Gathering market research on your competitors is essential to winning bids and growing your government business. If you want to gain the competitive edge in a growing market and understand the tools for gathering critical intelligence, you need to familiarize yourself with FOIA requests.
What is FOIA?
The Freedom of Information Act, commonly referred to as FOIA, was signed into law in 1967 and was designed to increase government transparency by allowing citizens to request documents and information that before were not normally accessible. Journalists and news organizations are well known to request information through FOIA, but businesses submit far more FOIA requests per year in order to gain valuable information on their industry and their competitors.
FOIA only applies to federal agencies. If your company is focused on contracting with state and local governments, don’t worry – all 50 states have their own form of FOIA. These laws vary in scope and in name, but all allow you to request information that can help maximize your chances of winning bids.
What Information Can I Ask For?
To better position yourself for winning a bid, you may ask an agency for several pieces of information regarding contracts and solicitations. This includes (but is not limited to): proposals submitted in response to a solicitation, the criteria used to evaluate each bid and determine the awardee, amendment documents to an incumbent contract, and more.
However, you will likely not receive information regarding a competitor’s pricing or technical information. This information is privileged under Exemption 4 of FOIA, which means the agency does not have to provide it to you. If you are litigious, you may sue for that information, but recently the Supreme Court has strengthened this exemption and makes the standard for disclosing privileged information more difficult to reach.
Be aware: freedom (of information) sometimes isn’t free. Depending on the information you ask for, the format, and the hours it takes for your FOIA coordinator to gather the requested documents, you could be charged for your request. Be diligent and find out the standard for filing fees with the agency you are requesting information from and ask to be notified if fees are assessed for your request.
How Do I Write a FOIA Request?
Writing a FOIA request that satisfies your questions is somewhat of a science. It is not necessarily difficult, but a minor issue could cause your request to be rejected. Here are three highlights for drafting an airtight FOIA request that asks all the right questions to help you gather critical information:
- Make sure you are addressing the correct agency.
This seems like a no-brainer: why would you ask another agency for information that they don’t have? However, on the state and local level, the distinction may be blurred. Many states have administrative departments that manage contracts and purchase orders for other agencies. Take due diligence to ensure you know which agency to request information from.
- Go through the proper channels.
Each agency has a specified point of contact for sending FOIA requests. Agencies may also request certain information from you – this is typically contact information and whether you are requesting information on behalf of yourself or an organization. Go through the agency’s website to find their FOIA procedures and ensure that you are compliant with their standards.
- Be as specific as possible.
It is vital that the FOIA coordinator handling your requests knows what they are looking for. Being specific as possible makes the process go faster and will better your chances of receiving the information you want.
Use dates (solicitation and contract award dates), identifying numbers (solicitation, RFP, and contract numbers), incumbent contractors, etc. Providing this information will make it easier for your coordinator to find the information you need to better position yourself to win bids.
Are FOIA Requests All I Need to Win Bids?
FOIA requests are only one of many tools you may use to maximize your potential to win bids in the growing market of government sales. Gathering information on competitors and government spending trends through proactive research, and knowing how to write top-tier proposal responses are also key to increasing your chances of being awarded contracts. When used properly, FOIA requests will help your government sales team gain the edge against the competition in winning bids.
About the Author
Alex Johnson is a Research Specialist at JetCo Solutions. In this role, he assists clients by using research to identify bid opportunities, programs, target agencies, and more.