You might be surprised at the wealth of information you can get from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request when gathering competitive intelligence.
FOIA is the process of officially requesting information from the Executive Branch of the government. By law, any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information in writing.
Interesting fact: your competitor’s information becomes part of the federal record once they win a contract.
The key to FOIA requests is to start early. It can take months or more than a year to get your requested information.
Here is what you can get on your competitors via a FOIA request:
- Old RFPs
- Copy of their contracts with the scopes of work
- Copy of the technical and cost proposals (yes, their proposals—if they won, the government retains a copy and will provide it to you)
The Federal Government will only give you the winner’s proposal, but many state governments who have a similar process to FOIA will provide all the bidders’ proposals (winning and losing).
Before sending a request, check the FOIA office website for FOIA Logs to see what has already been requested. Keep in mind that there is no central office in the government that processes FOIA requests for all federal agencies. Every agency responds on its own.
How Do You File a FOIA Request?
Generally, to request FOIA documents, you need to:
- Identify which agency (and especially which part of that agency) has the records you are seeking. It’s important that you identify the correct agency for your request, so go to FOIA.gov to look up that agency’s FOIA Office. There are over 100 agencies on the FOIA.gov site. FOIA.gov has an agency search bar on its homepage.
- Check that agency’s website FOIA request guide on how to file a FOIA request. Your search will include a breakdown for the agency’s response times based on the level of complexity. The length of time to respond to your request will vary depending on its complexity and any backlog of requests.
- Get in touch with the specific department or agency’s FOIA Public Liaison to verify that this is the right place to send your request. If you don’t, your request may be sent to the wrong place. If you realize this too late, the processing may take too long for capture purposes.
- Submitting a FOIA request to a federal agency isn’t difficult, but you must carefully follow the particular agency’s instructions. Many FOIA submissions can be sent electronically these days and some agencies still accept snail mail.
- A complete and well-written letter may help you avoid delays and further questions from the government agency.
- For procurement documents such as solicitations, proposals, and contracts, many requesters make the mistake of only providing the solicitation number in their letter. When you are requesting winning proposals and resulting awards, you must also provide the following additional information:
The office that issued the solicitation
Title of the solicitation
Name of the successful bidder
Contract number of the resulting award
- Also note in your request that you are willing and able to cover the FOIA fees, if any.
- Submit the request. Don’t address it to a specific person. Include a note that this is a FOIA request in the letter and on the envelope (if mailing).
- Wait for your tracking number. The agency must confirm receipt of your request. Then, it has 20 days to make a decision on whether it will release the records to you. Sometimes, when you request many documents, the agency may “suggest” a delay.
- Wait for your records. The agency will eventually send you them “within a reasonable time.” This time frame depends on how busy the agency is, and how much data you requested.
The agency’s staff processing your FOIA request may need to read everything you request line by line, and sometimes get back to your competitor to ask them to redact records. Your hope is that both the FOIA contractors serving that agency and your competitor are sloppy and you get more information than you had hoped for. People have received completely uncensored proposal documents, or sloppily redacted documents, and that’s capture gold.
Sometimes the government requests bidders to submit two versions of a proposal upfront—full and redacted for FOIA purposes. Bidders usually don’t redact the proposal that’s up for selection that same way they would after the fact. This is when you luck out!
Follow up and stay on top of your FOIA request or it could take many MONTHS for you to receive what you requested.
Be ready to pay hourly fees to the government for:
- Search of the requested records (usually about $35/hr),
- Review to redact them (usually about $55-60/hr)
- Per-page cost of duplication (making hard copies), if necessary
You usually don’t pay in advance when requesting—you get a fee notification. However, if the government anticipates the fees will exceed a certain amount (usually $250), they may require you to pay up front.
Usually, a government contractor supports a FOIA office. The government pays a contracting company from the fees paid for commercial use of information.
Be Aware of This Regarding Your FOIA Requests
Your FOIA request may annoy your customer, so if you are in the process of building a relationship and it is somewhat touch and go, you may want to be careful.
FOIA puts you on the radar by letting your customer know you have teeth. Your competitors who may also be your teaming partners (aka “competifriends”) may be notified or have to approve what gets released to you. They may get to sanitize their materials before you receive them, so they will know right away that you’re bidding.
If you are not an incumbent, you may want to think twice, because you will become the target of their ghosting and strategic action plans. Additionally, you may ruin the relationship if they know it’s you and you aren’t doing it through a third party.
Some companies prefer to “hide” and to use a third party to file a FOIA request: they either ask their subcontractor or a consulting company to do it for them. They may also get it from a paid capture data provider, but they must think hard—would this capture data provider then turn around and sell that FOIA’ed information to other clients who didn’t plan ahead?
Of course, if you didn’t plan ahead yourself, calling paid capture data providers such as GovWin IQ may be prudent as they may already have the information you need.
The incumbent contractor should always execute a FOIA to see what has been given to the competition if you weren’t notified of their request.
Need to Learn More About Federal Contracting Competitor Analysis?
Many prime contractors decide that they will just do their best and therefore don’t need to perform competitive analysis. They lose the opportunity to outdo their competition. In government contracting, best informed wins, and competition information will inform and enhance your win strategy.
Many subcontractors neglect competitor analysis in favor of guessing or blindly accepting information from a prime contractor. If you resort to this practice, you won’t be able to set effective and conscious pricing strategies.
If you’re ready to add competitor analysis strategies to your capture and proposal management skill set, take a look at our Competitive Analysis: Black Hat and Price-to-Win Training. This two-day course will give you everything you need to move past guesswork and create proposals that provide the most benefit to the Federal Government AND your company.
See the full schedule of upcoming classes here.