Youens, speaking to a large audience at the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing’s 63rd Annual Forum and Products Exposition in Charlotte, N.C., explained that a long walk on the beach likely would fizzle if your significant other looked into your eyes and whispered, “You are loved.” On the other hand, the expression’s active-voice alternative – “I love you” – packs a much more powerful punch. More importantly, it makes it easier to understand who loves whom.

Youens used the analogy to demonstrate why public-sector purchasing professionals should use active-voice language instead of passive-voice language when drafting bid-solicitation documents. To clarify who does what, public purchasing professionals should convert a phrase such as “The following documents must be submitted … ” (passive voice) to “Vendor must submit the following documents … ” (active voice).

Youens explained that using active-voice language in bid specifications is one of a number of strategies to achieving the ultimate goal of the bidding process: maximizing the number of responsive bids from responsible bidders.

“And to get that, the bidders need to understand what you want,” Youens explained. “Don’t make it hard for them.”

Youens urged purchasing professionals to be clear, simple and accurate in their bid-solicitation documents. She presented this awkward phrase, taken from an actual bid document: “If any persons contemplating submitting a Bid under this Solicitation is in doubt as to the true meaning of the specifications of other Bid documents or any part thereof, the Bidder must submit to the Purchasing Department in writing at once, but in no case later than ten (10) business days prior to the scheduled opening of the bids.”

Youens countered with a more concise alternative: “Any questions about this Solicitation must be submitted in writing, no later than July 28, 2008, to Purchasing Department, 123 NIGP Ave., NIGP, NC, 12345, Attn. Eileen Youens.”

Avoid fancy-sounding words and legalese

Whether drafting an IFB, an RFB, an RFQ or an IFQ, Youens urged public purchasing professionals to avoid fancy-sounding words such as “utilize” – she prefers the word “use” – and to avoid legalese.

Youens offered this real-life example of legalese muddying the meaning of a bid-solicitation document: “The submission of a Bid shall be prima facie evidence that the vendor is familiar with and agrees to comply with the contents of this Bid Project.” Her revised version: “By submitting this Bid, the Vendor confirms that the Vendor has read the Solicitation and accepts the terms of the Solicitation.”

Youens also implored attendees to make sure that the standard of award (for example, “lowest responsible bidder” or “best interest of the unit”) is clear and easy to find, with no contradictory standards listed. As an example, she offered a real bid solicitation containing three different standards of award:

  • “The contract will be awarded to the lowest responsive, responsible Bidder(s) whose Bid(s) conforming to the solicitation is most advantageous to the City.”
  • “Award will be made to the responsible and responsive bidder whose bid is most advantageous to the City with price and other factors considered.”
  • “The contract will be awarded to the bidder that supplies the service requested at the least cost to the city.”

Youens suggested using one consistent standard of award instead, such as: “The contract will be awarded to the lowest responsive, responsible Bidder(s), considering quality, performance and the time specified for performance.”

Among other principles that Youens shared for refining the substance of bid-solicitation documents:

  • If using a document from another solicitation as your template, carefully search for and remove all references and information that are not part of the current solicitation. “Make sure that it’s your name and not that other entity’s name,” Youens said.
  • Include a section that defines key terms. Capitalize, bold or italicize all defined terms throughout the document. When deciding whether or not a word should be in the definition section, Youens asserted: “If you’re using it a lot, it might be a key term.”
  • Make sure that the minimum requirements are broad enough to include as many vendors as possible but specific enough to fit the end user’s real needs.
  • Look for hidden brand-specific requirements (such as brand names, trade names and too-specific measurements or sizes) and rewrite them by substituting performance requirements.
  • Use standard terms and conditions that were reviewed and approved by your attorney (within the past year, if possible).
  • Make sure that key information such as contact person, dates for bid submission and mailing addresses for bid submission are accurate and consistent throughout the document.

Get a ‘fresh-eyes review’

The way that a bid document is formatted and organized also plays a big role in whether the solicitation maximizes the number of responsive bids from responsible bidders, according to Youens. And it all starts with the document title.

Youens encouraged public purchasing professionals to use a short, descriptive document title, such as “Invitation for Bids on Band Uniforms.” She also encouraged purchasing professionals to use short, descriptive section headings. For a section that says, “The City reserves the right to reject all bids or any portion of any bid they deem necessary for the best interest of the City, to accept any item or group of items unless qualified by the bidder, to acquire additional quantities at prices quoted on the Bid Form,” the heading “Awards” might not be descriptive enough, she asserted. Youens recommended this more descriptive section heading: “Acceptance or Rejection of Bids.”

Among her other suggestions:

  • Create a header or footer – with the document title, entity name and due date and time – that appears on each page.
  • Place page numbers on each page.
  • Clearly state the number of copies required.
  • Specify whether electronic submission is acceptable, and if so, what format is required.
  • Double-check contact information for typos.
  • Format headings, sections and subsections in a consistent, easy-to-follow manner.
  • Replace all slashes (“/”) with an “and” or “or.” She noted that “chairs/desks/bookshelves” could mean “chairs, desks and bookshelves” or “chairs, desks or bookshelves.”
  • Check the entire document for typos and spelling errors.
  • Check the document’s cross-references to headings and sections for accuracy.

Youens also urged public purchasing professionals to proofread their bid document for readability, making sure that the document is written at about an eighth-grade reading level. Youens noted that Microsoft Word has a readability-check function.

“If [the document’s] grade level is too high, it’s probably because you were violating one of these other rules, you were using fancy-sounding words and you were using legalese,” Youens said.

Youens asserted that purchasing professionals should ask someone who was not involved in drafting the document to proofread it for inconsistencies, typos, errors and comprehension.

“Because remember that your potential vendors can’t read your mind. They don’t know what you were thinking. They’ve never seen this before,” Youens said. “And it’s impossible for you to read it with fresh eyes. You’ve been so involved with it from the very beginning. You’ll read words into it that aren’t there. So get someone else to read it. Get a fresh-eyes review.”