RFTs: Ambiguity and the curse of clarification

RFTs (Requests for Tender) set out the specifications and requirements of public sector buyers for various goods and services. It is mandatory that all RFTs are published so that they are freely accessible by the market and many countries - Ireland included - allow suppliers to submit queries and clarifications electronically and receive responses.

A supplier will typically request a clarification when the text of the RFT is ambiguous, subject to misinterpretation or is inconsistent with other parts of the document.

I read upwards of 300 RFTs a year and have developed a good understanding of how buyers write RFTs, particularly the difference between what they write and what they actually mean.

The average SME doesn’t read as many tenders as that, so it can be a bit confusing and they'll need to seek clarification. An RFT ‘clarification exchange' I recently took part in went along these lines…

Request

Given that the RFT document provided is not editable, is it acceptable to respond by using the response heading and page lengths set out, without having to exactly recreate the response boxes, etc. as set out in the RFT document?

Response

Refer to response to Message ID no. 776660

Request

We are working around the clock to try to compile samples, pricing and all other information. It is still unclear what is the acceptable format for submitting information requested on the qualitative criteria...

Response

For Tender submission, Tenderers have the option of:

  • Typing up the relevant parts of the RFT for submission, or
  • Availing of software solutions in the market place which allow users to save text in a pdf document.

“In responding to this RFT all Tenders must follow the format of the RFT and respond to each element of the RFT in the order as set out in this RFT”

Request

Can I clarify… that in line with guidance previously received from the OGP in respect of proposals for competitions, that it is acceptable to compile our proposal in a Word/PDF document that adheres to the form of the content and award criteria stipulations of the RFT rather than the specific format of the RFT PDF?

Response

For Tender submission, Tenderers have the option of:

  • Typing up the relevant parts of the RFT for submission, or
  • Availing of software solutions in the market place which allow users to save text in a pdf document.

“In responding to this RFT all Tenders must follow the format of the RFT and respond to each element of the RFT in the order as set out in this RFT”

Many buyers recognise that simply repeating existing answers has the same effect of shouting louder - none whatsoever.

Writing an RFT that is clear and unambiguous is difficult - but the extra time invested is worth it when you consider the reduction in the number of clarifications. A tender for Louth County Council Legal Services in 2014 resulted in 44 separate clarification requests due to confusion amongst suppliers as to what exactly was being requested.

The purpose of a clarification within an RFT procedure is to explain. Suppliers are not requesting clarifications because they forgot to read the page of the RFT with the answer on it (although that does happen too).

A large percentage of clarifications relate to the format of the response. It should be a simple enough matter for RFTs to include, as a matter of course, a template response document.

Clarification writers should start out by by assuming that that the person requesting the clarification is doing so because the information already provided is insufficiently clear. Great clarifications provide clarity and enable suppliers to stop wasting time trying to figure out the question and more time working on the answer.

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