about as well as mass-produced food: serviceable at best, with the character of no character, and more commonly inedible. As the grant writer, it’s your job to deal with this output as best you can, and if you understand why RFPs are so hard to read and filled with repetition and other problems, you’ll be better equipped to deal with them.