The recent decline in non-federal construction opportunities has resulted in a rapidly growing interest in the federal contracting market. The much-publicized American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“ARRA”), often referred to as the “Economic Stimulus Program,” has made billions of dollars available to federal agencies to fund construction projects. Add to that the billions of dollars being spent on the Hurricane & Storm Damage Risk Reduction System in New Orleans (‘HSDRRS”), the Base Realignment & Closure program (“BRAC”), and countless other military and civil works construction programs nationally, and it is easy to see why the federal market is generating so much interest. These federal opportunities are not necessarily easy for contractors to take advantage of, however, because increased opportunities have been accompanied by increased competition.

If your company is interested in getting into federal contracting for the first time, you can be certain of one thing – you are not alone. We have received dozens of requests from existing and new clients asking us to advise them about the best ways to get involved in the federal market. The answer is not always easy, because contractors who have never performed federal work may be at a disadvantage when participating in negotiated, “best value,” procurements. Unlike sealed bidding, where the competition is based on price alone and an award is made to the lowest responsive and responsible bidder, awards under negotiated contracting procedures not only consider price, but also consider evaluation factors like technical merit, past performance, experience, quality of personnel, and small business subcontracting. In a negotiated procurement it is not uncommon for an award to be made to a higher priced offeror who is evaluated as technically superior to the lowest-priced offeror. Past performance, when the offeror has not previously been awarded a federal contract, can be a serious obstacle.

The obstacle is not insurmountable, however. If a contractor has equivalent experience in the non-federal sector, and effectively demonstrates the value and relevance of that experience in its proposal, there are many federal agencies that will recognize the capabilities of the “new” contractor. It is important to present an effective proposal and to communicate your company’s capabilities in a clear and concise way. The good news is that awards are being made to construction contractors who have not performed federal work before, and federal agencies are always looking for enhanced competition. Your task, as an interested federal contractor, is to prepare an effective proposal that responds to each and every requirement of the solicitation and that addresses each and every evaluation factor. Our affiliate, FedCon Consulting, provides former government contracting officers and construction management personnel to assist contractors in the preparation of proposals.

Many newcomers to the marketplace are also concerned about the number of solicitations that are set aside for various types of disadvantaged small businesses, including minority 8(a) concerns, Historically Underutilized Business Zone (“HUBZone”) contractors, and Service Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (“SDVOSB”) concerns. To some, it appears that too many opportunities that might otherwise be available to non-disadvantaged small businesses, and large businesses, are being set aside for disadvantaged groups. Do not be dismayed, however, because many disadvantaged small business concerns need the assistance of other small and large businesses to be able to perform multi-million dollar federal construction projects and to meet the bonding requirements. As long as the rules prohibiting affiliation between large and small businesses are not violated, there are various types of teaming arrangements, joint ventures, and mentor-protégé agreements that allow non-disadvantaged businesses to participate in the vast federal construction market.

While the growing use of contracting by negotiation, and multiple award task order contracting (“MATOC”) has seemingly made it more difficult to compete, many of the most qualified contractors are thriving as a result of these procurement methods. Again, if your company does not have the sort of track record that will enable you to compete successfully, consider teaming arrangements that will allow you to get that first project “under your belt.” Earning the first federal award is the most difficult one, but the tremendous opportunities that lie ahead may very well be worth the effort.

We have learned that many of the projects funded by the Economic Stimulus Program will be solicited under sealed bidding because of the need to get the “shovel in the ground” quickly. Many of these sealed bid procurements will be set aside for small and small disadvantaged businesses, but some will be unrestricted, as well. For those entering the federal market for the first time, success on a sealed bid procurement may be the best way to get your foot in the door.

Michael H. Payne is the Chairman of the firm’s Federal Contracting Practice Group. The Group is available to provide assistance in the preparation of proposals, the structuring of teaming and joint venture agreements, and to provide advice on a wide range of federal contracting issues.