BY MICHAEL TARDIF
How much would you be willing to pay to access a database of detailed information about substantial, forthcoming business opportunities for your firm? What if the database consisted exclusively of clients who are required by law to demonstrate that they have sufficient funds to pay for your services before they sign a contract? What if these clients agree to pay your invoices "promptly," usually within 30 days of receipt? And what if the clients select design and engineering professionals on the basis of qualifications, not on price? Such a resource -- FedBizOpps -- is available to you now, at no cost. FedBizOpps (www.fedbizopps.gov) is the only government point-of-entry for federal government procurement opportunities greater than $25,000.
Government buyers publicize their business opportunities by posting information directly to FedBizOpps, while those seeking to sell products and services to federal markets -- including design professionals -- can search, monitor, and retrieve information about business opportunities.
Similar market information services that aggregate private-sector business opportunities for the design and construction industries can cost thousands of dollars per year.
If you have been reluctant to pursue federal projects in the past, consider this: In 2002, the federal government spent $3 billion for architecture and engineering services related to construction.
The federal market for A/E services is even larger when you include contracts for natural resource management, professional or management support services for environmental programs, and non-R&D special studies and analyses that require the services of licensed design or engineering professionals.
Every office, agency, or department of the federal government is required to post public notice of federal procurement opportunities (although procurement for certain classified or emergency projects may be exempt). These public notices formerly appeared in the government's daily newspaper, the Commerce Business Daily (CBD). To learn about every business opportunity, one had to subscribe to the newspaper or read a copy at the library every day. But as the Internet became ubiquitous, the government moved rapidly to make this information available online, in real time, and at no cost, eventually retiring the CBD.
As with any web-based search engine or large, complex database, you may find your initial "interface" experience with FedBizOpps overwhelming in terms of complexity, and underwhelming in terms of results. After all, FedBizOpps is the single, government point-ofentry for all federal procurements greater than $25,000, including toilet paper, tires, and tanks, in addition to professional services. But if you take the time to learn the search syntax, and a bit of federal government procurement jargon, the site quickly becomes useful.
Master the maze
There are a number of ways to use FedBizOpps, but you can shorten your learning curve by mastering and exploiting three powerful features -- the search engine, the vendor notification service, and the FBO Datafeed.
Understanding the search engine first will help you make use of the other two features.
The FedBizOpps home page has two buttons in the middle bottom of the page: "FedBizOpps Buyers" and "FedBizOpps Vendors." The buyers are government procurement officers; the vendors are private companies that are interested in selling goods or services to the government.
Obviously, the vendors' page is where you want to go for information and resources of interest to you. However, both the main home page and the vendors' home page have a hyperlink in the upper left-hand corner titled "Find Business Opportunity: Go," which takes you directly to the "Find Business Opportunities" search engine. The search page presents a number of search criteria. Remember that for most criteria, you can make multiple selections.
The first criterion allows you to choose the type of documents you wish to find. Until you understand the different document types, choose "all." For any individual solicitation (which is the general term used to describe the public notices related to a procurement), you need to read and understand all notices issued with respect to that solicitation, whether it is a pre-solicitation notice, a sources sought notice, a synopsis, a modification, or an amendment. Filtering out document types could cause you to overlook vital information. Even "awards," which are notices of contract awards, are useful because they provide you with valuable, competitive intelligence about which firms are winning contracts.
If you are looking for information about a particular solicitation and know the solicitation number, you can fill in the next search criterion; otherwise, leave it blank.
Next, choose a date range for your search. If you are visiting FedBizOpps for the first time, choose a broad date range, for example, the previous 12 months. The more frequently you visit the site, the more knowledgeable you become about the ebb and flow of the federal marketplace, and the narrower your date range can be.
The next criterion is "Set-Aside Code." This allows you to search for projects that have been set aside, either in whole or in part, for businesses that meet defined criteria, such as small business, or woman- or minorityowned.
If your business qualifies for any of the categories listed and you want to narrow your search to those opportunities for which a set-aside gives you a competitive advantage, select all set-aside codes that apply. (To select more than one criteria, hold down the Control key as you make your selections.) If your firm does not meet any set-aside criteria, or if you qualify but don't want to limit the search to these projects, select "All Codes." Often, qualifying set-aside businesses team with non-qualifying businesses to assemble the needed expertise to pursue projects. You may be able to assemble a team that meets the set-aside requirements, even if your own firm does not qualify.
The next category, "Procurement Classification Code," is important because it is this criterion that filters out all the procurement notices that are not related to the services your firm offers. All federal procurements for products and services are classified by these codes, which also are called "Federal Supply Codes." The codes are organized alphanumerically. The codes for products begin with numbers, and the codes for services begin with letters. The most obvious code for A/E professionals is "C: Architect and Engineering Services." But, you should look through the list carefully and select any codes that might apply to your business, particularly if it is an environmental consulting, surveying, planning, or design/build firm.
For example, "B" applies to "Special Studies and Analyses," which may or may not be A/E related.
The next selection criterion is for North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) codes. This relatively new system of codes replaces the Standard Industry Classification (SIC) codes. While the procurement codes classify products and services, the NAICS codes classify industries. You can learn more about NAICS codes by visiting the website www.census.gov/epcd/www/naics.html. Look through these codes carefully, and select the industry that applies to your company. In most cases, this will be "541: Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services." After selecting the NAIC code, click on the "Filter NAIC" button immediately below. This will expand the list for that industry and allow you to select the professional services your firm offers.
The last criterion allows you to search by one or more federal agencies, and, if you wish, by specific offices of agencies. Unless you already have made a strategic decision about the agencies with which you would like to work, select "All Agencies," and then click "Start Search."
As easy as the "Find Business Opportunities" search page may be to use, conducting searches every day or every week can become tedious. So once you understand how the site works, you can register for the Vendor Notification Service on the "FedBizOpps Vendors" page. This is a free, email notification service that will alert you about relevant notices posted on FedBizOpps without having to conduct online searches. When you register, you define your filtering criteria by procurement code, NAICS code, set-aside criteria, and agency/office. You will be informed of all future notices posted to Fed BizOpps that meet your criteria. However, mind the disclaimer: "This service is provided for convenience only and does not serve as a guarantee of notification. Subscribers to this list service are ultimately responsible for reviewing the Federal Business Opportunities site for all information relevant to desired acquisitions." Remember to check FedBizOpps occasionally to make sure you are receiving all relevant notices.
Another powerful but little-used feature of FedBizOpps is the "FBO Daily Synopsis Files," found on the vendors' page. This link leads to an FTP site containing the full text of all notices posted to FedBizOpps every day, in a convenient XML format. Your may be able to import this data into your own customer relationship, business opportunity, or other database management software, where you can filter the information, as well as extract relevant information electronically.
Michael Tardif is an AEC editor and writer in Bethesda, Md. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.