Dealing with difficult RFPs is part of the proposal process, but it doesn’t have to make your life difficult! See Part 1 for additional tips for writing great proposals no matter the RFP.
2) Decide which — if any — questions to ask the owner agency.
Once you’ve hashed out all your questions, review the list to see which remain unanswered and decide which questions to ask the owner agency. Not all questions benefit from being answered! For example, team members may want to have a leave-behind for an interview. Asking whether leave-behinds are allowed risks being told no, but leaving that question ambiguous creates an opportunity for the interview.
Of course, this type of decision-making needs to be done ethically, and proposal writers should not take advantage of a poorly constructed RFP — this will only make your team look bad and risk harming everyone’s reputation in the long run.
3) Read between the lines.
Bad RFPs are usually the result of rushed copy-pasting, not nefarious intent, so using the RFP to infer the owner’s real goals and needs for the proposal is fair game. Look past the typos, ignore the irrelevant text obviously pulled from another RFP, and focus on the RFP’s underlying message.
Make use of the evaluation criteria and project description/context to determine what they’re “really” looking for. Firm personnel who have worked for the owner before are also a valuable tool in solving some of these discrepancies — and sometimes they can have off-record chats with people who know the project to save face for everyone.
4) Use your best judgement.
The RFP calls for a lump-sum cost proposal and a per-task schedule, but the RFP is for an on-call/as-needed/task-order program management contract. One of these things is not like the other! So go with the one you know will be true — the on-call contract — and do your best to shape the cost proposal and schedule to support that component of the RFP. (This is an example of a question you SHOULD ask if possible! But with short turn-arounds or very difficult owner agencies, sometimes you just have to make the call yourself.)