How to run an innovative and equitable RFP process for climate work

November 12, 2021

As we wrote in Why Local Climate Planning Has Failed, most cities, towns, and counties draft their climate action plans (CAPs) in collaboration with external consultants. There are a number of problems with this consultant-driven model, as we detail in our report, but like it or not, it will probably remain the dominant model for municipal planning efforts for years to come.

That ultimately means the onus is on the local government to select the best consultant possible if they want to maximize the value they get out of the consultant-driven planning process. How might they do this?

As part of our research with hundreds of local governments across the country, we’ve seen a lot of RFPs for climate planning and action work. We’ve gathered up some sensible best practices in this resource guide for you to help you draft the best RFP for municipal climate work possible. And we’ve also included some sample RFPs at the end of the guide that you can use freely, no strings attached, to kickstart your own procurement process.

Why we made this resource

One of the things we’ve discovered in working with cities over the years is that the procurement process frequently leads to results that cement the status quo rather than advance the public interest. It can also be burdensome to write the compliance documents (called “requests for proposals” or “RFPs”) and staff often are so short on time they end up copying-and-pasting the documents from prior bids, which can have suboptimal results.

The problem with this model is that it leads to RFPs that don’t really match the scope of work the City is asking for. We’ve noticed that this has led to a few concerns:

  • The default RFP templates most people use lock out newer firms because they simply don’t have enough years of experience or past clients on their resume. This can stifle innovation and competition. We’re firm believers that these are poor metrics of experience and lead to systematically disincentivizing innovation and favoring big corporations rather than smaller firms.
  • Disproportionately, the use of “experience”—particularly where there is a de facto minimum—disadvantages POC- and women-owned firms, which are statistically more likely to be newer even where the owners and professionals are equally experienced.1 This effect might even open up the cities to legal risk as well, given requirements that create a disparate impact could be interpreted as discriminatory under many states’ laws.
  • The templated RFPs over-specify the solution rather than focusing on the problem, preventing vendors from providing a solution that is customized to match the exact needs of Portsmouth and its residents.

A lot of communities have asked us how they can do RFPs in a way that’s more equitable and encourages innovation, so we wrote this guide for exactly that reason. It explains what to avoid when writing an RFP and also features some templates cities can use as a jumping-off point.

The best practices for procuring external consultants

1. Write a scope of work (SOW) that specifies the problem you’re trying to solve, not the solution.

A common pattern we see in climate RFPs is overly specifying the solution to the problem the local government is trying to solve. For example, if the need is for a consultant to create a climate action plan from scratch, the RFP will often specify exactly how the deliverables should be created and even the format those deliverables should come in.2

The problem with this approach is that it arbitrarily constrains the proposers to have to conform with these specifications, even if the consultant has pioneered a more innovative, cost-effective, or promising approach to solve the problem the local government is addressing. Local governments don’t always know these innovative approaches exist;if they did, they’d probably have enough expertise to not even need to partner with an external consultant in the first place.

A better strategy is to specify the problem you’re trying to solve in great detail and to include any constraints that the consultant should be aware of when applying to the RFP. For example, it’s totally fine to specify that the consultant must be proficient with a particular type of software, methodology, etc. if the city has already institutionalized a certain approach and wants to be sure the consultant is compatible with that. However, specifying a constraint to the solution when there is no such equivalent dependency is a recipe for stifling innovation and getting worst results for the money you put in.

2. Require electronic submission only for the RFP.

An astonishing percentage of climate-related RFPs we see require submission in paper form, usually 3+ copies each. There’s a lot of irony in asking consultants to ship reams of paper using carbon-intensive forms of transport while the local government is simultaneously trying to improve its sustainability and climate initiatives.

Furthermore, paper submissions also have the disadvantage of making the evaluation process less nimble. It’s a lot easier to email a PDF back-and-forth internally and to mark it up digitally than it is to deal with physical paper.

If the concern is that your purchasing department requires paper submissions, it’s worth talking with the department head to see if they can pursue a more eco-friendly strategy. Chances are, the consultant you inevitably hire will almost invariably suggest that you move toward a more sustainable procurement policy, so this is just an easy way to get the ball moving early.

3. List an expected budget range for the project.

Local governments are often split down the middle as to whether they should list an expected budget for an RFP or not. Our suggestion is that you do neither; instead, list a fairly wide budget range that’s representative of a variety of possible bids you’re willing to consider.

Governments often avoid listing a budget amount out of a fear that doing so would sacrifice leverage during the negotiation process. In reality, the opposite is true: not listing any budget information whatsoever actually gives vendors more leverage overall.

The reason for this is that the vendors are well aware of what other local governments paid for the same work. In the absence of a recommended budget amount, they’re likely to converge upon the average price in the market for that particular project. This means that the local government might get back ten different proposals, but they will probably all have a similar cost.

On the other end of the spectrum you face the same problem. List a single budget number, and again, most consultants will submit a proposal that comes pretty close to that number.

Consider the alternative: list a wide budget range along with a scope of work that is just focused on the problem you’re trying to solve, not the solution. In this scenario, you’re likely to get proposals from three different buckets:

  • Low-cost proposals which end up near the bottom of the range and focus on getting you the best bang for your buck
  • High-cost proposals which are at the top of the range but very exhaustive in what they offer and emphasize being best-in-class
  • Medium-cost proposals that end up somewhere in the middle, attempting to balance both cost and value provided

By offering a reasonably wide budget range (e.g., $75,000-$150,000), an RFP can actually promote differentiation. In the absence of any budget information whatsoever, you’re more likely to get more of the same—and at a higher cost.

4. Only put people on the evaluation committee who will be working with the selected vendor.

Everyone on the evaluation committee for the RFP should not only be familiar with the RFP and its contents, but also with some of the more technical aspects associated with managing the vendor after they’re selected.

We often see cities have huge evaluation committees with upwards of eight people. Not only does this make logistics difficult, it also is likely to lead to worse results with your selection process. The only people who should really be evaluating the RFP responses are the individuals who will actively be working with the winning vendor.

In the absence of the technical expertise that the staff who will work directly with the consultant possess (and who also wrote the RFP), committee members will be less knowledgeable about how to critically evaluate the proposals. They’re more likely to resort to arbitrary, but easily comparable metrics like cost and experience in terms of number of years in the industry, rather than more substantive concerns like the quality of the consultant’s approach to the work.

5. Be very precise about your evaluation criteria, including examples of what constitutes a good and bad response for each category.

Most local governments already include some sort of rubric with their RFPs that specify what criteria they’re looking for. Unfortunately, most of the time, they’re not specific about what these criteria actually mean which can lead to seriously substandard results.

The biggest offender we see time and time again: “Experience of the firm” listed as the top criteria (usually +40% of the total available points), without any real definition of what that means. More than anything else, this poorly specified experience requirement stifles innovation and also promotes systematic inequity in the procurement process.

In the absence of a definition of experience, the evaluation committee is likely to subconsciously rate firms based off of their number of years in business. This favors incumbents, which systematically disadvantages newer, disproportionately POC-owned businesses. It also kills innovation because innovation, almost by definition, hasn’t been in business since 1920 like a competitor that is inevitably favored by this selection criteria.

The better way for a local government to do this is to specify what they mean by each selection criteria. To use the experience example above, it’s better to provide a clear illustration of what an experienced applicant might look like. Chances are, it’s not just a raw numbers of years in business that the RFP drafter cares about. It probably looks something more like this:

Experience (25%) - The proposed applicant will demonstrate experience in their ability to complete the full scope of work. This can be demonstrated in a number of ways: (1) specific academic or professional certification in the subject matter, (2) ability to point to an existing body of work related to the subject matter, and/or (3) a resume/CV which lists past projects that utilize the relevant skills required to complete the scope of work.

Nowhere does the above definition of experience specify a number of years in business, but it probably satisfies most governments’ expectation of vendors in terms of the experience requirement.

6. Avoid redundant criteria in the evaluation criteria.

We also commonly see rubrics which are redundant in the criteria they evaluate RFP responders with.

The best example of this is listing “firm experience” as separate from “team experience.” In reality, the two of these are going to blend together more than not, which means that the RFP is really just assigning experience a higher weight than it looks at first glance.

Furthermore, firm experience doesn’t really matter when compared to team experience. The latter measures the group that will actually be doing the work, whereas the former just measures brand prestige which has little bearing on the final result. If the evaluation criteria had been clearly defined as suggested above, this would be obvious and the redundancy wouldn’t exist in the first place.

7. Promptly notify all applicants of the result of the RFP.

A surprising percentage of local governments don’t notify the vendors who lost the competitive solicitation of the result. This damages the relationship between the vendor and the municipality, ultimately resulting in a system where the public and private sector are less cooperative with one another.

This isn’t just about being nice and respectful to other professionals (although that certainly should merit the courtesy in and of itself)—local governments also get worse results when they treat vendors poorly. Vendors will be less likely to put serious effort into the proposals when they assume local governments treat them as commodities to be sorted through. At the end of the day, this leads to worse outcomes for constituents and worse government.

As long as local government relies on a consultant-driven approach to climate action work, municipalities can only be as effective as the consultants they hire. Thus, there’s a lot of incentive for the two to play nice if government really does want a good result for its constituents.

Some sample RFPs to kickstart your own work

To help lay the foundation for your own RFP writing efforts, we’ve written two sample RFPs that embed the best practices above and are mirrored off actual RFPs used in local governments around the country.

Climate Action Plan RFP

This template is for a municipality that wants to complete a new climate action plan from scratch. It’s ideal for communities that have had no formal climate action program prior and are looking to launch one using a comprehensive planning process.
Download Template

CAP Implementation Framework RFP

This template is for a municipality that already has an existing climate action plan, but is looking to develop a benchmarking, policy evaluation, and progress tracking framework to help ensure it is successfully implemented.
Download Template

  1. Business Ownership Demographics. Headd. Small Business Facts. March 2021.

  2.  Of course, it’s okay to specify format when that is actually material to the project. We even include an example of this in one of the sample RFPs listed below. What we’re discouraging is specifying format and specifics about the deliverables that is arbitrary and often derived from boilerplate taken from other RFPs that were designed to meet the needs of entirely different communities.

  • Date

    November 12, 2021

  • Author

    Wes De Silvestro

  • Category


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