A Few Words about Scientific Consultants, Proposals, and American Archaeology

by Tracy C. Brown

For the past 30 years, I have worked for scientific consulting firms.  Some of those firms, such as Battelle Memorial Institute and Oak Ridge Associated Universities, were internationally known “think tanks” like the Rand Corporation in California.  Some of my other companies were very small with as few as three or four employees.  With all consulting companies, the life blood of the organization is the contract, and the vehicle for obtaining contract work is the proposal.

I have been involved in writing proposals to get new work for my assorted companies and in reviewing proposals submitted by companies that wanted to do subcontract work for my companies.  Based on personal experience, I would guess that every person who has ever worked in a consulting firm has their own set of personal thoughts and opinions about the proposal process.  It is certainly possible to paint the subject with a brush that is too broad or too narrow.  With that risk stated, I just wanted to share a few of my own personal thoughts and opinions about proposal issues:

(1)   Some archaeologists have told me, with great personal confidence, that the low bid always gets the job.  That might be true for some people, but not with me.   When I review proposals, my net tendency is to immediately screen out the highest and lowest bids.  I take very seriously the old adage that “you get what you pay for.”   True low-ball bids make me very angry!  The company that makes a low-ball bid is offering to sacrifice the sanity and physical well-being of its own personnel to meet a nearly impossible cost/schedule and will probably cut corners on quality to do it.  I would not do that to my employees, so why should I allow  a consulting firm to use me to do it to theirs, and then send me a piece-of-garbage deliverable for my trouble?

In a small company, a person has more leeway to do this.  Unfortunately, large companies have an animal known as the Manager of Purchasing.  This is often a person who knows virtually nothing about the technical content of a proposal and what it actually takes to do a high-quality job, especially with esoteric subject matter such as American archaeology.  He is a bargain hunter by nature and believes that he really can get a new, full-sized aircraft carrier for $3.98 plus tax.  I have been there and dealt with him.  It is possible to win, and I have won, but it can be a really tough fight.

(2)   A high-quality job is the most important thing to me.  I do independent background research on prospective subcontractors to find out what their capabilities are and almost never rely on a written company profile in a proposal.  In addition, I call around to talk to organizations that have used various companies to find out which consulting firms are excellent, good, not so good, or just plain terrible.

State historical commissions, SHPO offices, and state archaeologist offices usually have an official policy to offer a list of potential CRM subcontractors that work in their state, but they are required to refuse recommending a particular company as good or bad. Some hold to it fairly well.  Others are not so good at it.  I have called around to such offices all over the nation during my background research on companies.  With a little initial reluctance, some will give you hints as to which company is really good but not who is really bad.  After a little friendly cajoling on the telephone, others will sing like canaries about which companies are excellent, mediocre, or downright horrifying. It just depends on who you get on the other end of the telephone line.

(3)   People have told me with absolute confidence that form is not important at all with proposals and that substance is everything. Put another way, when they read the proposal, all the potential client cares about is the meat and potatoes of the scope, technical approach, methodology, and plans for conducting the work.  Let me tell you a little story.

A number of years ago, I had an archaeologist friend out in Colorado who needed some help sorting through and screening proposals to do some archaeological work on a project.  My associate had many more years of experience in American archaeology than I did—–a real veteran.  He sent me a stack of electronic proposals to screen, read, and evaluate on my end while he did the same thing on his end. We did not predetermine any specific screening criteria prior to the evaluation and were oriented just toward finding the proposals that looked good and screening out the ones that did not.  In parting, we agreed to get together in a couple of days and discuss the results of our individual evaluations.

The first things I noticed were proposals with three to eight typographical errors on each page, incorrectly spelled words, poor grammar, and formatting errors on numerous pages.  I immediately tossed each such proposal into the waste can without even reading it.  When I got back in touch with my colleague a couple of days later, we compared notes, and he too had tossed those same proposals into the waste can without reading them.

Form matters and substance matters—about equally in my book.  You have to have both in a proposal.  In my humble opinion, a proposal riddled with poor grammar and typographical errors speaks volumes about the quality of work that will be done in the library or archives, field and laboratory, and project deliverables.  To me, it bespeaks an inability to be careful, thorough, and detailed.  Archaeology is about recording details in three dimensions, careful analysis, clear thinking, and crisp reporting in crystal clear and nearly perfect written English.  If you cannot show that to me in a proposal, you do not get the work. Personally, if at all possible, I firmly believe that every scientific consulting firm should have a full-time technical editor on staff.  No proposal should go out to any potential client without a thorough technical review and an excellent lice combing by the editor.

(4)   In my considered opinion, if you want to get the work, it takes a written proposal with a reasonable dollar bid (not too high and not too low), a realistic schedule, solid technical content, and a document essentially free of errors great and small.  Oh!!! You say you do not think so?

Did I ever tell you about the company I worked for that submitted a huge, expensive proposal with the potential client’s company name spelled incorrectly 150 times throughout the proposal?  Needless to say, that proposal won nothing, but it had great technical meat and potatoes and was very innovative.  Think about it.  Would you have made an award?

The proposal review process is a lot like “chewing gum in line.”  Please take a look at the following film clip:



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