Vendor Information: Asking Questions
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If the Province’s solicitation document is unclear or incomplete, how can vendors get more information?
A critical step for a vendor responding to a government opportunity is to read all the information that is publicly available. After this step is completed, you may still have questions that would help add clarity to the requirements and process. Wherever possible, ask questions to get clarity rather than making assumptions. Success can be more difficult in a competitive solicitation if your assumptions are different from what was intended.
Ask as many questions as you need to better understand the requirements of the solicitation. There is no limit on how often a vendor can ask questions; in fact, asking all your questions will help everyone involved, including the government office that issued the solicitation.
Who Should I Ask?
Government competitive solicitations will name a government contact. All questions should be directed to this person.
If someone other than the named government contact answers a question about the solicitation, the information provided is not official and should not be relied upon. In addition, a conflict of interest may be created or unfairness may result if one vendor has access to pertinent information that wasn’t available at the same time to other interested vendors. To avoid these problems, direct all of your questions only to the named government contact.
The role of the government contact is to be the gatekeeper of questions, ensuring that all incoming questions are directed to the right individuals for the answers, and all answers are provided for the interested vendors as described in the solicitation.
When Should I Ask?
You should ask questions as soon as possible after reading all the available information about the solicitation. This may mean that you are communicating with the government contact multiple times, as new questions occur to you.
The Province may need some time to develop answers to questions, depending on the complexity of what’s being asked. Once the answer is provided, all interested vendors will need to consider if and how this additional information impacts their submissions.
Some solicitations will have a cut-off date for questions, after which additional questions may not be answered. Even if a cut-off date doesn’t apply, the Province may decline to answer a question that arrives a few days before closing, as insufficient time remains for vendors to make additional edits and still deliver their submissions on time.
Don’t delay in asking your questions; the sooner you submit them, the more useful the answers will be for you and anyone else interested in the solicitation.
How Should I Ask?
Most solicitations will require questions to be submitted in writing, usually via email to the named government contact. For example, phoning the government contact about the solicitation is not recommended because fairness and transparency requirements may be affected if you are given information not available at the same time to all other interested vendors.
Be specific in the question(s) asked; vague questions can be misinterpreted or not understood by the named government contact. If a question isn’t understood, valuable time can be lost due to resubmitting a question because the vendor wasn’t clear on what was being asked.
Questions and answers usually don’t identify who asked the question. When drafting your questions, you may want to avoid using your name or the name of your organization as part of the question, as the questions may be reposted verbatim when being answered.
What Type of Question Can I Ask?
Vendors can ask questions about anything related to the solicitation document, including the appendices. The Province may decline to answer some of these questions, but there are no restrictions on what can be asked.
Pay particular attention to the mandatory requirements. You should know exactly what each one means and what you need to do to meet them. Do not make any assumptions on any mandatory requirement; if your assumption is wrong, your submission may be rejected without being considered. Ask whatever questions you need to ensure you have absolute clarity on how to meet all mandatory requirements; this will benefit not only you, but the Province and all other interested vendors as well. Refer to Mandatory Requirements for more information.
The solicitation should include the following information; if any of this is missing or is unclear, you should ask questions to get the clarity you (and every other interested vendor) will need:
- A single and clear closing date and time;
- How to prove that each mandatory requirement has been met;
- Timelines or dates when the goods, services or construction being purchased are expected to be delivered (this may be one date or a series of dates, depending on the complexity of the purchase);
- Information about any incumbent contractors, or those groups and/or vendors that you might need to work with if you are successful in the competitive process;
- Whether or not a shortlist process applies, such as interviews, tests, site visits, presentations, etc., and if applicable, how this process affects the competition;
- The format of contract or purchase order that applies (sometimes this will include only a few clauses, with the rest to be negotiated);
- How the award will be made (e.g. lowest price? highest score?);
- For price-based solicitations, thorough and complete specifications on what is being purchased (if any are unclear, you may assume a higher-cost option than another vendor assumes);
- For scored solicitations:
- a description of what meets the government buyer’s basic requirements (e.g. how much experience doing what, the minimum topics to include in the proposed project plan, etc.);
- a breakdown of the points that can be easily matched to the requirements; and
- whether or not minimum scores apply, and if so, specifically to what.
- Clear direction on how to deliver submissions.
Commonly Asked Questions
The following are examples of questions that are often asked about competitive solicitations:
- Can the closing date and time be changed?
Although this question often is asked, it doesn’t always result in a change. If you need more time to submit your response, be clear on how much more time (one day? One week?) and why.
- What is the budget?
Some solicitations will provide an overall budget, but not all. When a budget is not provided, the Province is likely looking for competitively-priced submissions and may be concerned that disclosing the budget will result in higher pricing. For vendors, knowing the budget can be helpful in understanding the scope of the purchase. If you ask for the budget but it is not provided, you should ask as many other questions as you need in order to more fully understand the scope of what’s required.
- Who is the incumbent contractor?
If the Province has an ongoing need for the goods or services, they may be coming to the end of their current contract and need to reissue the opportunity. If this applies, you may find it easier to assess the competition if you know who the contractor is now. Refer to Decision to Respond for information on whether or not an incumbent contractor should influence your decision to participate in the solicitation.
- Can a specific clause in the contract format be changed?
Most government solicitations state that vendors are agreeing to all the terms and conditions of the solicitation – including those identified for the contract – when they submit a response. There may be no ability to make changes to these clauses after closing. However, asking the question while the solicitation is open gives the Province an opportunity to consider the request.
This question can be asked of any clause identified for the contract, but most often is applied to insurance and indemnity clauses. Be clear on why the change is requested, which may assist the Province to make a decision on whether or not the change can be accommodated. Any questions about contract clauses should be asked very early in the process, as the government office issuing the opportunity may need to seek advice or refer to the decision to other government offices.
- How long will it take to announce the solicitation results?
This question can be very difficult to answer, as many factors will impact the timelines. However, solicitations almost always state the period of time that participating vendors are bound to their submission. The Province should have the contract signed or the purchase order issued prior to the end of that timeframe.
What Can I Do if I Don't Like the Answer to My Question?
The Province isn’t always going to give the answer that you expect. If you don’t like the answer to your – or anyone else’s – question, you can submit a follow up question, if time permits. Follow-up questions can include an explanation as to why the previous answer is problematic, and can ask the Province to reconsider its decision.
What is the Impact if I Have Another Contract with the Province?
If you are competing in a solicitation and also have other dealings with the Province, such as an existing contract, be sure to completely separate the solicitation process from all other matters. Don’t expect government staff to discuss the solicitation outside of the formal process.
More information about asking questions can be found in section 3.6 of Responding to Government RFPs: A Proponent Guide to the Revised Request for Proposals (RFP) Corporate Template for the Government of British Columbia.