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How to Decipher Federal RFP Terminology – A Beginner’s Guide

Identifying federal government contract opportunities can be daunting, especially given the alphabet soup of jargon out there. 

The RFx Spectrum

A government opportunity search may lead you to find an RFP, RFA, RFB, RFI, or RFQ. You may even find an RFT, although the federal government rarely uses it (It’s more common in Europe). RFx is the collective term for the entire spectrum of these acronyms. 

An RFP is a Request for Proposal; RFA, a Request for Application; RFB, a Request for Bid; RFI, a Request for Information; RFQ, a Request for Quotation; and RFT, a Request for Tender. RFPs, RFAs, RFBs, RFQs, and RFTs are all similar in that they are seeking proposals or bids. RFIs, on the other hand, are simply seeking information and do not include a bid element or financial quote. 

Deciphering RFP Terminology

Once you discover an opportunity, you may find the proposal terminology confusing. However, understanding the jargon is key to creating a comprehensive, high-quality proposal response.

There are many terms and phrases used in proposals that are in keeping with their literal meanings. A few common examples are “agreement,” “bid,” “best value,” “period of performance,” “evaluation criteria,” “confidence ratings,” “past performance,” “compliance,” and “assumptions,” among others. However, other terms are not so clear – especially when there are a plethora of acronyms.

Proposal Acronyms

The government uses hundreds of acronyms for their various agencies and proposal types, instructions, pricing details, and performance ratings. 

Once you get through the “alphabet soup” of acronyms, there is no shortage of other confusing terminology you need to understand to formulate your best proposal response. Here are a few common terms used in government proposals:

  • “Issuer” is the issuing authority. Proposals are not always issued by the agency or office seeking the product or service. For example, a government agency may appoint a particular department or outsource the proposal process.
  • “Set-Aside” is where the government limits competition for specific contracts to small businesses and certain types of small businesses, such as Woman-Owned Small Businesses (WOSBs), Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (VOSBs), Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (SDVOSBs), 8(a), etc. Those contracts are called “small business set-asides,” and they help small businesses compete for and win federal contracts.
  • Executive summary” is a brief overview highlighting the critical elements of a proposal. It is different from a cover letter because it contains a brief synopsis of the salient points in your proposal. Evaluators typically read the executive summary first, and will stop there if not incentivized to read further. Therefore, make it a compelling summary of what is to come in your proposal. 
  • “Lifecycle cost” looks at the total expenditure for a product. It assesses the total cost of an asset over its life cycle, including initial capital, maintenance, and operating costs. A proposed product should have a lifecycle cost lower or up to the current expenditure of the current contract. Otherwise, a government department may prefer an existing contract renewal. 
  • “Spend analysis” is an ongoing assessment analyzing all data related to the procurement. The objective is to enhance efficiency and ensure compliance. Spend analysis is a practice used by both the procurer and the contractor.
  • “Preference” is a set of project-specific advantages available to contractors in a specific location, offering a particular quality of product or service and/or possessing some special business classifications.
  • “Qualified bid” is a proposal response wherein a contractor explicitly exempts itself from the eligibility criteria or prerequisites. This limitation or condition may constitute grounds to disqualify the bid.
  • “Qualified vendor” is a contractor meeting all the prerequisites or eligibility criteria for an opportunity.


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