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How to Write a Smart RFI

Properly approaching the Request for Information process will result in receiving the submission of quality sites that will meet your company’s goals.

Q4 2019
Developing a well-written, concise, and focused RFI (Request for Information) for distribution to selected state and local EDOs should not be difficult. Identifying a quality site should not be hard either. However, developing a quality RFI that will result in the submission of quality sites is an elusive goal. The end result is often frustrating for both parties: the corporate siting team and the EDOs.

Why? Because neither party is aligned. Both parties are often striving for different goals and fall into unintentional traps along the way. There has to be a better way…and there is. While there are no guarantees that great sites will be submitted by EDOs, there are guarantees that poor sites will be submitted if the RFI process is approached incorrectly. Delving into the world of the EDO might be a good place to gain an understanding as to why so many site searches:
  • Do not result in identification of an optimal site (or even a good site!)
  • Are frustrating for both the corporate entity and the EDO
  • Result in lost time and effort
The purpose of this article is to suggest a few minor deviations from the traditional site search and, in the process, challenge a few past practices that were often fruitless. Hopefully, these few recommended tweaks to your RFI process will yield better results, better sites, and fewer frustrations for both parties. These suggestions can also speed up the process, result in a much smaller, overall “paper chase,” and provide greater efficiencies for all involved.

Shortcomings of the Current Process
Before we delve into these suggestions, let’s discuss some shortcomings of the current process.

Typically, the company in search of a site sends out a lengthy 10–30 page RFI to half a dozen or so states that represent the region of interest. Usually, a week or two is given to respond. That short response time creates chaos at the state or local agency, which may already be involved in responding to two to four other RFIs. The recipient agency often must scramble amid conflicting priorities in order to complete the RFI. They have to find one to three suitable sites within 24–48 hours, gather arcane data for the sites, and, lastly, finalize voluminous spreadsheets or WORD documents for submission. As a result, there is little time for the EDO to think strategically and confer with others about the choice of sites; there is only time to act. In the end, the search suffers, and the corporate entity may not receive the optimal sites.

Just before the deadline, a roomful of binders, accompanied by emails with mega-sized attachments are received overnight by the requesting corporate entity, which then begins the internal review process. Each massive binder is reviewed for roughly 15 minutes to a half hour, with the corporate entity looking for sites to short-list. Sites are often eliminated unmercifully within only minutes of opening a binder or looking at a completed spreadsheet.

Stop the Paper Chase…There Is a Better Way.
Let’s discuss some easy options to make the overall process easier, quicker, and more transparent for both parties:
  • Prepare a one-page site summary listing all key siting requirements with blanks for the EDO’s response.
Time is short in any site search and the corporate team has to narrow down the site selection from 30 sites to 6–10 sites quickly. Boxes of binders arrive on the appointed day, along with emailed electronic copies. The binders are huge and often cover a large conference room table with boxes spilling over to the floor. For example, Amazon requested five hard copies of the submittals on their HQ2 search! The company received 238 responses — each one containing five massive binders, some of which were one- to two-feet thick!

Help the EDO understand what is important to you and its level of importance by scoring the site selection criteria. Sifting through the 20–30 site binders quickly and efficiently is difficult, at best. It would be a comical process if millions and, often, billions of dollars were not at stake. However, the task can be shortened if the RFI contains a single-page questionnaire/summary of the RFI’s siting criteria to be completed by the EDO. The one-pager should list the key criteria and ask for a short, one-word or staccato response to the criterion. Submissions that do not meet the minimum “must-haves” can be eliminated by the corporate selector immediately with confidence.

This one-pager should be designed to be the first page in any RFI response submitted by an EDO; when the binder is opened, the summary is the first thing the corporate reviewer sees. The one-page response summarizes the site and allows the corporate team to assess a site’s adherence to the selection criteria without having to even look through the binder. It becomes an “at a glance” summary of the site with the balance of the binder serving as backup information to clarify and expound on key criteria.

Including a one-page table-based summary of the site on the first page of the EDO’s submittal is the perfect way to get the corporate site review off to a strong start. When designed properly, the one-page table makes the site easy to quickly and efficiently assess against required site parameters. Candidate sites for short-listing can be identified in less than two minutes if care is taken in the design of the one-pager.

  • Strongly consider including a “scoring sheet” for each round in order to make crystal clear which aspects of the site are judged most important.
Presenting a weighting of the siting criteria, which is seldom included in RFIs, is an extremely powerful way to make sure that only quality sites are submitted. Even better, embed scoring points on the one-sheet discussed above enable an EDO to assess its own sites against the criteria of highest importance. This may result in reconsideration of their initial selections and submission of sites that better match the criteria.

When scoring is provided on the one-pager, the EDO knows which aspects of the site are important and can strive to find ideal sites. When no scoring is offered, the EDO, which may never have sited your specific type of project, does not understand what is critical to your project. Including scoring in the one-page table guides the EDO in selecting sites for submission.

For example, if rail is critical to your project, and you include a 100-point score for “on-site rail spur” and 50 points for “rail immediately adjacent to the site,” you can be assured that every site proposed will have rail either already on-site or adjacent. Similarly, assigning 100 points to sites within one mile of an interstate on-ramp and 50 points to sites within five miles will result in more sites with close proximity to an on-ramp. Along the same lines, when looking for a 250,000-square-foot building, a building that is exactly 250,000 square feet might receive 100 points, but buildings between 200,000 square feet and 249,000 square feet or greater than 300,000 square feet only receive 50 points.

Taking the scoring a step further, and using electrical power as an example, the company can score sites based on costs to rectify issues. For example, if high voltage power is a critical component, assessing points based on distance from the site should be explored. With high-voltage transmission lines costing around $2 million/mile, the points accorded to a site would be a negative number, depending on how many miles of new transmission lines needed to be constructed. Five miles away might result in a score of –10 points, with each half mile of distance (a point) corresponding to a $1 million cost.

Help the EDO understand what is important to you and its level of importance by including scoring. This makes the EDO’s job much easier and results in submission of sites that more closely align with the criteria — a win-win for both the EDO and the company submitting the RFI. Inclusion of a scoring sheet in each round can only result in better submissions that are closer to the corporate target.

Regarding weighting the criteria, round one weights should all relate to the key siting attributes that are of importance. Once a quality site makes it to round two, the weighting shifts to other criteria focused on issues broader than just the site itself.

Further, it might also be advised to include a scoring sheet for all future site-search rounds in the first round RFI so that states and local agencies can see the “road ahead” and be prepared ahead of time, should one of their round-one submittals make the short list.

  • Streamline the required contents of the initial RFI submission to the key facts needed to assess the site for inclusion in the round-two short list of sites.
Don’t ask for data prematurely in the first round that requires a lot of effort or cost to gather. That is, do not ask EDOs for data in round one that is not going to be considered until rounds two or three. By reducing front-end questions to just address front-end issues and saving back-end questions until later, the overall site search can be streamlined and made far more efficient. Executed correctly, the round-one submissions can be, and often are, less than 15 pages.

With a streamlined process, EDOs do not have to gather hundreds of pages of supporting data until the second or third rounds in the site selection process, after the site has been identified as a legitimate contender that scores high on most key round-one criteria. The corporate entity does not have to handle and review massive binders when just a few pages can communicate all of the essential facts necessary for the first-round review.
  • Clearly delineate the primary operational requirements of the site in the RFI.
Sure, there are 20–30 criteria in every site search, but some carry far more weight than others. Which criteria are key? The ranking/scoring criteria discussed above are helpful. But if you have 30 high-scoring criteria in round one, you are likely to be disappointed in the results of your search when the binders begin to arrive. Help the EDO understand the key criteria (“needs” and “must haves”) and separate them from the secondary criteria (“wants”).

Obviously the RFI should state the key site selection criteria. But in a document of 30 pages or more, as many RFIs are, the key criteria are often understated or are listed alongside 15–30 other criteria. All criteria are not “key”; certain criteria are more “key” than others. The cost of power, the redundancy of power, the reliability of power, data latency (network connectivity), IT workforce availability, and the number of local telecom carriers are all critical to the viability and operational readiness of a data center, for example. Other criteria that add to the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) are likely secondary, but the RFI does not often distinguish between the key criteria and secondary criteria. Unless otherwise instructed, criteria such as acreage, distance from the interstate, tax rates, land topography, business and economic incentives, and other criteria all play a role in the ultimate decision. However, in the end, sites that do not meet the “key” criteria will never be selected regardless of how well they meet the secondary criteria.

Thus, it is incumbent upon corporate site selectors to clearly delineate the “must have” key criteria and differentiate them from the “nice to have/desired” secondary criteria. Often, RFIs are written in such general, broad terms that the key criteria are difficult to identify.

Also include a list of required data for the second and third rounds in the initial RFI.

Again, in order to give the EDO a “heads-up” on the list of required data for the next round, should any of its sites be short-listed, include a list of the items that will be requested during rounds two and three.

Be crystal clear on technical questions.
EDOs may not understand technical questions such as dock feasibility, attainment status, rail-served, power requirements, etc. Recognize that the RFI is often completed, for the most part, by non-engineers/non-scientists. Offering some level of guidance and direction to the EDO assures you of a more accurate answer. Explain any questions that use esoteric terms or might otherwise confuse the person preparing the response. Ask the EDO to seek assistance from local engineering, environmental, or other experts when a technical question is important but often misunderstood.

In Sum
Learning what not to do during a site selection effort is just as important as knowing what you should do. As discussed above, there is a better way to approach the development and execution of the RFI process. There are many avenues for shortening the process, eliminating wasted time, receiving better data/insights, and last, but most important, identifying a better list of sites.

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