RFPs from the Edge

22 02 2011

Last month, the one session I attended at the AESP national conference was how to write a better request for proposal (RFP).  It was sort of a forum led by our friends at Tetra Tech.  Essentially, it was full of people like me, for whom a major responsibility is business development and marketing – responding to RFPs.  For a while I sat there like a lump, thinking, eh, just deal with it and quit whining.  Toward the end of the session I started getting fired up.

Here are some guidelines for writing RFPs:

  • If you’ve already decided who you are going to hire but have to go through an RFP process as a formality to keep some government wonk off your back, just issue the RFP with a one-week deadline with an impossible pile of content to gather so it is obvious to everyone who knows anything (i.e., not the clueless wonk), that the RFP is a charade.  I have plenty of opportunity without being duped into writing a proposal for which we have no chance.  And whatever you do in this scenario, don’t extend the deadline because some clueless bidder doesn’t “get it” and asks for an extension.
  • If you are going to extend the deadline, do it days before the deadline passes.  One thing that really smoked my butt last summer was having a deadline extended with about three hours to go for the 5:00 deadline.  This was obviously to accommodate some whining  bidders.  The RFP had been out for weeks.  If a bidder can’t manage their time better than that they deserve no chance at the project.  Is that how you would handle the actual work should you win?  I wrote as much in our proposal on that one, sparing the name calling, however.
  • If you are going to extend the deadline, do it before the original deadline.  That is correct.  We recently submitted a proposal on a Friday, the due date.  We added to the proposal that we had not received the questions (from bidders) and answers (from buyer) for the proposal.  Samples of this Q&A are discussed in You Are So Fired.   As a result of not having the Q&A, we wrote that if there is something we didn’t get from the guy who promised we would get the Q&A, have mercy on us.  The next Tuesday here came the Q&A and an extension to the next Thursday, two days away.  Good grief!  And it had MAJOR implications.  See next bullet…
  • If there is a deadline for completing the actual project, PUT THIS IN THE RFP! (please)  The RFP discussed in the previous bullet was for a quarter million dollars with no project timeline mentioned in the original RFP.  We provided two scenarios: first to complete it by late fall for one price and second to finish early the next year.  In the Q&A provided after the due date, the report was to be completed by June 30.  Nice.  If I had known that I probably wouldn’t have even bid the thing because it’s too aggressive and practically impossible to deliver.  Did I mention this was an ARRA (“stimulus”) project.  Makes sense that it makes no sense.
  • Either provide a very detailed scope of work or budget, or both.  If neither is provided, you have nothing to bid on.  This may sound like a “duh” but some RFPs want innovation and therefore leave the approach wide open, which is ok, but unless the RFP comes from congress, which knows no limit on spending, please give me a number to work with.
  • Know what you are doing.  We were recently teaming with another firm on a proposal for a relatively huge pile of work.  The constraints on cost per project and per unit of savings were about 40% lower than industry standards.  For example, a rule of thumb is that a program should deliver savings for about 1.5 times the energy cost per unit.  They were talking about something more like 0.8 times cost per unit.  C’mon.  This will be a case of hopefully getting the project and then explaining their plan is naive and needs a reality pill.
  • Keep it linear not a convoluted, semi-parallel piece of junk.  Some RFPs have an approach, scope of work, form of proposal, with a total of about 4 separate lists of things to cover.  I want to be sure to cover everything and present it clearly but this gets a little difficult when the format detailed in the RFP is a mess.  It doesn’t flow like I want because the RFP is a heap of junk.
  • Don’t mislead or outright lie about selection criteria.  When I see an RFP from a government entity with a proposal selection process that puts less than 50% scoring on cost, I know nobody put any thought into that.  Sometimes it’s a laughable 20% of the weighting.  It would be a rainy day in hell when a government entity doesn’t select the lowest cost proposal.  Quality and ROI rarely (and I do mean not always) matter to government entities, which is why we skip most of them.  I did fall for the ARRA one above, like a dope.
  • And of our wonderful utility clients, tell the purchasing / sourcing departments we are not designing a power plant, transmission system, or even a measly substation.  We don’t need to carry $20 million in professional liability insurance.  This may be asking for the impossible too, but ask the legal department to be reasonable.
  • Finally, for cry sakes hire the firm / team with the best proposal.  In the past year, we assembled a team to do a study for a regional energy efficiency consortium.  Our team put a lot of thought into the proposal and developed an outstanding approach and work plan.  I knew who our competition would be.  A firm that had done a million of these and they would switch covers on the last report, make some adjustments for the region and tell them what they tell everyone else.  If you kid yourself long enough, you’ll start accepting it as correct.  At some point you have to go to the streets and find out rather than tweak the last edition.  Our approach was to get real data from the ground up.  We lost to the mass-market provider and in the post mortem, the consortium rep couldn’t tell us a single reason why we weren’t selected.  In fact, she only told us how much they liked our proposal, over and over.  Head, meet wall.

Tidbits

I was in Austin, TX last week for my first real visit to the state.  Per my experience, there is no shortage of traffic.  Per the locals, the city likes sprawl.  It features a nice downtown and believe me when I tell you I’ve never seen so many people running in the morning darkness as there were in Austin.  Not in New York, Washington DC, Columbus, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Denver, Tucson, Phoenix, San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, or Seattle.  The only thing that I’ve experienced that was close was in the hills outside Silicon Valley.  And the Austin dudes are fast.  I was passed by three women in one six miler – four if you count one that pulled out in front of me and pulled away.  Fantastic!  These women were probably in their running prime but I’m not going to whine about my age till I’m at least 60.  But the average high temperature in July/August is 96F, which to me in WI, is a god-awful 4-H day, hazy, hot, humid, heinous.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP





Energy Star Black Eye

6 04 2010

For years, beginning in the 1990s through just a few years ago I considered ENERGY STAR® to be fluffy foo foo feel good goo – kind of like eating meringue smothered in corn syrup after chopping wood all day.

Then they introduced the ENERGY STAR rated homes and ENERGY STAR rated commercial buildings.  Both of these seem to be solid “programs”.  ENERGY STAR for commercial buildings is based on energy intensity, which is energy consumption per square foot, climate region, type of facility and a few other things.  To “earn the ENERGY STAR” commercial buildings must be in the 75th percentile of energy efficiency by energy intensity AND buildings must be inspected by a licensed professional engineer to ensure the occupants or owners aren’t cheating by starving the building of fresh air, sufficient lighting, or comfortable temperature and relative humidity conditions.  This is solid.

Then the ENERGY STAR label for appliances started to carry some weight with me, although I have an ENERGY STAR rated dehumidifier that won’t shut off automatically anymore and I otherwise have no idea what about it saves energy.

Unless you’ve been cryogenically frozen like Austin Powers for the past 30 years and were thawed out yesterday, you know the government has been throwing money at ENERGY STAR rated appliances as fast as the presses at the US mint can churn out $100 bills.

Recently some ENERGY STAR warts were exposed.  The famous electric space heater with feather duster and fly strips passed as an air purifier.  This is ironic because electric resistance is the most wasteful source of space heat and a feather duster kicks up dust, just sort of moves it around – not good at air purification.  The other infamous example that passed was the gasoline-powered alarm clock.

For an organization that has eight pages of how and how not to use their brand, including how to use ENERGY STAR properly in a statement, and how to use the logo, this is a major scandal.  The insouciant reaction to this fiasco is unfortunately not surprising to me, as this is the federal government we are talking about.  An ENERGY STAR spokeswoman states the approvals of these bogus products did not pose a problem for consumers because the products never existed. There was “no fraud”, and she said she doubted that many of the 40,000 genuine products with EnergyStar status had been mislabeled.

Come again?  These ridiculous examples get through the “screening” process, but don’t worry, the 44,000 products with the label are all ok.  I think this woman needs to take a statistics class or maybe some taekwondo six sigma courses.

This is another blithe example of no accountability at the federal government.  If something like this happened in the private sector some big heads would roll.

Snooty congress people haul all sorts of people they don’t like in front of them to call the kettle black.  Examples: Mark McGuire, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens (why their “crime” rises to a federal level is beyond me), Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and half of Microsoft, automotive executives, and most recently, evil corporations who are going public with the hit they will take to earnings due to the passage of the healthcare bill – reporting which ironically congress made them do in their kneejerk reaction to Enron with the passage of the millstone known as Sarbanes Oxley.

The problem is the government has a horrible record of policing itself.  I went into this in an earlier rant, or maybe it was while I was in a deep sleep one night; the purpose of government is to protect people from being ripped off.  When they start delivering products and services, in this case ratings, who’s going to oversee that?  Look at this ENERGY STAR scandal.  The government didn’t protect us from getting ripped off, but instead was complicit in it.  I don’t know of a single energy efficiency program in the US that is administered by a state agency – except for Wisconsin, which controlled the energy efficiency purse strings for a while and then, you guessed it, they stole the money to fill budget gaps they were too cowardly to fix the right way.  Programs are administered by utilities, consultants, and/or non-profits and overseen by state agencies.  Yes.  This is how things should work.

This guy says to scrap the ENERGY STAR immediately.  I don’t know if I would go that far.  As mentioned above, I think the intent is very positive for consumers.  Instead it should be privatized, turned over to a non-profit or consortium to manage and police.  This is how commercial equipment is rated.  Organizations include the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, and the American Gas Association.

If the ENERGY STAR “program” were turned over to the private sector and a scandal of these proportions broke, you can bet the executives of the organization administering it would be singing to Henry Waxman right now.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP





Spring Forward Monday Afternoon

16 03 2010

I was blindsided by the onset of daylight savings time this weekend.  Wonderful.  As though I don’t already have enough work to do before I can get outside to do some badly needed yard work – hack an hour off my weekend to boot.

If I remember correctly, daylight savings time used to begin at the end of April and end on the last weekend of October.  I also believe that these dates were moved to the current dates of mid March and early November as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.  This is supposed to save energy.  I can generate as much energy to displace the savings using a hydropower generation station in my back yard.  I have a stream about four times a year: once when the snow melts, but only when there is enough and it melts fast, and three other times when it rains hard.

Folklore has it that daylight savings time was developed so farmers could take advantage of more daylight hours and/or it saved candle wax and whale blubber.  How is this supposed to save energy in modern times?  It was just starting to be light enough in the morning so I wouldn’t need my flector for my morning run starting around 6:15.  I didn’t need lights in the house.  Tomorrow (Monday), it will be pitch black when I grumble my way out of bed.  Lights are required when they weren’t last week.  Savings at night is offset by more lighting use in the morning, but in our house more lights are used in the morning for numerous reasons.

Moreover, more daylight allows people to be goofing around outside later at night using even more energy for cruising around in their giant yachts, personal watercraft, golf carts, and other evil stuff people don’t need.  They should be inside reading a book by daylight that is so graciously bestowed upon them.

At the office, our heating and cooling system shuts down at 7:00 PM, period – whether it’s light or dark outside.  I’ve seen a lot of cockamamie control sequences in my time but I’ve never seen a heating and cooling system tied to daylight.  Already last week it was light till about 6:30 in the evening.  We average only 4-5 people in the office after that time of day and we only use task lighting, but then we’re energy efficiency freaks, not normal people.  No savings here.

What else is there?  Planes, trains, automobiles, busses, and water-going vessels?  Water heaters, clothes washers and dryers, refrigerators, and toasters?  Nothing there.  Street lighting.  Ditto.

If this is such a brilliant idea for saving energy, why move the clocks with such a difference in daylight hours at the time of springing forward versus at the time of falling back.  Clocks are moved forward in the spring about one week before the equinox.  In the fall, clocks are moved back about six, maybe seven weeks after the equinox.  This is a huge difference in daylight hours.  Once again, I blame congress, this time for not only knowing nothing about energy efficiency, but they also can’t handle this symmetry thing.

There should be more engineers in congress.  Engineers are symmetry freaks.  Just put some graphics in front of an engineer to see which they prefer – one sample is curvy, eclectic, and abstract – is actually interesting – and the other is all squares with a perfect balance of ink on all sides and non threatening colors, like blue, white, gray, or black.  Anyway, engineers would vote to have clocks moved in spring and fall on days with exactly the same length of daylight.  In fact, it may even be at a precise time like the start of spring, at 8:46 Greenwich mean time, Sunday March 21.  (I don’t know when it really is, I’m just making this up – I’m ok with that)

If we can’t abolish it altogether, like Hawaii and maybe Indiana (someplace over there) my suggestion is to at least change the law to move clocks forward in the spring at 1:00 PM, Monday afternoon.

written by Jeffrey L. Ihnen, P.E., LEED AP