What is a Request for Proposal (RFP)?

A request for proposal is a document used to gather bids for a project or service. Here's how to get the most out of an RFP process for local government.

December 29, 2020

Article highlights
  • Key questions to ask in the RFP process.
  • A downloadable model RFP for your municipality.
  • Government RFP best practices.

When a government agency looks for a particular product or service, they often need to partner with outside organizations to get the job done. A request for proposal (RFP) can help a government agency find the best solution for its needs.

So what is an RFP? A request for proposal is a document used to gather bids for a project or service. Government agencies may use an RFP to find the best vendor for anything from a building project to an IT solution.

A government RFP provides some background information on the project. It establishes the scope of the project, specifying what the government needs and how the agency will evaluate bids. It may include deadlines or cost parameters as well as questions vendors should address in their proposals.

Issuing a Request for Proposal allows governments to compare various products and vendors. Government officials can do a side-by-side comparison of each vendor’s qualifications, prices, and ideas.

Going through the RFP process may help government officials identify new products they may not be aware of. By encouraging open competition, RFPs can help government agencies find the best, most cost-effective solution for their problem.


Some government agencies issue a Request for Information (RFI) before requesting proposals. A Request for Information is a document a government might issue to gather broader information on a company. It gives an overview of the company’s capabilities, history, experience, and more.

The main difference between an RFI and an RFP is that an RFI identifies vendors that could be qualified for many different future projects, while an RFP asks companies to offer solutions for a specific problem.

Governments typically use an RFP when they have a complex problem and aren’t sure how best to solve it. If an agency knows the exact solution they need, they may issue a Request for Quotation (RFQ) instead. An RFQ is often used to get price quotes and timelines on getting a particular product.

For example, if a government agency wants to create a computer lab in a local library, it may issue a request for information to see what products and services various companies can offer.

It may issue a Request for Proposal to consider the best approach for the entire project, including how to set up the computer lab, which types of hardware and software to use, etc.

But if the government wants to buy 30 desktop computers, it may simply issue a request for quotation to compare price points.

What Is the Purpose of an RFP?

The purpose of a government request for proposal is to help find the best solution for a complex problem.

RFPs can be especially helpful when a government agency needs an integrated solution involving components from various suppliers.

Why is the RFP process important?

RFPs help government agencies make more informed buying decisions by allowing them to compare many different bids. Rather than just seeing one solution, RFPs show many different ways of approaching a problem. This can highlight solutions that are more comprehensive and sustainable.

For example, if a government agency wants to transition to a paperless system, they will need a new, integrated system. This will include software, hardware, training, and maintenance. Issuing an RFP can help find a vendor that can develop a plan to implement a system customized to fit the agency’s needs.

The RFP process also helps increase transparency in local government. Requests for proposals show citizens how the government is spending taxpayer money. Government RFPs also broaden the vendor pool.

They level the playing field by requiring all potential vendors to submit proposals—whether or not they have worked with the government before.

This increases the likelihood of finding the best product and reduces opportunities for corruption or back-channel dealings.


Is an RFP required for local government?

Local governments typically have some form of a mandated procurement process for contracts. Some states or cities require government agencies to issue requests for proposals for certain projects.

But RFPs are not always required. Some governments may find providers who have been vetted by an agency such as the General Services Administration.

It’s really up to the state or locality to determine their procurement requirements.

In some cases, there may only be one vendor who can provide the particular service the government agency needs. This would justify skipping the RFP process and opting for a sole source procurement instead.

However, in most cases, issuing an RFP can be the best way to allow for fair competition and find the best solution.

RFP Process Example

So what might a Request for Proposal process look like?

Let’s look at the process for the example above, where a government agency wants to go paperless.

First, agency leaders will need to talk through their specific needs and draft an RFP. These officials may gather feedback from bidders on what the RFP should include—what do vendors need to know in order to create a relevant proposal?

From there, the agency will issue a finalized RFP along with a deadline for vendors to submit bids. The agency may establish a commission to review the proposals and choose a few vendors with which to negotiate further.

The commission may invite those few vendors to submit final offers and establish a contract with the vendor whose proposal best meets the needs of the project.

Getting the Most Out of an RFP Process

As detailed above, the Request for Proposal process can be incredibly helpful if done well.

A well-written RFP elicits detailed proposals and helps jumpstart a project. But a badly written RFP can be a roadblock, producing bids that don’t address the actual problems or discouraging good vendors from bidding.

Here are some best practices for writing a Request for Proposal:

Ask open-ended questions

Too often, the RFP is written with the end in mind. In these cases, the RFP may include an extensive list of required features and questions that cause some vendors to disqualify themselves before they even apply.

On the other hand, some RFPs are so vague that vendors can’t figure out what the government agency is actually asking for.

In choosing which questions to ask in the RFP process, government agencies need to distinguish between their needs and wants for the project. What is the overall goal of the project?

Does the project have to meet certain accreditation standards or security measures? Is there a certain date the project must be completed or fully implemented?

Some of these will require straightforward, yes or no questions. But in other areas, open-ended questions can give government officials a better feel for what it would be like to work with the vendor, and give vendors room to offer creative solutions.

Along with a few industry-specific questions, government agencies should consider asking about product trials and warranties, a vendor’s competitors, additional fees, and customer service.

Keep it a reasonable length

Clear, concise requests for proposals get better proposals than long, elaborate RFPs.

The length of a Request for Proposal will vary depending on the project. But in any case, government agencies should make sure the RFP is focused and well-organized.

No one wants to read a novel-length RFP. It should include the information vendors will need most, without going into a level of detail that might overwhelm the vendors.

Ask to see the product (screenshots or demo videos)

A product may sound great on paper, but government agencies need to make sure it’s going to work for them in practice.

For a piece of software, this may mean asking for screenshots of the interface. For physical products, it may mean videos of someone using the product for the agency’s intended purpose.

As the agency moves further down the process, leaders should ask for a live demonstration. This will help them assess the product’s ability to solve the particular problem they’re looking to address.

Stick to a firm deadline

One of the common criticisms of the Request for Proposal process is that it can drag out the process of getting a project started.

The main way to avoid this is for government agencies to set firm deadlines. This applies to both external deadlines for vendors to submit proposals and internal deadlines for the agency to narrow down and choose a vendor.

The government agency should only start the RFP process when it is ready to proceed. This way, they can avoid moving the deadlines around unless it’s absolutely critical.


Get clear implementation timelines

One of the benefits of the RFP process is that it allows local government agencies to compare potential timelines for a project.

Clear timelines set healthy expectations on both sides and ensure that a project or product can be implemented in a reasonable amount of time.

Software, in particular, can come with lengthy timelines and empty promises about how quickly it will be ready to use.

A Request for Proposal should ask for a specific timeline for implementation. It should also ask for example timelines from how long implementation took on previous projects.

The fastest solution is not always the best. But having a timeline will allow government agencies to accurately weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each possible vendor.

Ask for recent reviews or customer references

An RFP gives vendors a chance to talk up all the features of their product or service. But the government agency needs to know whether a vendor is a good fit for their particular project.

To that end, the RFP should ask for user reviews or recommendations. Product users can explain the pros and cons of a product and what it’s actually like to work with the vendor.

They can share the value they have received from the product, any issues they’ve had, and how well the vendor communicates with them.

Get Started With Your Government RFP

Issuing a Request for Proposal can help a local government agency find new vendors, compare products, and find the best solution for their problem.

And issuing an RFP doesn’t have to be a cumbersome process.

Using a simple government RFP template makes it easy to create well-written RFPs. And a good document management program can help government agencies gather proposals, share notes, and collaborate with vendors.

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