What is the real value of clarification questions?

 

Clarification questions are a standard component of the government procurement process. On the surface they serve a very legitimate purpose but what it their value really?

In the period between the release of the RFT and the closing date, potential suppliers can submit written questions seeking clarification of any issues the tender documents they do not clearly understand. Most often these relate to some technical aspect within the Statement of Requirements (SOR). Have you ever wondered how these questions are handled and the true value they provide to those who put them forward?

If the issue is simple and straight forward the answer will be complete. If the issue is complex and requires a lengthy reply there is a tendency to make the response as brief as possible, sometimes using non-committal language taken from the RFT documents. Why do this? Because the more comprehensive the answer the more opportunity there is for information to be misconstrued and backfire on the Agency at a later date.

What happens when the clarification requests flow in the other direction? Once the evaluation process gets underway the evaluation panel may wish to clarify something in a particular vendor’s proposal. The process is no less constricting, albeit for different reasons. The panel member drafts the question and then submits it to the Project Manager who in turn submits it to the independent probity advisor. Why? To make sure the question is specific and does not prompt the supplier to provide additional information that would give them an advantage over other suppliers. If this happens the information will be set aside and not considered further. There is quite a knack to writing clarification questions and I have witnessed firsthand how what starts as a simple and direct question becomes something quite different by the time it is sent to the relevant supplier. Almost invariably this approach returns a response that is “process safe” but ultimately unsatisfying.

So what is the real value of clarification questions? I’m afraid a uniform answer is unclear. One would think that effective clarification of issues is in the interests of all parties and would eventually deliver a better solution for the government customer. Unfortunately, such a worthwhile quest sometimes founders on the twin reefs of risk and probity. If you’re looking for guidance to help you through the muddy waters of clarification, get in touch with Corfocus today.